Is Elon Musk a Coming Imperialist and Colonialist?

That ought to sound like a ridiculous suggestion to most people. But surprisingly there are a number of prominent people who are framing the idea of making humanity a space faring, multi-planetary species in a post-colonial framework.

Dr. Danielle N. Lee, a biologist and Science Communicator, e.g. wrote a very critical article about the idea of colonizing Mars.

I was exposed to this view through Maki Naro and Matthew Francis writing for the Nib. I have seen this sort of criticism pop up among many other people, so I am only “attacking” DN Lee her as she is the one who has most well articulated this view point. To me as a fan of space exploration in general and Elon Musk in particular it gives an insight into the thinking on the other side of the fence.

This will be a kind of lengthy post as I will quote all the criticisms Lee offers and attempt a response. Lets go:

But is it right to think about the galaxy as a playground that is ours for the taking? History is full of examples of how of individuals and governments exploit others in order to gain access to limited resources like land, gold, water, and oil.

This is an attempt to taint the idea by association with exploitation of indigenous people. The implied association however makes zero sense, as there are nobody living on Mars to be exploited.

The second implication is that colonization of Mars is driven by greed for valuable resources. A nonsensical idea. There are no resources on Mars which cannot be extracted infinitely cheaper on Earth.

Contemporary examples abound of scientists exploiting and harming others when broad and diverse groups of people are not allowed to advocate for their interests.

It is a popular myth to present scientists as some sort of immoral villains crazy about their research and willing to step over dead bodies to succeed in their experiments. This idea seems to have prevalent ever since the story of Frankenstein’s monster. In reality however scientists have been some of the strongest opposition to immoral use of science and technology. Albert Einstein was e.g. a strong pacifist. Scientists were quite reluctant towards developing an nuclear bomb and only did it due to the fear of Nazi Germany getting the bomb.

The father of the Apollo program, taking Americans to the moon, Werner von Braun is not exactly known as a moral person. Although he created the V2 rocket he was not very fond of its military usage. In fact he almost got thrown in prison by the Nazi leadership because he did his best to neglect the military purpose of his rocket work. Werner von Braun was primarily concerned with getting to the moon. His Russian counterpart Sergei Korolev, was similarly doing his best to get the Soviet Union into space exploration. Both men did their best to divert resources away from a nuclear arms race towards a space race.

Add to this the fact that the dominant scientific narrative in the United States space program parallels the American cultural narrative, what Dr. Linda Billings, NASA Space Communicator and space policy analyst at George Washington University calls “frontier pioneering, continual progress, manifest destiny, free enterprise, rugged individualism, and a right to life without limits.” Within astrophysics circles, the idea that it is our right and imperative to conquer other planets is commonly presented as natural, in keeping with other aspects of human history: Just as Europeans immigrated to North America, so must the human race colonize Mars.

Somewhat ironic that DN Lee complains about a western centric view of Mars colonization, when her own way of analyzing the issue is suffering from an inability to look outside the American experience and thinking around colonization.

Not every colonization or exploration that ever happened can neatly fit into the narrative, that is the colonization of the new world. To attempt to squeeze every colonization effort into this framework is a mistake.

Elon Musk, e.g. is a South African and you seldom see him speak of Mars colonization using these sort of Americanisms of “manifest destiny, free enterprise and rugged individualism.”

There are Mars enthusiasts all over the world with a different view on this. As a Norwegian I am seeing Mars exploration and colonization from a different cultural context. Norwegians define ourselves as explorers, ever since Norwegian Vikings discovered Iceland, Greenland and North America, as well as ventured all the way to Byzantium and Africa. In more modern times we made a reputation is successful polar explorers and later as pioneers like Thor Heyerdahl with his Kon-Tiki expedition.

Well known American Mars advocate Robert Zubrin, even wrote about Norwegian polar explorer Roald Amundsen as an inspiration in his book “Mars Direct”.

Roald Amundsen never went to Antarctic to exploit resources or people. Going there had nothing to do with economic gain. It was about the human desire to push boundaries, explore and overcoming hard challenges. Kennedy expressed the exact same thing:

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard

Why does Mars need to be different?

The problem with the ideas being pushed by Musk and Hawking is that the conversation is focused only on the possible promises of a Mars colonization, not the potential perils.

This is a strange objection. Elon Musk has been pretty clear that it is a very high chance the first Mars colonists will die. All Mars enthusiasts including me, are very well aware of the enormous risk and difficulty it represents.

It is also not true that space exploration face minimal criticism. Quite the contrary the criticism is often massive. It just doesn’t get reported much on, because frankly what is the point? So far Mars colonization is a rather abstract thing and is hence mainly of interest to enthusiasts. It makes little sense to mount expensive campaigns against something which is still highly theoretical.

