I discovered science fiction as a child. Which came first for me — Sunday afternoon movies or the books of Jules Verne — I do not remember, but books like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea and The Adventures of Captain Hatteras and films like Robinson Crusoe on Mars and The Island at the Top of the World set me on a career of dreaming about worlds that ought to be — even when, and especially, the ones that I have had to create for myself. Losing myself in imagination was something that my parents allowed me to do once I had mowed the yard or raked the leaves, giving me sufficient motivation to get the job done in good time.
The wonder of such stories has never left me, nor has the desire to see the romance turned into reality. Thus I keep an eye on proposals for humans to get themselves out there, whether there is the deep sea, a high mountain, or a far planet. One of the closest of those far planets is Mars, an object of obsession at least since Percival Lowell convinced many that a dying civilization had built canals across that world’s red sands.
A problem here, though, is what purpose we might have in going to Mars. As a destination, it has been presented as an obvious choice — but Venus could be a better site—without much question about what would make it so, other than its proximity. And its allure as a world that looks a lot like ours, something akin to the Old West deserts.
Neil deGrasse Tyson gives a dispiriting analysis of why a colony on Mars is against the odds in his speech to the World Government Summit in Dubai in February of this year. His argument in summary is that a human presence on the planet offers no economic or military advantage and as a result, taxpayers and shareholders will not wish to provide the funding for the fulfillment of a dream.
And costly it would be. As Tyson explains, unlike Columbus’s forays into the New World and his followers who stayed, Mars is lacking in easily exploitable resources. Conquistadors and pilgrims did not have to generate oxygen, nor were they obliged to go through extraordinary measures to acquire food and water, fish heads buried with seeds notwithstanding and even allowing for the use of our waste products as a replacement fertilizer.
All of this is in response to a claim that I saw on Twitter that a colony on Mars would be made up of libertarians, not of socialists. I have turned my vitriol against libertarianism before. For my purposes here, imagine a planet whose genetic diversity and social stimulus is composed of variations on Dagny Taggart. Hundreds of pages of Ayn Rand is a tedious bore. A one-way trip in a sealed container to be installed for the remainder of one’s life with her acolytes sounds like hell.
I am told by libertarians that the view that we on the left have of them is all wrong, that they are indeed not selfish gits. This would be more believable if in my every interaction with them, I did not hear them complaining about how they are obliged to contribute a fraction of a pence from each dollar taxed for the aid of the less fortunate in our society. The problem is that the world of libertarian ideology is as much of a fantasy as is the science fiction that I write, while lacking in any sense of realism. I ask those who hold such beliefs to offer me any example of a society that works or has worked on their principles and am met with silence. A system that is in fact only so many disconnected individuals with no sense of owing anyone else anything is not one that will succeed in an alien environment in which the odds of dying far outweigh those of surviving. Pioneers cannot clear a plot in the bottomland of the Valles Marineris and eke out a living as an act of will alone.
As I mentioned above, a colony on Mars will not turn a profit for a long time. It might become self-sustaining in a relatively short order — if only by virtue of the necessities imposed by distance — short in comparison with the centuries, but the Earth will not receive a return on the investment on any schedule that venture capitalists would regard as justifying the effort. Resources found and developed by colonists would have to be shared in common to keep the settlement going, a prediction that I will stand by until someone can show me how what would effectively be a hunter-gather society could make private property its highest value.
After a good stretch of time, a colony could reach the point of having the luxury of a free market. That has happened on Earth, and if we make allowances for the many difficulties discussed above that outer space imposes, there may be an analogy to be found there. But getting to that blissful state of affairs cannot be achieved without extraordinary cooperative work to build a functioning world, a world that the science fiction of my youth and years since has dreamed about.
Why do we need such a world? We are at our best when we reach higher and farther than our physical limitations seem to permit. That can be achieved through free markets at times, but in other moments, we must act in the common interest to leave to human culture treasures worth remembering. A colony on Mars would be a second bet for the species, something that Stephen Hawking argued was necessary if we are to survive potential planet-wiping catastrophes. It would be a place for generating new domains of diversity for our genes and our memes. And it would be one testing ground for much longer strides to the stars. That would be worth nothing, if all we count is coins, but I like to think that there is more to life than money.