The atmosphere on Mars is composed of 96% carbon dioxide, with an average temperature of minus 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Only 16 of the 39 total Mars missions have been successful. Mars is about as far from habitable as we can imagine any environment. Pretty inhospitable, right? So what is it about Mars that captures the imagination of the public?
As our own planet degrades, are we simply casting around for any alternative, no matter how challenging or unlikely? Afloat on a sinking lifeboat, are we (and by ‘we’ I mean the world’s 2% who have any hope of escaping) planning on being castaways for generations into the future? I think not. I think Mars has appeal for other reasons, and these date back to the era of colonialism in the late 19th century.
Colonialism was the ultimate escape from the uncomfortable truths of home, it glorified a narrative of supremacy and heroism.
From the 1870s to the 1890s European powers fought, pillaged, destroyed, and exploited the peoples and territories variously under their control around the world. Africa in particular was an object of focus, a field of colonial competition and experimentation. Although the forces at work driving colonialism were at least partially strategic, they were also cultural, gaining importance due to broad social trends that gave meaning and legitimacy to an otherwise obviously violent project. At least part of the drive to dominate was an awareness of the losses at home, the shortage of resources and the decline of life quality that had accompanied industrialism. Colonialism was the ultimate escape from the uncomfortable truths of home, it glorified a narrative of supremacy and heroism.
The natural world played an important part in this project. Colonialism was celebrated in the drawing rooms and smoking rooms of English nobility, adorned with the heads of hunting trophies, some beautiful, some made fearsome to elevate the social status of the hunter. The larger and more dangerous the prey, the more remote and unforgiving the location, the more revered was the hunter who made the shot. Check this piece by Maximilian Werner to see how this biosocial dynamic, including its gender dimension, still holds sway. The exercise of domination over nature embedded a narrative of triumph over adversity, struggle and reward, similar to the social Darwinist theories of racial superiority which were also gaining traction as more remote peoples and lands came under colonial control.
As England degraded physically and the environment became more and more polluted by coal smoke, with forests long since cut down and cities overrun with poor migrating for work in the industrial centres, a movement arose to preserve and protect the countryside and the rural way of life. Romantics painted a rosy picture of the village, with quaint gardens and carefully tended homes, and mourned the loss of Hobbiton (OK, that came later, but you catch my drift).
For the colonial mindset, nature could be only two things: it was either a garden, or a wilderness. The garden metaphor viewed the colonies as representative of the quiet English countryside, well tended and cared for, planted and grown with care using the knowledge of scientific methods to regulate the relationships between species. Ecological science, and particularly amateur collectors, made a strong impression by carefully gathering, cataloguing and classifying every new species and specimen ‘discovered’ in the remotest outposts of empire. The endless frontiers would provide valuable information from which to garner wisdom about what had gone wrong in England, and the urge to recreate the Garden of Eden (to somehow earn a ‘do-over’) was strong.
The incorrigibility of Mars is no barrier, in fact it is the fuel for a profound sense of longing and loneliness. Mars is the frontier we’ve already destroyed on Earth, the potential garden which we’ve already mismanaged.
On the other hand, the wilderness represented those areas yet to be tamed. Large areas of Africa were virtually uninhabitable due to disease, climatic hardships, wild animals, and dangerous and resentful local populations. The causes of these hardships were unknown, but not unknowable. Setbacks were common, and did incur some measure of humility and respect for the mystery of nature and the depth of the challenge of controlling what were essentially uncontrollable forces. In the Western part of North America, wilderness was much less threatening, and its imminent loss inspired a sense of strong protection, even reverence, for the ‘natural cathedral’. In Africa, the drive to protect wilderness took the form of hunting reserves where wild animals were protected and cultivated. In North America, it took the form of the creation of national parks with mountain vistas which would be destinations for leisure and health as well as hunting.
So how does the present-day vision of Mars come into this? The colonial imagination of the garden or the wilderness is still present in Western, now in many senses, global culture. Mars is the new canvas for the population to project its longings and dreams, and accuracy is still no part of the picture at all, just as it was with Africa. The incorrigibility of Mars is no barrier, in fact it is the fuel for a profound sense of longing and loneliness. Mars is the frontier we’ve already destroyed on Earth, the potential garden which we’ve already mismanaged.
In an Anthropocene epoch, when nothing on Earth is outside of human influence or touch, our own planet disappoints. As the quintessential mysterious unknown, great status and wealth is to be gained by the race to conquer Mars, regardless of whether it turns out well. Just as the drive to dominate ultimately undermined colonialism itself, so may the urge to colonize Mars destroy not only Mars, but also end up undermining efforts to protect what is left of the only home we’ve ever known. One can argue this point, and perhaps I might be too pessimistic. Might Mars end up being a wellspring of information that might be leveraged to save ourselves and our own planet? Can we learn the real lessons of the wilderness and the garden? I fear instead that we are not departing from the past but recreating it, not because poor Mars might end up being another junkyard (although it’s on the way already) but because we have yet to demonstrate the moral fortitude to be able to see ourselves in Mars.