Imagine our planet sends out a colony ship, to colonize some distant planet. It’s flying at near light speed, but the journey is still expected to take about 300 years; time dilation effects on the ship mean shipboard it’s only, say, 150 years – 5 or 6 generations. While the ship is speeding to its destination, development continues on earth, and about 100 years after launch they discover faster-than-light travel. By the time the colony ship reaches its destination the planet has already been colonized, populated, developed and matured. The colonists arrive to a huge party, to discover their mission was pointless.

If you were one of the middle-aged residents of that colony ship, would you be happy with the society that sent your great-grandparents out into the dark? You spent your entire youth and young adulthood in a tin can, for nothing except the promise that soon – in your lifetime – you would arrive at a new world and have the chance to make a unique contribution to human history. Instead, some bunch of cosseted earth-siders got their first, because they had the good fortune to be born 200 years later. Your contribution becomes a footnote, for which you waited 40 years in the freezing dark, drinking your own piss.

Crooked Timber has an interesting discussion about the viability of colonizing interstellar space, started from one of John Quiggin’s economists’ assumptions. In amongst all the technical jiggery-pokery about giga-joules and the Great Filter, a few people have pointed out the moral bankruptcy of colony ships, based on the simple and obvious fact that the children are being born into a tin can, and have no way out. Thinking about this at the gym (which, presumably for weight purposes, a colony-ship wouldn’t have), it occurred to me that the moral issues associated with colonization are getting a lot more real than those discussed in the Crooked Timber post, and that we need to be aware of a serious risk of moral hazard, and of serious ethical challenges, in our lifetime. I speak, of course, of the Mars One private mission to Mars.

Mars One and moral hazard

Mars One aims to settle up to 40 humans on Mars by 2025, on a one way mission. The mission will be financed by some kind of Big Brother style TV show documenting the (no doubt fascinating) process of colonizing Mars. The settlement is intended to slowly develop, even to ultimately be able to expand using local materials – hopefully to even build a dome of some kind large enough to grow trees. But it is likely that for the foreseeable future it will be dependent on supplies from Earth, and that these supplies will be coming through the parent company – which is financing itself through the sale of research opportunities and the TV options. For a few years this seems like a pretty viable source of income, but people will get bored of the Mars TV, and anyway we don’t know what will happen to that parent company. This all raises the very real possibility that the company will fail, at which point those people on Mars are ostensibly going to be cut off from their supplies. There is also the possibility that they will breed out there in the Red, and that their children won’t be happy about their birth situation. Which raises two scenarios demanding attention from the people of earth:

  1. The company goes bust, and suddenly the task of supplying those 40+ people (80 if the adults have been breeding efficiently) falls on … who? A government will have to step in and bail out those people, because no one on Earth is going to tolerate the possibility that 40 or more people in the world’s first ever interstellar colony will starve to death because of a corporate bankruptcy. This project is too hope-y to fail. Once the company gets those shmucks onto Mars, the rest of the world is going to be basically strong-armed by morality and sentiment into backing the project no matter what. And given that currently there are only three groups – NASA, ESA and Russia – capable of getting stuff to Mars, this means it will be Europe, the USA and Russia that foot the bill if anything goes wrong. This is classic moral hazard, banker bailouts on an interstellar scale (if not financial magnitude): the private company raises a couple of billion bucks to sink into a stupid high-risk project and then, when it collapses, for reasons not predicted by the regulatory authorities, it can’t be allowed to go down.
  2. The company continues, and the settlement is a success, but the Children of Mars decide they would like to swim in the sea. They point out to their earthbound cousins that they didn’t ask to be born in a Mars colony and they would like to go home. If the original company is gone under this problem will be even more pronounced: not only is the ESA and NASA supplying the adults, but now the kids point out (quite reasonably) that they want out of their squalid little collection of domes. But nobody has the means to get them out. That wasn’t planned for. To get them out, space agencies will have to send the component parts for a rocket, then the fuel, and the folks on Mars will have to assemble that rocket, and with no option for test flights, the kids will hop on and come back to Earth. That’s a hideously expensive project, but someone on Earth is going to have to foot the bill and it’s going to be very hard to deny that responsibility. Of course, once the kids start going back, the adults will demand the same right. Which means that Earth has to either tell them – we’ll keep supplying you till you die, in a society with no children (who’s going to care for you?), or “sure, you made this decision 20 years ago when you were young and stupid, but we’ll bail you out now.” That’s classic moral hazard.

You can see the way this will play out on earth, but in case 2) it is possible that the original inventors of the project will be dead. No one will even be around to be angry at. And, in a really visceral way, no one is going to be able to say no. Of course one can imagine other scenarios: imagine that the first settlement was made by the USA under Kennedy, and they were willing to spend 2% of their GDP on it; 40 years and a couple of financial crises later, with an increasingly oligarchical and corrupt government, suddenly Americans have a huge public debt and a weird resistance to growing more, their economy is declining, economic power is shifting east – but they still have to commit to sending supplies to That Stupid Colony. The kids of the new era might think they had been shackled with an unreasonable burden (“we could spend that money on Obamacare”) but of course, their choices about it are restricted to either abandoning the colony to starve, or paying some fantabulous amount of money to bring them back. This is hardly a fair choice to saddle your grandkids with. And of course, the original colonists are the people who made the stupid choice to go there, but even if you made them pay they wouldn’t be able to – no human being can work off a debt that size.

