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Why Mars Matters


…or how “homo martis” may evolve to care for Earth in a way “homo sapiens” never have

Recently a friend chided me for being an Elon Musk fanboy. “I’m so tired of all these Muskophiles,” she said when I brushed off the dig. “What is it you’re all so excited about anyway?”
“Tesla for starters,” I responded. “There’s a company whose explicit reason for existence is to disrupt our fossil fuel addiction. While most everyone else is whining about global warming, Elon has found a way within capitalism to combat it.”
“But what really gets me amped,” I added, “is Mars.”
Pffft,” she sounded with a roll of the eyes. “Mars? I am so tired of hearing about Mars! What an escapist’s dream — blasting off to some other planet when it’s this one that’s in trouble!”

The 6th Mass-Extinction

She had a point. The Earth is dying. It’s shedding life at a remarkable rate. Ocean acidification is occurring at breakneck speed with devastating consequences to marine life, in seas already on the brink of being fished to death. Studies in Germany have shown that the insect population (Earth’s thankless workforce of plant pollination) has plummeted a staggering 75% since measurement started 30 years ago. And of course we all know the rest – the earth is rapidly heating up, the ice caps are melting — our global ecosystem is deeply out of whack.
Worse still, this isn’t just some freak moment in history, but the latest in a long saga of humans decimating nature. You can literally chart a course of extinction around the globe by tracking the migration of early humans. Wherever we show up, megafauna (like wooly mammoths and sabretooth tigers) disappear.

Chronology of megafauna extinction. Koch & Barnosky (2006)

Where humans go, the death of life follows. We’re not just a keystone species, we are hands-down the single most destructive force to impact this planet since a large asteroid took out the dinosaurs (and 75% of life on Earth) 65 million years ago. Put succinctly, humans are the 6th mass extinction.

Agent Smith was onto something

Yeesh. The idea that our planet is dying? Terrifying. The idea that we’re the reason why? Horrific. What the hell does one do with that? Surprise, we’re the bad guys? That’s not the kind of story most people are eager to believe.
And for those of us who do believe it? For those of us who can accept the idea that the earth is dying and we humans are responsible? What next?
Well, depression, for starters. If you haven’t already felt that sickening “oh god” feeling in the pit of your stomach, chances are you’ll find little of value in the rest of this post. Nothing I’m about to say will sound the least bit reassuring unless you’re already painfully aware of the depth of shit we’re in.
If there is hope here, it’s in the idea that we might find some way to change this pattern. To stop destroying the planet that gives us life and start stewarding it instead. But how would such a change occur? How would 8 billion humans transform from self-interested actors who are unintentionally devouring the planet into considerate, capable caretakers of a global ecosystem? That’s not the kind of change that’s going to just happen on its own.

Original Sin

If there’s a way forward, it must begin with understanding the present. What is it about humans that results in our current situation? We don’t want to destroy the planet, so why does it happen?
Many have argued that the fundamental problem is technology, man’s attempts to better himself through the creation of ever-more-powerful tools that (unfortunately) have ever-more-complicated side effects. Some point to industrialization as the moment our relationship with the Earth began to turn. Others say agriculture is to blame: that when we went from being hunter-gatherers to food cultivators, the resultant cultural revolution took us out of a ‘garden of Eden’ and into (broken) civilization. In each case the basic idea is the same: humans inadvertently harm both their world and themselves when they attempt to reshape nature for their own purposes.

Live with nature or separate that-which-serves from the rest?

This narrative is — quite literally — as old as they come. In ancient Hebrew, the forbidden tree that ends Man’s tenure in Paradise is called עֵץ הַדַּעַת טוֹב וָרָע, or the tree of knowledge of good and evil. Humans, the Bible opens by telling us, once faced a fundamental choice: dare to divide the world into good (literally “that which is valuable to us”) and evil (that which is not), or accept life as it was. And humans, the story goes, chose poorly.
But this most ancient of moral dilemmas presents us with an impossible situation, for there is no world where humans exist in harmless camaraderie with nature. If this is indeed the fundamental problem, then there is nothing for us to do but give up, for there is no version of reality where man can not eat from such tree and still survive. Our very existence derives explicitly from our unique ability to coordinate our creative capacities to reshape nature – it’s only by separating good from evil that humans are here at all.

How does a band of apes fight a lion?

The “wise” animals

Homo sapiens, literally “wise men”, share roughly 98% of DNA with chimpanzees (for comparison sake, we share 99% with one another and 50% with a banana). Once, a long time ago, we were little more than monkeys ourselves, forced onto the savannah when climate change destroyed the forests we’d long called home.
Evolution is born out of necessity: those primates who left the forests for the savannah and didn’t repurpose nature to suit their needs didn’t survive. Our ingenuity is an essential part of our existence — the predators in our early days demanded it.

Creative working-together is what made humans the threat-neutralizing machines we are today

If this creative reshaping of nature is fundamental to homo sapiens, then we can’t pick some moment in our past and say “there’s where we made a wrong turn”. Not when we learned to shape sticks into spears, or to speak to one another using symbolic language. Not with our domestication of fire, or animals, or plants. Not with the agricultural cultures that rose up in the Fertile Crescent, nor the invention of industrialization, nor the Information Age. These are all incremental consquences of our fundamental nature — without them there simply would be no humans at all.
If there’s never been a version of “human” that didn’t possess this fundamental ability to transform nature, can we look to any other aspects of ourselves as the source of our planetary woes? I’ve come to believe the fundamental issue — man’s original sin — runs even deeper: it’s our past as chimps, grazers of bountiful forests, that leads to the current mass-extinction. What brings us now to the brink of our own destruction is the simple fact that we’re born from a world of plenty.