Mars colonization and exploration plans have already been killed several times over. Werner von Braun had extensive and detailed plans about Mars exploration. He thought that the moon landing was just a stepping stone on the path to further exploration. But Nixon killed the Apollo programmed and scrapped any Mars plans as public opposition to further spending on space travel became too massive.

Every time Mars plans have resurfaced they have met massive resistance and died. To at this point worry extensively about the perils of Mars exploration and colonization seems rather premature. It makes more sense to worry about Mars plans getting killed in congress yet again, that people will yet again decide that spending money on it isn’t worth it.

In short, the way Mars is discussed gives individuals like Musk — people with a strong commercial interests in space travel — both a platform for shaping public rhetoric concerning planetary exploration projects, and the ability to influence policies that would allow them to profit greatly from intergalactic expeditions.

Here Lee is conflating two completely unrelated activities by Musk to spin this into a darker tale than it warrants. She is conflating Elon’s commercial interests in the launch business to his desire to colonize Mars. This gives the false impression that Elon Musk sees a profit motive in colonizing Mars. In fact she has gotten the relationship completely on its head. SpaceX’s launch business exist solely to generate the cash to fund Mars colonization. Mars is not a commercial interest. It is a cost. Lee is trying here hard to use vocabulary to give the impression that a Mars colonization has a similar profit motive to the colonization of the new world.

Considering how many parallels are being drawn to the expansion of American settlers into a “untamed” West, I worry that Mars exploration and colonization will be less about saving all of humanity and more about staking claims to profitable natural resources and establishing essential industries. After all, this kind of naked resource grab has happened before. The 19th century saw the rise of the American robber barons: The Vanderbilts, Mellons, Carnegies, Schwabs, Morgans and Astors, who took advantage of the lack of regulation and exploited the labor of others to establish financial legacies that persist nearly 150 years later.

Again we see Lee imply a profit motive that simply doesn’t exist. The New world offered Europeans sugar, tobacco, gold, fertile lands etc. Mars in contrast is a toxic wasteland, with unbreathable air, so cold that the arctic seems like a summer resort in comparison.

It would make more sense for a robber baron to seek riches in a dumping ground for radio active waste on earth. Should we have a dialog about a pending resource grab by robber barons in Chernobyl?

Lee has an utter lack of time perspective. We have no even founded the equivalent of James Town on Mars yet. That was in 1607. It would take over 200 years before the robber barons Lee speak of appeared. To the inhabitants of James Town, a concern about a possible future exploitation of natives would seem pretty far down the list of their priorities. Just staying alive would be their main concern as will be the primary concern of all the first colonists on Mars.

But the assumption that colonizing Mars is inherently good and that American narratives are universal, or at least the most paramount, is narrow and exclusive.

It is narrow and exclusive to assume that conflicts and problems related to European colonization of the New world is the only prism through which to see its perils or potential. I would say colonization of Mars would have far more in common with the Norwegian colonization of Iceland or Amundsen’s exploration of the arctic. Both uninhabited inhospitable places. Norwegians never went to Iceland in search of riches. It offered no gold, gems, tobacco or exotic spices.

Rather it was the last option for those who had lost the power struggle in Norway, when Norway got its first king uniting all the lands.

Iceland had its wild-west days with a lot of lawlessness like America. But it never had robber barons as there was economic foundation for something like that. In such harsh circumstances survival was more of what it was about. Mars will be a lot more like Iceland. A very thinly populated place where people live under harsh conditions at the edge of survival. Iceland was only able to prosper centuries later when modern fishing vessels allowed catching more fish.

It leaves little room to discuss humanity’s responsibilities in caring for our present home. It derails from the conversations nations should be having right now regarding environmental stewardship or exploring the habitability of alternative habitats on earth such as the oceans and the deserts.

One wonders what planet Lee is on at times. On what planet does Mars colonization take precedence over discussions of earths environment and climate change? Mars colonization is primarily a topic for space geeks like me. It is a fringe thing. Meanwhile global warming is a huge topic taught in every school (at least in Norway) and discussed by most politicians.

It is a hard sell to say earth’s environment isn’t getting enough focus.

These are also completely different discussions. Mars colonization, at its present stage, is primarily an engineering challenge.

Global warming while also an engineering challenge is also perhaps even more of a political challenge. Getting voters and countries onboard to tackle our environmental issues is a political question first and foremost. One country on earth reducing its emissions to zero will not solve the problem. Everybody has to get onboard. For Mars colonization to happen, all we need is one company to do it. You don’t need 7 billion people to agree to it.

