Tere are good reasons to worry about the future of humanity. Do we have a future, and if so, how much and what kind? For most people, it’s easier to feel these existential concerns for our species than it is to do something about them. But some are taking action. On 27 September 2016, the SpaceX founder Elon Musk made a bold, direct claim: that, in order to survive an inevitable extinction event, humans would need to ‘become a space-faring civilisation and a multi-planetary species’. Pulses raced and the media swooned. Headlines appeared in the business and technology press about Musk’s plan to save humanity. Experts and laypeople alike debated details of the rockets, spacecraft and fuel needed for Musk’s journey to Mars. The excitement was palpable, and it was evident at the press conference. During the Q&A that followed the announcement, Musk said that his goal was to inspire humanity. One audience member yelled: ‘[Musk] inspires the shit out of us!’ Another offered him a kiss.
Musk’s plan to colonise Mars is a sign of an older and recurring social problem. What happens when the rich and powerful isolate themselves from everyday concerns? Musk wants to innovate and leave Earth, rather than to take care of it, or fix it, and stay. Like so many of his peers in the innovating and disrupting classes, Musk prefers to dwell in fantasy and science fiction, safely removed from the world of here and now. Musk is a utopian, in the original Greek meaning: ‘no place’. Repulsed by the world we all share, he dreams of a place that does not exist.
Lucianne Walkowicz, an astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago and a critic of the ‘hubris’ of using Mars as a ‘backup planet’, puts this point simply and directly: ‘The idea that Mars will somehow save us from the decisions we’ve made is a false one.’ If we ‘truly believe in our ability to bend the hostile environments of Mars for human habitation, then we should be able to surmount the far easier task of preserving the habitability of the Earth.’
Musk’s plan is, of course, not to save the Earth. Rather, he needs an excuse to justify his outrageous plan to colonise Mars, and so he appeals to the preservation of, in his word, ‘humanity’. But Musk’s concept of humanity excludes most living and breathing humans. In his September 2016 announcement, he declared that a fully self-sustaining civilisation on Mars would need around 1 million people. From Earth’s current population of 7.125 billion, the Musk Million would bring 0.014035087719298244 per cent of it to Mars.
We are surprised that Musk’s plan has drawn only limited critical engagement. Most of the critical response has been to his technical assumptions and plans. We understand the many reasons that compel people to set aside practical concerns – Earthly concerns, as the case may be – and to support plans to explore and colonise Mars. The thirst for adventure, to reach for the stars, and to pursue the sublime is worthy, perhaps commendable. Even a dedicated activist such as the Rev Abernathy, who protested NASA’s launch in 1969, was overcome by a sense of awe. When he watched Apollo 11 take flight, he ‘really forgot the fact that we had so many hungry people’.
Who are we to tell Musk – or any private citizen, for that matter – what he should or shouldn’t do with his money? In US society, to question societal norms of conspicuous consumption, no matter how juvenile or vain, is frowned upon. Musk’s million-dollar McLaren sports car could buy more than 345,000 meals for the hungry. But it is up to Musk to make his decisions about his resources, not us. Our criticism comes in part from Musk’s position as a leader and role model. And we are sure he has failed in this regard.
We are his fellow citizens, fellow humans, and we don’t want people to follow in the direction Musk is leading. He could lead others to help those suffering now, to get involved in addressing the actual problems before us. There’s no shortage of them. If Musk prefers the planetary scale of action, he could lead people to preserve our single planetary resource, also known as Earth, the only planet we will probably ever have. Even on Musk’s own optimistic terms, his adolescent space fantasies will benefit only 0.014 per cent of humanity. He makes the politicians who serve the 1 per cent seem like communists.