Imagining Mars

I had a dream last night about something that I quite often dream about: the colonization of Mars. I love dreams like this because they always enable me to imagine things that I never would have imagined otherwise.

In this particular dream, Mars had been colonized and built upon to the following extent: There were good roads leading to a wide variety of businesses that existed in support of the primary economy of Mars, which I imagine to be extraction. In other words, it's most likely to me that life on Mars would revolve around mining, and to a lesser extent construction, and that all other businesses would serve to support those industries. There were shops and convenience stores, but they were sparsely stocked. There were bars and restaurants, mostly serving unappealing food like sandwiches, and also serving plenty of alcohol with which the Martian workers could "while away their time."

Interestingly, albeit unrealistically, buildings and cars on my Dream Mars were mostly open-air. Everyone had their doors open and their windows rolled down. Business establishments would generate their own oxygen, somehow, for patrons to breathe. People had grown accustomed to the difficulty of breathing the CO2 atmosphere of Mars as they made their way from Point A to Point B. My "host," the person in my dream who was showing me around the place, could generate oxygen in his car, too, but simply preferred the feel of the open air, just as all the other residents of Mars did. So, a good portion of my visit to Dream Mars was spent kind of suffocating as we traveled from place to place. It was frustrating for me, but my host assured me that I'd get used to it eventually. 

Obviously, such a thing would be impossible on real Mars. You'd only be able to last about as long as you could hold your breath. You'd need to find an enclosed building with breathable air as soon as possible, or else port your air with you in a space suit. But my dream wasn't a dream about what would happen if we plopped a bunch of present-day humans on present-day Mars using present-day technology. Instead, it was about the future.

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A while back, I also thought of a similar sort of story. In it, human beings colonize Mars and exist there for hundreds of years before two major factions have an irreconcilable conflict, and the losing faction is banished from the colony. Ill equipped to survive the Martian landscape with whatever technology they could carry with them, and regularly exposed to the high solar radiation of the surface of Mars, this losing faction eventually, over time, evolves the ability to withstand high levels of radiation without suffering biological damage, and also the ability to breathe Martian air - or at least whatever middle-step the atmosphere of a partially colonized Mars might be like. 

The rest of this story revolved around the discovery of this very profound human evolution and its implications for the two Martian "factions." Would they separate permanently? Would they intermarry and cooperate? What would happen?

I'll have to actually write the book some day to find out.

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The key feature of all of these dreams and ideas I have about Mars is that building up and maintaining a "bubble world" on the surface of the planet, where humans must always be encased in glass with a steady supply of oxygen pumped around, has always struck me as a terrible way of life, one that is only feasible in the very short run. In my mind, Mars is only inhabitable if it can be terraformed. A generations-long project would have to ensue, during which humans would have to discover a way for Mars to maintain a thicker atmosphere, and for that atmosphere to be made of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide, just as Earth's atmosphere is. In order to achieve that, humans would have to discover a way to convert the existing Martian atmosphere to something that it currently isn't. Humans would have to figure out a way to protect that atmosphere from the kind of solar radiation that would destroy it - and that means either manufacturing an electromagnetic field around the planet (since Mars isn't capable of generating its own), or somehow constructing a thick ozone layer, under which an even thicker breathable atmosphere would reside.

All of this, and we haven't even tackled the question of potable water yet. Bear in mind that these materials cannot simply be piped-in from Earth or elsewhere in sufficient quantities to maintain and grow a permanent human population. Conflicts of water rights are the kind of thing that we Earth-dwellers have started wars over. Can you imagine how much conflict there would be between the inhabitants of an environmentally fragile Earth and inhabitants of a terraformed Mars whose existence depends entirely on Earth's willingness to ship its limited water and air resources across the expanse of outer space? 

There are plot holes that a clever science-fiction writer can resolve, at least long enough to tell an exciting science-fiction story. However, to the best of human knowledge, there is no way to actually do this on Mars. If Mars will one day be habitable, we don't currently have the technology to do it; perhaps we don't even have the scientific knowledge to do it.

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The primary reason we know we can't colonize Mars at any point in the foreseeable future is because there are vast, dead regions of Earth that human beings have killed and can't bring back to life. A couple of examples include the desertification of the Middle East and large patches of the ocean floor. If we can't build a farm on a plot of land that was farmed as recently as a couple of generations ago - if we can't keep part of a coral reef alive even though it isn't even dead yet - why in the world would we suppose that we can travel to Mars and render its barren soil fertile? (Keep in mind that the primary difference between barren and fertile soil is the presence of existing biological matter. Martian soil doesn't have any biological matter in it. How's it going to get there? Here's one way, but it requires clay from Earth.)

For the entirety of human existence, life has involved extracting resources from out environment and using them. Full stop. Every animal does this, but only human beings make the kind of technology that changes the environment in potentially catastrophic ways. We're the only animal that produces our own fire, for example, and fire can burn a forest down. We're the only animal that has ever managed to scrape the bottom of the ocean floor clean of all life. These are catastrophic changes. 