This is the first injustice Lee levels against Mars colonization. The second is making Elon Musk a bogeyman who is among the most influential people today in actually doing something to save our planet from global warming. He is doing this by pushing electric cars through his Tesla company. He pushing solar panels for home owners through Solar City. He is building giant batteries in the Australian dessert, replacing the need for diesel generators.

Somehow these efforts are not enough, because Elon Musk has had the audacity to speak of colonizing another planet.

Who will be the individuals selected to colonize other planets? Will the Mars emigrants extract life-supporting resources from Earth to make life on humanity’s new home possible? How will these extractions impact life back home?

That is unlikely to be an issue. Agriculture, water, oxygen, animals are involved in supporting life on earth. To sustain life on earth people need a good climate and a nice soil to growth plants in and access to ample supplies of water and possibly fertilizer.

Too ship soil, fertilizer, water and oxygen to Mars in such quantities as to cause a problem on earth would be mind boggling stupid in every possible way. It would be excessively expensive and impractical.

It is far cheaper and practical to extract water on Mars, treat Martian soil for growing things, and produce oxygen locally. It is easier and cheaper to grow large amounts of food on Mars than to ship it from earth. Of course initial Mars bases will rely on food shipments from earth. But were area talking about tiny bases with a few dozen people. Not enough to make a dent in the resource needs of over 7 billion people on earth.

So life sustaining resources will not be needed to be shipped to Mars. What a Mars colony will need is advance equipment and materials, as there will be no advance industrial base on Mars to produce things such as computers, solar cells, electric motors, 3D printers, insulation, lights, glass or pretty much any kind of equipment people will need. Stuff that comes in bulk such as food, water, oxygen and building materials for habitats in contrast will be obtained locally.

So Mars colonization doesn’t in any way threaten the ability to sustain life on earth. Earth isn’t going to lose resources desperately needed to a Mars colony. But of course the is an economic cost to colonizing Mars. Money spent colonizing Mars is money that could be spent on earth on something else.

However to suggest that Mars colonization is something that takes away scarce economic resources better spent elsewhere, is at best a lack of perspective and at worst flat out dishonest.

Insane amounts of resources are already wasted on military, fashion industry, cosmetics, junk food, gambling, illegal drugs etc. There are a lot of things to pick from for anyone interested in spending scarce resources better.

To spend money on advancing exploration of our solar system and safeguarding humanity against future extinction events, does hardly features on the top ten list of wasteful spending.

Who will do this heavy and potentially dangerous work? And how will we safeguard against polluting the red planet and not adding to the growing amount of space debris?

Lee seems to conjure up an image of poor suckers being pushed into dangerous mines in search of gold and gemstones for greedy capitalists. But remember there is nothing of value on Mars. The only ones going will be those who want to be pioneers and push humanity forward.

Do we ask questions about how joined the dangerous expeditions to arctic regions? We don’t. We don’t view these people as victims. These are individuals looking for adventure and a chance to make their mark in the history books.

I see now reason why those who go to Mars will not be also be people who are willing to take the risk to be part of something bigger. Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin signed up for an extremely dangerous job. There chance of dying was probably higher than for any mining job you could get. Is it sensible to paint them as some sort of haphazard unlucky victims, picked to do a dangerous job, nobody else wanted?

Of course not. Framing the question like that is simply twisting what this is ultimately about.

Another interesting question brought up, is a concern for pollution of Mars. I’ve seen similar being brought up by others on a number of occasions and I am really curious about what exactly they have in mind.

Pollution is about harming the environment in such a way that it negatively affects, plants, animals and humans. It could mean filling the air with toxic chemicals causing acid rain, which cause acidic lakes killing fish or destroy forrest. It could mean dumping stuff in water that makes it undrinkable for humans or which kills aquatic life.

What exactly is the equivalent of pollution on a planet which has no plants and no animals? There is no fresh air on Mars to pollute. It is already completely unbreathable for any animal. There is no pristine soil to pollute with toxic chemicals. It is already highly toxic all over the planet. Worried about things like nuclear waste? Well, you are bombarded with radioactive rays all over the planet as there is no magnetic field to protect against cosmic rays.

Space debris, is another interesting case. Talking about it in the same sentence as pollution doesn’t make much sense. Space debris is not affecting any plants or animals. It only affects humans whenever we do things in space.

Naturally large scale colonization requires extensive usage of space, which means space debris would become a significant problem. Hence Mars colonization efforts would likely cause a strong incentive to clean up space debris, so as to not endanger launch vehicles.

Secondly, the idea that Mars colonization should contribute to space debris is nonsensical. Space debris stems from satellites in earth orbit. There is no reason launching things to Mars should put more stuff in orbit around earth.

In any case it is in the interest of everybody with commercial interest in space to clean up space debris, as it puts anything launched into risk. Secondly space debris is potentially a valuable resource to be exploited.

