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MarsNow 1.14: Martian Dynamism
John Carter McKnight
October 31, 2001
Reprinted by permission of the author.

Regular readers of this column will observe that its title is something of a misnomer: rather than focusing solely on “Mars now,” depicting and advocating current efforts building towards the permanent settlement of Mars, it has described the process necessary to get there: the expansion of the Spacefaring Web. Though the process and the goal intertwine in interesting and complex ways, I do draw a distinction. For many in the space movement, the Spacefaring Web is goal enough in itself: their imaginations are fired by the immediate or infinite extension of the web. My primary interest, though, lies in building a new culture pulling together the best of what humanity has built so far and ensuring the its constant evolution. Mars uniquely provides the most likely home for such an enterprise in this century. This column will provide a general overview of my reasons for drawing that conclusion, touching briefly on a number of theses to be explored at length later.

A good society, in my definition, enables individuals to attain their fullest development. Freedom from coercion is an essential component, along with those things subsumed by the term “development:” innovation, economic growth, prosperity, increases in health, longevity and knowledge. Other definitions of a good society are possible, as evidenced by the violent global debate on the subject currently under way. The logical and ethical arguments underpinning my definition are beyond the scope of this column; anyone interested may contact me directly.

Given this criterion, most reasonably imaginable offplanet settlements will be superior to most Terrestrial cultures, though some, such as Silicon Valley, will retain advantages in certain respects, given their greater ability to meet basic survival needs, such as air and food. While it could be argued that O’Neill colonies in the asteroid belt would provide for a more diverse and felicitous civilization than Mars, the potential economic riches of the Belt are likely to skew development – looking more like the Spanish Main than New England. For now, building a genuinely freer and more innovative society should be easier and more likely on Mars.

The factors necessary to sustain a culture maximizing individual freedom are fairly clear. Several authors, addressing the issue from radically different perspectives, have elicited almost identical criteria. David Landes, an economic historian, in The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor, sets out the following as an explanation (p. 217): he defines a “growth-and-development societies” as one historically that

  1. Knew how to operate, manage and build the instruments of production and to create, adapt and master new techniques on the technological frontier.
  2. Was able to impart this knowledge and know-how to the young, whether by formal education or apprenticeship training.
  3. Chose people for jobs by competence and relative merit; promoted and demoted on the basis of performance.
  4. Afforded opportunity to individual or collective enterprise; encouraged initiative, competition and emulation.
  5. Allowed people to enjoy and employ the fruits of their labor and enterprise.

He includes several corollaries, including valuing “new as against old, youth as against experience, change and risk against safety,” (p. 218) a lack of discrimination based on irrelevant characteristics, and a government which secures rights of liberty, property and contract. Small-scale enterprise, as a consequence of difficult environmental conditions and a labor shortage (p.296), also play a critical role, preventing the creation of a stratified class system of idle owners and miserable producers. Describing colonial America, Landes observes that its

"…society of smallholders and relatively well-paid workers was a seedbed of democracy and enterprise. Equality bred self-esteem, ambition, a readiness to enter and compete in the marketplace, a spirit of individualism and contentiousness. At the same time, smallholdings encouraged technical self-sufficiency and the handyman, fix-it mentality…. Meanwhile, high wages enhanced the incentive to substitute capital for labor, machines for men. (p. 297) "

That similar conditions will occur on a Mars with open settlement is likely. Again, a detailed analysis of how such a Mars might – and might not – come into being awaits detailed analysis in a later column.

In The Future and Its Enemies, Virginia Postrel distinguishes “dynamist” and “stasist” societies. She notes that ‘[s]ettling new territory requires serious thought about fundamental rules, thought that not only shapes the new world but can reshape the old. This is a matter not simply of philosophy but of practice, since pioneers must evolve new rules to govern the new landscape.” (p.117) She continues, “[b]oom towns break down barriers; they mix together talent from everywhere; they challenge complacency and overturn assumptions. They are sometimes ugly and almost always stressful, but they foster invention, progress and learning. They let people chase their dreams.” (p.192) Her chapter “On The Verge” is a powerful refutation of the clash-of-cultures bellicosity of Islamic fundamentalists and American triumphalists alike. Replacing static conflict with dynamic synthesis is one reason why we so desperately need the High Frontier. Again, rapid, open settlement of Mars – going beyond the stasist conception of a scientific outpost – will generate the creative verge of a multicultural boomtown.

Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist studies, sets out a similar answer to a very different question in his book Inner Revolution: Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Real Happiness. In explaining how Tibet developed a uniquely complex spiritual culture, he stresses its geographic isolation and relative material scarcity: “[n]o one, until modern times, wanted to conquer, colonize or incorporate Tibet.” (p.32) Tibet imported individualist ethics and practices from its parent culture, India:

"[r]adical individualism, which makes the individual’s need to attain full development the highest good, is the key to preserving the openness necessary for a truly political society. For individualism to flourish, it requires an economic surplus, and India had the greatest wealth of the ancient world. It needs some form of education that encourages the development of critical thinking, and a social matrix that extends support to nonconformity.” (pp.93-94)

Similarly, Mars will be built from a meritocratic, rationalist, individualist culture in conditions of material hardship that will force innovation.

Dynamic cultures can be built on Earth. Las Vegas is a marvelous example, as is Silicon Valley and similar centers of technological entrepreneurship around the world. Cyberspace, despite the best efforts of the FBI and the Chinese Communist Party, is still dynamic. The space movement is – to the extent that it draws in new blood from other dynamic cultures, to offset its statsist, stasist, sclerotic old guard. But even these cultures are embedded inextricably in a confining matrix of nanny laws, risk aversion, aging infrastructure, useless schooling, and the million and one limitations of an old-world outlook.

Building afresh, building new-world boomtowns, requires escape velocity from Earth’s red-tape gravity well. Orbital habitats certainly will not be free, particularly in the case of multi-governmental projects like the ISS, in which each government’s contribution of rules, procedures and laws outweighs that of its hardware. It is difficult to imagine an orbital hotel, construction shack or research platform of the next twenty years not being the most heavily regulated of all human activities.

The Moon will be no better, being nearly as close in commuting time – not to mention voice, video and email – as Asian and European subsidiaries of the same conglomerate. Asteroid colonies, as noted above, are likely to be both too distant in the future and, paradoxically, too economically attractive to favor steady settlement and smallholdings, keys to freedom.

Only Mars will be to Earth as America was to England, or Tibet to India: far enough away –and just poor enough – to be left alone by imperialists, bureaucrats and buccaneers, yet close enough for creative cross-fertilization, for being part of the same web, able to draw the best out from Earth and return the prime Martian export: newer, freer and more rewarding ways to live.

The Martian effort isn’t just another set of linkages in the Spacefaring Web. To the extent that that web is a dynamist culture itself, it’s a petri dish for a new Martian culture (with a tip of the hat to Chris McKay and Elon Musk), a best approximation and testbed for new means of human enterprise and interaction. But it is on Mars where the new ways of the network society have the best chance of becoming the dominant means of interaction, at the greatest remove from the rigor-mortis group of the old world. There is much more to be said in detailing this conclusion, particularly in how it is shaping and being shaped by current understanding of the processes for conducting an expedition to Mars. But at the broad level of economic, political and cultural analysis, the conclusion is clear: our best hope for human freedom will be found in our remote, hardscrabble life on Mars.

Mars Now is a weekly column © 2001 by John Carter McKnight, Mars Program Director for the Space Frontier Foundation.

Views expressed here are strictly the author's and do not necessarily represent Foundation policy [or that of HobbySpace].

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