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a luddite. Humankind's ability to produce technology has created a world that our primitive ancestors would certainly have considered to be the work of sorcery. We have become gods in all but one respect: we've figured out how to produce civilization when given wilderness; we have yet to figure out how to produce wilderness when given civilization. It's a tough problem to solve.

If we don't solve it, though, we can kiss our dreams of inhabiting Mars goodbye. Even supposing that Mars proves to be uninhabitable and we go searching for other worlds to colonize, we'll never even reach those worlds until we've figured out how to produce enough nature aboard a spaceship to provide ourselves with food, medicine, water, and technology along the way. 

Nor is "environmentalism" the solution to the problem. Covering the surface of the earth with solar panels and windmills is no better for the land upon which they reside than is clear-cutting an acreage of forest. There is no way to reuse or recycle medical waste, and if we intend to heal the sick with medical technology, then we intend to perpetuate medical waste, too. There is only so much leeway we can get from "vertical hydroponic gardens" and other such green fantasies. 

No, the problem here is that we human beings simply don't know how to terraform. We don't know anything about it. We know a bit about gardening, and a bit about landfills, and a bit about leaving virgin landscapes untouched. But we know nothing about creating and maintaining a viable ecosystem capable of supporting human life forever. 

How truly odd that a species of ape that specializes in manipulating the environment around it in order to survive knows so little about manipulating the environment in order to survive.


Say The Magic Words

It seems as though people have been lamenting the decline of civil discourse for fifteen years or more. It's been easy to recognize as it has happened. Still, occasionally we encounter situations that remind us just how far out of whack things have gone. 

A couple of different conversations did this for me recently. I won't bother with the particulars of these conversations here; doing so would risk relitigating the whole discussion, and I don't want to do that. Instead, I'd like to focus on the overall discursive climate in today's world.

When controversy arises, there is often One Right And Important Viewpoint You Are Supposed To Declare In Full-Throated Support Of A Slighted Person. If someone says something sexist, you're supposed to loudly decry sexism. If someone says something racist, you're supposed to loudly decry racism. And so on. Still, in many controversies there may be other matters worth discussing.

To name a few easily-recognized examples:

  • Donald Trump may be a big jerk, but it might be worth noting that his Administration marks the first time in decades that the US government has not entered a new armed conflict abroad.
  • Same-sex marriage might be a significant step toward equality under the law, but it could be worth discussing whether the government should play any role at all in marriage licensing.
  • Although there have been many high-profile examples of racist police violence in America, a significant contributor to police violence is police militarization, not merely police racism.
More examples could be provided, but I list these only for illustrative purposes, so I'll keep it short. 

Suppose one wants to talk, not about bigotry, but about one of these other important issues that are not identity issues per se, such as international peace, restrictions on government licensing, or decreasing the level of police militarization. In that case, one need not first recite a set of magic words about opposing bigotry. Especially where space and time are at a premium, it's best to get right to it. 

I've noticed, though, that if one leaves off the magic words about opposing bigotry, the main pushback one receives is that one hasn't said the magic words! If I leave off the magic words, someone invariably chimes in to scold me and argue with me, to attempt to shame me, to call me names, to call me a horrible person, all because I haven't said the magic words, and even though the magic words have nothing to do with my point.

I am accustomed to this sort of behavior from internet keyboard warriors who might cross my path on Twitter, or in a blog's comments section, or the like. What surprises me is that recently, people who have known me for years on wonderful terms - good friends and family members, people who certainly know my true character - will pursue this line of argumentation with me. Not only will they pursue it, but they'll take it all the way to the brink, ready to end a good relationship over my failure to have recited the magic words. 

It is as though the magic words take precedence over years of friendship. Perhaps for some, they do. But not for me. I'm not prepared to end good friendships over a hysterical need to recite magic words of anti-bigotry. If I know someone isn't really a bigot, I won't tap my foot, waiting for them to loudly proclaim their non-bigotry, and potentially end my friendship with them if they don't.

But some of my friends and family members are so inclined. They will (and have) called me racist, sexist, and so on despite decades of personal experience to the contrary. 

How will I respond to their readiness to cut ties? 

The truth is, I see a lot of this magic words stuff as a temporary mass delusion. This will pass, eventually, although I don't know how long it will take before it does. I see people growing increasingly neurotic as they take shelter from the pandemic in their homes, exposed only to a steady diet of internet, social media, Netflix, and high-calorie/low-nutrient delivery food. In short, I think people are going a little crazy. 

I'm willing to forgive some temporary craziness under the present circumstances. If people want to hang their age-old friendships on a few magic words, I think that's a serious mistake, but it's one their entitled to make. However, I'm not going to make that mistake. If any of these people would like to patch things up once times get a little less crazy, I'm going to be there for them. 

I'm willing to forgive them their craziness, in the hope that, one day, they'll forget what was so important about the magic words.