Rocket propulsion is based upon the principle of throwing mass behind you at great velocity. In principle we can get unlimited amounts of energy from solar cells to keep doing that indefinitely. However one will eventually run out of mass to throw. That is a problem for a lot of satellites or potentially space stations orbiting the earth. They occasionally need to correct their orbits by firing their engines, to avoid de-orbiting.

Hence there is a potential benefit in collecting space debris and using it as rocket propellant.

You might object that, not everything is suitable for rocket propellant. Except in orbit where one is less affected by gravity we have less demands put on rocket propellant. If I melted debris down to a bullet and shot it out behind my satellite, that would still be enough to propel me forward.

So, nobody needs to lose sleep worrying about space debris. It is a problem that will likely get solves as there is a clear economic and selfish incentive to solve that problem.

Although there is no human life on Mars to displace, the fact remains that Mars is its own pristine environment and planet. Mars shouldn’t be treated as Earthlings’ next possession.

I would like to challenge that assumption. What makes something pristine and worth preserving or caring for? I think there is a case for earth’s nature, plants and animals, as well as historical cities. There are also certain natural features, canyons, rivers etc which people value.

But of course that value is derived mostly from human ability to observe it and appreciate it. Does a random rock nobody ever sees have any value?

Does every piece of rock in our solar system have value. There are about 150 million asteroids in our solar system. Does each of these rocks contain their own pristine environment worth preserving?

7 billion people have not managed to alter much of the natural features of earth, so why should we assume a tiny fraction of this would be able to significantly alter Mars? Yes humans have significantly altered nature, cut down forrest, made animals extinct etc. But remember none of that exists on Mars, only rocks.

Moreover, the legacy of colonization didn’t just harm Indigenous people with genocide and displacement. Colonization and imperialism also exploited people from other lands and poorer Europeans who were tasked with ‘conquering frontiers’, building towns, bridges, roads, railways, and trades routes. These exploited laborers suffered heavy casualties while stakeholders far way shaped policy and earned profits.

Is Lee seriously suggesting that there is a possibility of a slave trade, where people are sent to Mars to slave on some Martian plantation owned by the rich Martians? That is such a ridiculous idea, that I don’t think it is worth addressing.

So lets instead jump to the exploited Europeans. That seems like a non-issue. Life was shit for most Europeans back then. America for all its problems was still a significant improvement. It does not mean they could not have been treated better or that exploitation was not going on.

What I take issue with here is the implication that they were somehow better of staying put.

And as we have already established. Nobody is going to Mars anyway to enrich themselves. You can’t be lured with false promises to Mars of riches. It will be evident to everyone that it is not a promised land. You will only go there for adventure and a chance to a make a difference. The psychology behind this is not something that naturally lends itself to an exploitative arrangement. Fitting this into the American narrative on colonization is like attempting to fit square pegs into round holes. It just doesn’t work no matter how hard you try.

We have the chance to build a new world and human society, a truly revolutionary act. Which is part of the reason I don’t understand why the greatest minds in science and business can’t seem to envision a new society in which egalitarian values, sustainability, diversity and inclusion are part of the process from conception to execution. They can do better. The future of our civilization, wherever it may be, demands it.

I don’t think it even needs imagining. The idea of Mars being a carbon copy of the wild west with rugged individuals is an anarchy-capitalist delusion. Individuals can not walk about at random on Mars claim some land and setup their homestead.

It is such a dangerous and inhospitable place that nobody can survive without working in groups. One will also be completely dependent on shipments from earth for a lot of things. It is very hard to imagine a strongly individualistic society in such a setting.

No society gets crated in a vacuum. As much as Americans like to believe they started with a clean slate, American culture is derived from European culture in general and British culture in particular.

What a Mars culture will look like depends on the people who will settle there and their backgrounds. I am sure that few people who are not team players will get to go or get accepted.

One person doing something stupid on Mars can spell doom for a whole colony. Puncture the pressured habitat in just one place and everybody is dead. Accidentally destroy oxygen production in the base and everybody is dead.

And finally, No Mars is NOT the future of human civilization. As a Mars fan I certainly don’t believe that, nor do I think Elon Musk believes it either.

It will just be another place for humans to live. Discovering and colonizing new land does not render the old land irrelevant.

To use an analogy on earth. Can we really claim the US represent the future and Europe that past, at present? America was once deemed a new beginning, but in my humble opinion the ideals of America has fallen behind those of Europe. You’d be wiser to look in the direction of Europe than America if you are looking for sustainability and egalitarian values.

So why should we presume Mars represent the future of human values and development?

Written by

Geek dad, living in Oslo, Norway with passion for UX, Julia programming, science, teaching, reading and writing.

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