Mars Is Overrated and Going There Isn’t Progress

I am a techno-optimist at heart. Although it is difficult, I believe that we can engineer our way out of a lot of problems. I believe that internet has democratized education. I believe that social media has helped demystify authorities and establishment media. I believe that, if we play our cards right, the proliferation of automation could lead to a world of abundance and equality.

Tech, science, and engineering have done a lot. It hasn’t been all perfect, but rather than slowing down, I believe our solution is to build and progress more.

This does not, however, mean that I will kiss the feet of the futurist-demigods of our tech culture. I will not subsist on soylent. I will NEVER let Elon Musk put a chip in my brain. I refuse to believe anyone’s “consciousness” will ever be uploaded to a computer. And, most of all, I will not fetishize going to Mars.

My belief has little to do with whether we can deal with the technological challenges of getting there. The space blindness, radiation, and general desolation of the planet are all daunting, but it seems possible that we will be able to overcome a lot of these problems. In general, I’m not convinced terraforming will work, but, as a species, we are typically good at adapting to living in barren, unforgiving places.

Instead, my problem is opportunity cost.

Every brain cell and every dollar spent trying to make sense of getting to Mars is energy that is not going towards improving the welfare of our own planet, or, better yet, improving the lives of the billions of people who live on Earth and will likely never have the chance to consider life anywhere else.

Going to Mars is mostly just the science fiction dream of our techno elites. Many billionaires have poured billions into their respective space ventures with the ultimate goal of getting to Mars. On the private dime, I’m not sure what to think. I would never want anyone to be forbidden to spend their money this way, but I still can’t pretend like it’s worth it.

I can’t begin to convince myself that it’s a good thing that our current levels of wealth inequality have enabled tech founders to not only capture unimaginable portions of global wealth, but to also have the opportunity to spend it on pet projects that have uncertain benefits for human wellbeing.

However, there are some good arguments on the other side.

For instance, you often hear people like Neil deGrasse Tyson arguing for publicly funded space exploration because it has positive side effects on technological innovation. The space program gave us tons of innovations in computation, electronics, aeronautics, and materials science that have undoubtedly improved the lives of many. But isn’t it a little unusual to argue for something for it’s uncertain side effects rather than it’s actual purpose?

If a doctor offered you a $10,000 dollar pill for stomach pain that might also have the side effect of helping you lose weight, would you take it? Of course not! Fixing stomach aches for $10,000 isn’t worth it and there are cheaper ways to lose weight. This is the logic we are supposed to accept from Mars proponents. We are supposed to invest billions in Mars exploration because it might give us better tech.

Another common argument is built on hedging existential risks to future humans. Meteors, nuclear proliferation, and climate change (oh my) could make earth uninhabitable, and, if we want to secure the welfare of billions of possible future people, then it may be necessary to secure the technology to be able to colonize Mars.

Maybe this sounds more convincing. After all, would you ever question someone who uses the term “existential risk”?

The “existential risk argument” is unconvincing for the same reason that the “side effect argument” is: it tries to tell you to go to Mars rather than deal directly with the primary issue. Don’t try to prevent risks to earth, instead give up on it. Don’t try to directly improve technology, instead hope that it will all get better if we sink billions into Space.

The only argument I care about is that you just think it’s cool. That’s fine. I get that there’s some human urge to explore and conquer. I get that Mars just seems interesting.

I also have my own biases. I have a deep love for the planet. I’m blown away by it’s natural beauty and I have equally inexplicable urges to defend it all costs. Those urges may be similar to the urges of the Mars-fanatic to leave the planet. That’s also fine.

I have friends who have visited the Grand Canyon and just don’t care. I took my sister on a hike to see Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, and she said “yeah I don’t know, I just think it’s kind of boring.”

My frustration with Mars exploration comes partly from the opportunity cost of money not going towards securing the welfare of our already beautiful planet. If that’s not for you, I get it. I won’t police your thoughts on that, and if you don’t think that Delicate Arch is majestic, I think you’re wrong, but I won’t try to convince you.

The argument I will stand by, though, is the broader issue of funding Mars-anything while poverty and inequality still persist.

Isn’t it insulting to the 730 million people experiencing abject poverty that a few men can capture the wealth of massive countries and then use that money to fund rockets while others starve?

And so, I will end it here.

“A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face and arms began to swell.
(and Whitey’s on the moon)

I can’t pay no doctor bill.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)
Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.
(while Whitey’s on the moon)

The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)
No hot water, no toilets, no lights.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)

I wonder why he’s uppi’ me?
(’cause Whitey’s on the moon?)
I was already payin’ ‘im fifty a week.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Taxes takin’ my whole damn check,
Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck,
The price of food is goin’ up,
An’ as if all that shit wasn’t enough

A rat done bit my sister Nell.
(with Whitey on the moon)
Her face an’ arm began to swell.
(but Whitey’s on the moon)

Was all that money I made las’ year
(for Whitey on the moon?)
How come there ain’t no money here?
(Hm! Whitey’s on the moon)
Y’know I jus’ ‘bout had my fill
(of Whitey on the moon)
I think I’ll sen’ these doctor bills,
Airmail special
(to Whitey on the moon)”

Written by

Math Teacher writing on Philosophy and Policy and Science and Education and Other Things. coreykeyser@gmail.com

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