Martin Robbins, Guardian, May 6, 2015
We’re going to Mars–eventually. The quest to reach the dusty red planet is our version of Manifest Destiny, the 19th-century philosophy that saw Americans spread across their content with the thought and consideration of a chilly lover stealing the duvet in their sleep. There were a lot of different versions of it, but the main themes, as summarised by Wikipedia, should sound quite familiar:
- The special virtues of the American people and their institutions;
- America’s mission to redeem and remake the west in the image of agrarian America;
- An irresistible destiny to accomplish this essential duty.
So 150 years later, Elon Musk (of Tesla and SpaceX) is arguably the most visible example of Manifest Destiny in the space age. He’s the de facto leader of a western “liberal technocratic” consensus that harbours a long-term ambition to put humans on the red planet. Not because they can, but because they feel wemust. Phil Plait banged his hammer on this particular nail in a recent article for Slate in which he describes a tour of the SpaceX factory:
“[A] feeling I couldn’t put my finger on before suddenly came into focus. The attitude of the people I saw wasn’t just a general pride, as strong as it was, in doing something cool. It was that they were doing something important. And again, not just important in some vague, general way, but critical and quite specific in its endgame: making humans citizens of more than one world. A multiplanet species.”
Manifest Destiny. But historically, this kind of attitude has come with two big problems.
Firstly, destiny is rarely great for the people already at the destination. When Africans moved north to colonise Europe they obliterated the Neanderthals. When Europeans seized the New World, its cultures were virtually extinguished. Luckily the only population on Mars that we know of is a handful of rovers, but no doubt we’ll start a war anyway, before dragging them into some form of slavery or oppression. It’s just what we do.
Second, whose destiny is it anyway? Who gets to go? D N Lee wrote a fascinating deconstruction of this in Scientific American where she makes a number of interesting points. Not least, how little attention this question has been given in the rather white and male race to conquer Mars.
The first objection she raises is to the idea that we’re “stuck” on Earth. “Stuck?!Why would we be stuck on Earth? Stuck implies left behind in a bad situation.” This is one bit I disagree with. As long as we’re on one planet, however good it is, we’re a single freak event away from joining the dinosaurs. Self-sufficient colonies elsewhere make for a good insurance policy. Her next point is critical though:
“I’m nagged by frames or narratives that are presented as universally attractive and necessary and heroic where the protagonists seem to mostly reflect Hollywood action movie casts and plots. *eye rolls*
“I began to question, first in my mind then out loud–whose version of humanity is being targeted for saving?”
To paraphrase Douglas Adams: “Space is white. You just won’t believe how vastly, hugely, mind-bogglingly white it is.” It’s also very male and European. Women in space-colony fiction have generally been presented as sexy walking vaginas, whose main purpose is to provide the male astronauts with a place to dock their penis at night. This being necessary in order to “ensure the survival of the species”.
If you think that attitude doesn’t exist in the real world, it’s worth recalling the comments of Prof Anatoly Grigoryev, a doctor and key figure in the Russian space programme. “Women are fragile and delicate creatures; that is why men should lead the way to distant planets and carry women there in their strong hands.”
No wonder Lee says, “I see only a very narrow invitation to this lifeboat.”
The problem with Lee’s argument is that she’s fighting against possibly the most pernicious space myth in existence, a myth far worse than moon landing conspiracy theories. It’s a myth almost universally believed, that sits at the core of liberal technocratic thought, and has been embedded in practically every other work of speculative fiction for the last half century.
You can sum it up like this: “When we go into space, we will all magically become nice.”
We see this in coverage of the space programme, with its endless propaganda about “cooperation” between nations, and promotion of the idea that clever people in tough situations produce the best humanity has to offer. It’s rampant in fiction, where shows like Star Trek assume that three centuries of civil rights progress will inevitably turn us all into morally-centered middle-class rationalists.
And it’s there, unspoken and unchallenged, at the heart of our current aspirations for space. There’s no room for discussion about social justice or equality when it comes to planning our future Mars colonies because we all just assume that decent educated scientists and engineers–the “right kind” of people–won’t have any problem with that sort of thing.
Except every available single scrap of historical experience tells us that this is an incredibly naive and dangerous assumption to make. Colonies and outposts are portrayed as lights in the darkness; hot spots of progress, ingenuity and adventure. That may be true to some extent, but they’ve also been places of crime, vigilante justice, tyrants, rape, pillaging, abuse and war. It’s true that when things get hard we can see the best in people, but oftentimes we see the worst too.
In fact we’ve already seen this in a Mars mission simulation that took place in 1999 and ended in chaos, as summarised by Helen Lewis in New Statesman:
“…the Russian captain forcibly kissed the only female crew member, a 32-year-old Canadian health specialist called Judith Lapierre. “We should try kissing, I haven’t been smoking for six months,” he reportedly told her. “Then we can kiss after the mission and compare it. Let’s do the experiment now.” Two of her Russian crew mates then had a fight so violent that it left blood splattered on the walls, prompting another member of the team, a Japanese man, to quit. Lapierre stayed only after the astronauts were allowed to put locks on their bedroom doors.”
The first woman to be raped in space has probably already been born. And if that last sentence makes you howl with protest or insist that such a thing just wouldn’t happen, then I’d stop a second and ask yourself why.
I’m a fan of SpaceX, after some initial scepticism. I think it’s usually better to do something, however imperfect, than nothing, and I admire people like Elon Musk who take on the hard challenges, and make progress in spite of naysayers. I think Lee is absolutely right though when she says:
“When we look around and see a homogenous group of individuals discussing these issues–issues that command insane budgets, we should pause. Why aren’t other voices and perspectives at the table? How much is this conversation being controlled (framed, initiated, directed, routed) by capitalist and political interests of the (few) people at the table?”
It’s early days, but if we really want to create a progressive new world then issues like these should be at the hearts of our efforts from the very start. I hope Musk and his peers open up that discussion sooner rather than later, and I hope that people like Lee can take part in it. The last thing we need is to wake up in 50 years and find that a bunch of #gamergate nobheads are running Mars.