Archive for August, 2013

Do we really need to go to Mars?

A good friend of mine asked me this at a party, and it gave me serious pause. In fact at the time I thought it was a real downer, and I had to send it to the back of my mind for future processing. I’d never thought to wonder, should we be doing this? Is going to Mars really what we as a species need to achieve right now? I think from an ethical standpoint there is a massive challenge we should overcome first… but the problem is, I don’t think we can.

In the space of a century we’ve managed to disrupt global patterns of weather and biodiversity that took millions of years to develop. How? Well we use an economic system whose units (corporations) cannot remain in stasis, they actually require constant growth to survive as entities.  This constant expansion finds them bumping into systemic limits all the time, and their usual response is to push past those limits, for example as they use up resources in one region and have to move into another, or as they saturate one market and have to force their way into another. When corporations can’t manage this they devour each other. As our global population also expands, we’re starting to reach the predictable conclusion of these processes: we’re bumping into the planetary limitations to our growth.

Establishing a colony on Mars would be a first step in pushing past our planetary limits. And if we succeed on Mars, that paves the way for us to just keep on doing what we do, right across the universe (or at least until we meet up with another life form that recognizes our virulent nature and decides to stamp us out to protect life everywhere).

If we chose to, we could respond differently. With incentive and commitment we could develop an economic system (and more importantly a value system) that rewards equilibrium instead of expansion, and collaboration instead of competition. We could learn to find a healthy fit in our environment. I think this is truly the most important task we humans can tackle right now… but will we achieve it? Will we even try? We all know we’re driving up to the edge of a cliff, and a few of us have started holding little toy parachutes out the window to slow us down, but we haven’t taken our feet off the gas.

Some people give the Mars One project a low plausibility score, and perhaps it won’t be the first successful colony on Mars. But as an achievable goal, I feel like colonizing Mars is vastly more realistic and immediate than the kind of true behavioral change we’ll need to get us out of this mess here on Earth. One of the things that excites me about Mars is that with a fresh start we have a golden opportunity to experiment with new systems, new economies, new ways of being with each other in community. Going to Mars doesn’t have to maintain the status quo: perhaps it can actually help form a model of change.

So ultimately I think the answer really is yes. We need to go to Mars. Now.

This is a question I was asked by an interviewer at for another feature about Mars One applicants (not yet published, as far as I know), and at the time my answer was something like “I don’t even think that’s relevant. The fact that this incomprehensible opportunity is being made available to everyday people everywhere means it’s one that I have to say yes to, I can’t even imagine not trying.”

I still feel that way, but I can say a few more things, hopefully without sounding too fat-headed. The Mars One team has explicitly stated that the traits they are looking for in the selection process are not those traditionally associated with astronauts; rather it is a key set of psychological traits that will be essential to the success of the mission. They describe five basic characteristics: resiliency, adaptability, curiosity, ability to trust, and creativity/resourcefulness. I don’t know if I have exactly the combination they’re looking for, but I do feel strong in all those characteristics, and in a few more besides that I think are also important: optimism, playfulness, collaborativity (made up word of course), non-attachment. I also think I have one paradoxical advantage: I don’t compete. Competitiveness has a key place in many of our key moments in history, but in this scenario I think it would be a dangerous trait, and if the selection team agrees with me on that, then in a group of competitive people it would strengthen my chances!

Realistically, the answer is that my chances are still very slim. There are thousands of other highly qualified applicants. But I know I’d be a great choice, and you never know… anything could happen.

It’s the first question everyone asks me. It’s hard to comprehend just how much I would be leaving behind if I were selected to go to Mars. Of course, the easy answer is everything. But how do I wrap my head around what that really includes? For starters:

  • My family, my dearest friends, everyone I’ve ever known, and a planet full of those I haven’t met yet,
  • All the places I’ve ever felt safe at home, or anywhere remotely near that concept,
  • All experiences of outdoors: hiking trails, swimming in the ocean, riding a bike, breathing fresh air,
  • All the cultural contexts that have surrounded me my whole life: shopping, going to festivals, gigs, restaurants, etc,
  • A world full of delicious food,
  • A normal, easy future.

Yep, that’s a lot of really wonderful things. So the question is really, how can I consider leaving them all behind?

The first thing I want to say is that leaving Earth doesn’t actually give all of those things up. Loved ones, for example: when I go to Halifax, I feel the love of my friends in Vancouver. They’re a part of me; they’re with me always. On Mars, I won’t be able to hug them or drink wine with them or talk in real time, but I will feel their bond and their support, and they will feel mine. Experiences of nature, for another. I know the feeling of the wind on my face and my hands on the drop bars, breathing fresh salty air as I ride my bike along the seawall. It’s a glorious feeling of joy that I’ve had countless times, and I can call it to mind clearly right now, as I write this in a friend’s living room with the shades drawn. All the experiences that I’ve enjoyed in my life, they’re a part of me; they’ll still be with me on Mars.

The second thing I want to say is that people get stuck focussing on this idea of ‘giving things up,’ and it prevents them from seeing the incalculable value of what I would be gaining. Playing a part in the most profound act of exploration in the history of our species, and potentially the birth of an entirely new society. It takes my breath away. It’s an opportunity that vastly, vastly outweighs the ‘everything’ list I started this post with. All of us want to be a part of something bigger than ourselves; I’ve spent several years now really questioning what my role is and how I contribute to the world around me. Well, if this were my role? Hell yeah, it just doesn’t get any bigger than that!

So far my application to go live on Mars has generated a couple of media interviews, with a third one on the way. Last week the first of them got published on the Globe and Mail’s website, and I have to say, I’m disappointed.

The phone interview I’d done lasted about twenty minutes, with the journalist asking me questions that were very much about short, sound-bite answers: superlatives and top-five lists. What are you most afraid of? What will be most difficult? What five personal items will you bring with you? What might make you change your mind about going? Some applicants want to go for adventure, some for idealism, some because they want to escape their lives on Earth; which category do you belong to? These questions got edited out of the article (thereby removing the context for my words), as did about 90% of the actual words I used for each answer, and maybe 70% of the important content. I’m guessing at those numbers, obviously: it’s an emotional reckoning, not real statistics.

I resist categories and I cannot give short answers, because I cherish the complexity of real life. To me each question could only be answered in several parts that come together like a vector diagram, and to focus on any one of those parts completely misses the sum total of the real answer. Granted, I’m not always as articulate as I’d like to be, perhaps that’s another reason why the words as published bear such little resemblance to my thoughts. Regardless, it frustrates and embarrasses me. But the only thing I can do about it is to try to express myself more clearly on these pages, where I can take the time I need to think through each issue.

So my plan is to get quite a bit more regular with blog posts, and do a series conveying my thoughts as a would-be Mars colonist. Stay tuned!

Photo Shoot

Had a wonderful time with Jean Cueta, an extremely talented young photographer I know who came and shot me waking up in the van one rainy morning in June. I felt like such a rock star! And I think she made me look like one too. Here are just a few of my favorite pics, go check out her blog to see the whole series.