Note also the costs of supply will escalate if there are unforeseen medical problems associated with low gravity: then money will have to be sunk into solving the problem, and not by the company that sent them up there. And who is going to educate the kids? That is usually a state responsibility, but no one is going to be setting up a school on Mars. A solution will have to be found based on some kind of school of the air.

But there are other, unpleasant moral issues that will arise in the future of such a colony.

The morality of forced interstellar stardom

Mars One aim to pay for their project through some kind of television project, that will start from 2025. No doubt for a short time this will be hugely popular, but after a few years of watching people wandering around in a couple of inflatable domes the viewers are going to get tired. Revenues will decline. The company will have growing costs though, as the colony needs supplies to feed more members. What will the company do? It might be able to make up the shortfall in research services (“you want to investigate that crater? We’ll send a rover”) but there will be a limit to this, and of course as they try to sell more research services the price will go down. So then, naturally, they will begin to try to make the TV show more appealing. And how are they going to do that?

Zero-G porn.

Of course, for starters they’ll use the usual run of Big Brother-style offerings: stupid game shows, conflict, diary-room confessions, titillating shower scenes (well, maybe not, on Mars). But this will pale after a few years, and we all know what will happen next. Pressure will be brought to bear. Things will be done. People’s relationships will be laid bare. The failing relationships will be filmed; the young couples getting together; people’s most private moments. And the colonists will face an unpleasant choice: the person who supplies your water is telling you you need to make your tv show more “appealing” by doing X. Will you refuse? Probably not. And then, of course, there will be children in all this. Will they even be told about the cameras? At some point they will realize that all their earliest years of development were being filmed against their will by some arseholes a billion kms away, and watched by a million more arseholes. When they come of age, into their tiny domed town of 100 people, they’re probably going to have some righteous wrath saved up.

What will they do? What should we do about what they’re going to do, what has been done to them? When these kids, who have never been to a prom (but have seen prom-date movies), who have never been to a nightclub (but have watched music videos), who have a choice of, like, 6 partners (but have watched a thousand rom-coms) demand to return to a land with trees and standing water, what are the people on earth going to say to them? “We enjoyed watching you grow up on a strange planet, but we can’t afford to have you back”?

What does a riot look like, in a domed city made of plastic on a world with no atmosphere?

There is also, of course, the endless possibility for horror in this settlement. Suppose a dome blows, and the usual emergency systems don’t work properly: the colony loses its farm section, and no matter how hard we try we can’t get the food to them in time because it’s physically impossible. There’ll be no eating grass roots and insects and watching children with swollen bellies but knowing a precious few will survive, like Ethiopia in the 1980s. Everyone will have the certain knowledge that they will die. Will we be forced to watch as they turn to cannibalism? Who will turn off the tv feed? What if they have a broadcast installation? Then the videos will be going up on youtube no matter what the company does, and anyone with a dish will be able to see the sordid terrible end of our first stellar mission. We can all imagine hundreds of similar scenarios, and all of them on film by design.

Preparing for the moral hazard of Mars One

It’s not looking likely that anyone is going to ban Mars One, but it seems to me that as a society we need to come up with a plan for what will happen as a result of it. This isn’t Jonestown or even Greenland in the 15th century: whether we as individuals agree with the project, once it is in place on Mars we will all be watching it and cheering it on. Which means that we need to recognize that there is a risk that things will go wrong, and future generations – or us, in 30 years time – will have to bail out at enormous cost a project which was marginal from the beginning. I think governments need to find a way to prepare for that, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to suggest that the first step in that preparation is to make Mars One think about the future. At the very least, some of the capital they raise needs to be put aside against eventualities. Some possible uses for a Mars wealth fund include:

  1. Simple investment, to ensure that by the time things go wrong there is a stock of money available to finance special projects
  2. Trust funds for the kids. They’re going to want stuff, and we’re going to need to provide it, so we should prepare
  3. Funding directly to government-run space research projects, especially projects for deep space propulsion and Mars exploration. If the funds are used to develop alternative ways of getting to and living on Mars, it improves the options for those people in the future
  4. Contingency funds for if the Mars population grows too fast
  5. Profits could be invested in sending extra supplies to Mars, to build redundancy and stockpiles

With mechanisms like this in place, bailouts will be less costly, and there will be insurance against risk.

Laws also need to be passed. Governments need to look very carefully at the contracts these colonists are signing, and add clauses about the rights of colonists to refuse new entertainment demands, and the way that those contracts might extend (or be inferred to extend) to children. Anything involving porn or cam-girl type stuff needs to be carefully discussed. Some kind of dispute resolution system is going to be necessary, possibly even independent oversight. Imagine, for example, that a Mars colonist is being pressured to do some semi-nude stuff, but doesn’t want to: what options does he have to resolve that? What if the company refuses him access to a workplace rights lawyer? The company at the very least should be forced to establish an independent communications system, guaranteed by government, so that people on Mars can have a reliable and independent way to contact friends, relatives and conciliation bodies. Otherwise they will essentially be slaves.

I don’t think any of this has been considered.

Are Mars One taking the piss?

I’m noting that there is an application fee of between $5 and $75 for potential Martians, and they are hoping to recruit a million applicants. If the Mars One people are planning to fold before the project is initiated they will make a lot of money. It seems like a lot of aspects of this project are going to run on a very tight deadline, and haven’t been thought through. Is it possible that the whole thing is a get-rich-quick scheme that is never going to see reality? It seems very possible to me. But if not, we as a society need to be thinking very carefully about what we want to tolerate up there, and how we’re going to manage the ethical challenges and moral hazards of a private initiative to colonize Mars.

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