Our ancestors roamed these trees, picking fruit along the way

Homo sapiens is the result of an evolutionary system that rewarded collective innovation. By this ability, this virtue in the literal sense, we have taken over the world, outsmarting the fiercest of predators and overcoming most obstacles of nature. But for most of our history, that evolutionary system hasn’t demanded we learn how to thrive without abundance. Our environment has not required us to think ecologically or develop the capacity to keep an ecosystem in balance. Those just aren’t skills most humans have had to develop in order to survive.
And that’s where Mars comes in.

Elon Musk says he wants to go to Mars because of all the ways that humanity on Earth can be destroyed. Whether by global thermonuclear war, planetary climate change, or some rogue asteroid, there are just too many scenarios where we all end up dead. Mars, he argues, presents an opportunity to safeguard the humans species by backing up our DNA on a second planetary hard drive.

SpaceX: salvation or just more of the same?

While this argument seems reasonable, it’s not what gets me so excited. If our primary purpose for going to Mars is to preserve the human species, I think I’d have to agree with my friend that our efforts would be better directed towards fighting the most likely existential threats back at home. Why pour so much energy into fuel-guzzling rockets when our real issues are rockets and fuel-guzzling in the first place?
To me, what makes colonizing Mars appealing is not the chance to back up human beings, but the opportunity to give birth to an entirely new species, much like what our move from the forests to the savannah kickstarted nearly 2 million years ago.

Homo martis

Darwin’s theory of natural selection is perhaps best represented by his finches — those sweet little birds from the Galapagos that he popularized through his writing. Presumably all descendants of a common ancestor, as each evolved from generation to generation in their individual micro-ecologies, the finchs became distinct. Small, environmentally-serving variances compounded over time to produce something new and different on each island.

Darwin’s finches — each beak suited to the particulars of its corresponding environment

The diversity of human forms tells a similar story. Presumably we all come from a common set of ancestors, but over time races developed various physical differences in response to different environmental demands around the world. Like Darwin’s finches, our environment shapes who we become.
Homo sapiens is the evolutionary product of a fertile gem of a planet. Biologically speaking, our relationship to Earth is that of an entitled child to an exceedingly gracious parent. But on Mars, an entitled child can’t survive. For humans to exist on Mars, they’ll have to carve gardens out of stone. Everything, from the air they breathe, to the food they consume, will have to be cultivated, grown, shaped, made. For where Earth is Eden, Mars is a wasteland.

Early Martian colonization would be no picnic

Musk talks about backing up humans, but I suspect he recognizes that once enough time has passed the two planetary species won’t be copies of one another. As with the finches, given enough time we can expect a pretty different kind of human to evolve on the Red Planet compared to those on Earth. The distance between the two ‘islands’ is vast, and the environments could not be more dissimilar. If Martians survived and managed to terraform their red planet into blue and green, how would they change along the way? What kind of creature — and culture — would emerge from such a place?

Bringing it home

Just as finches and humans evolve, so too does human culture.

Undiscovered country is breeding ground for new ideas

And new lands mean the opportunity for new cultures — the chance to try out new ideas and new ways of working together. It’s no coincidence that liberal democracy was first proven in the Americas, for instance: here was a land without a powerful ruling class to stand in the way of experimentation.

On the surface, at least, nearly the entire planet is now democratic

But new ideas don’t just grow where they’re planted. After liberal democracy was demonstrated in North America, the resultant culture spread like a disease. It wiped out monarchies and dictatorships across the globe, invading host countries and transforming them from the inside out. Of course, the transformation has been far from consistent — each land re-shapes Western culture in a way that’s more suited to its own environment — but overall the impact has been tremendous:

It’s easy to get down about the state of the world, but we’ve made a lot of progress

Of course, this says nothing of the barbarian ways in which the world has been colonized – much of Western civilization has spread not by choice but by force – nor that the dominant cutlure is a very good one (we can see from current events that it obviously isn’t) but that the culture born in North America eventually infected the rest of the world.
Ideas spread. Technologies spread. Ways of organizing ourselves and our labor spread. And the most efficient and effective ones tend to win out (you know the old saying: democracy is the worst form of government except for all of the other ones).

Some assembly require

If you’ve made it this far, it goes without saying that you’re among the people who dont want to see us turn our planet into any more of a wasteland than we already have. But what if the trend of destruction continues? What if homo sapiens continue to consume and destroy the Earth until there is almost nothing left?
Even then, it’s doubtful we’d be able to produce anywhere near the level of desolation that homo martis would be born into. What kind of impact might that kind of stewardship-oriented species have on the Earth? How will the lessons we learn on Mars, and the way that planet further shapes this once-forest-dwelling ape, change how we care for life over here?
Of course, we might not make it. Mars is — in every imaginable sense — an incredible longshot. And at the rate we’re destroying Earth our own civilization might collapse before we manage to even get started. But it’s also a place where humans might internalize what the majority of us have never learned here: how to care for the world we’re a part of. And it seems pretty clear we’re going to have to master that one way or another if mankind is going to survive at all.

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