Let’s Not Blow Martian Civilization

We Should Start the Curriculum Funnel Now.

Tom Byers
Tom Byers
Mar 25, 2020 · 6 min read
Photo by Nicolas Lobos on Unsplash

Colonizing Mars is more than a dream. We have blueprints. Colonizing Mars is more than a plan. We have hardware. SpaceX has announced the goal of sending humans to Mars by 2024. We might be on the verge of a cosmic screw-up. Among the mistakes we could make:

Are they inevitable? Wrong question. There will be a rate of crime. There will be a prevalence of despair. There will be a degree of corruption. All these measurable phenomena can be increased or decreased by the way we build our institutions. Initial conditions, initial mistakes, will reverberate through history. We should prepare. We should colonize mindfully.

Does preparation mean that some council of eggheads should figure out the whole Martian culture ahead of time and put it in the SpaceX employee handbook? Of course not. It means we should provide resources to the colonists who will build the culture. Not directives, but resources. Information. They deserve the best information we can give them on topics like these ones:

Here’s the problem. These future colonists already have access to terabytes of information. They have the Internet. They have college degrees. As humans, they also have prejudices. What they don’t have is a nice, readable, one-volume, coffee-table bible entitled, “Here are the worst mistakes you are likely to make and the best ideas on how to avoid them.” We could call it the Mars Cultural Handbook.

How do we choose the topics, and how do we condense the knowledge? I propose a curriculum funnel. I propose a two-pronged system where experts and laypeople narrow down both the questions and answers. Coordinators of the effort would reach out to scientists and other experts to participate in an online winnowing process. Only experts would contribute the thousands of candidate articles and videos for the curriculum. Both laypeople and experts would vote.

Winning articles would emerge through several stages like a March Madness bracket. The Mars Cultural Handbook would include, say, three expert-top-picks and three layperson-top-picks on each topic. The lay participation would ensure that readability plays a role. It would also heighten public support for making our species multi-planetary, hence more resistant to extinction.

Nobody can say what the curriculum will look like or how much it will cost. My guess is that thousands of experts will compete free of charge for the honor of contributing to humanity’s future. Here are some thoughts on three topics almost sure to make the cut.

Conflict Resolution

Social science may seem primitive compared to physics, but there are some powerful and consistent discoveries that have stood the test of time. We humans are adept at what Gregory Bateson called schismogenesis, splitting ourselves into opposing factions. We know of at least two consistently effective ways to keep opposition from spiraling into violence. They are:

A recent example from Iraq demonstrates both principles. An experiment randomly assigned Christians, who were displaced by ISIS, to either an all-Christian or a mixed Muslim-Christian team in a soccer league. Those Christians who joined mixed teams scored higher on attitudes and behaviors that favored coexistence. Improvements ranged from speaking well of Muslims to patronizing their restaurants. Struggling alongside teammates to win games and championships bonded these players even where conflict beyond the stadium had been extreme.

Another recent example is Cure Violence. They send “interrupters” to serve as bridges between contending groups. They mobilize communities to rally around the goal of “changing norms.” With the added twist of a contagious disease model for understanding violence, they are achieving staggering success in cities around the world.

Economic Development

Conservative and Liberal economists share a foundation of belief. They think that people’s earnings ought to reflect the value they add to the economy. The technical way of putting yourself to sleep with their theory is that factors of production return the marginal value of their products. You can wake up now and accept the shortcut that supply and demand will shape incomes.

Beyond this broad agreement, the old joke holds that if you line up every economist in the world end-to-end they will never reach a conclusion. After Peter McClelland wrote “The American Search for Economic Justice” I asked him if anyone had ever credibly measured how close we come to the ideal. The answer then was nobody. The answer is still nobody. The most important sleepy sentence in history has never been put to a serious scientific test that experts can agree upon.

Economics is an unusual science in its inability or unwillingness to settle a very old and very important argument. The profession does not agree whether Conservatives like Hayek and Friedman or Liberals like Keynes and Galbraith are closer to the truth. So the jury is out on whether the economic playing field is tilted more toward CEOs or union workers. In cases like this one, where the top experts disagree on a critically important issue, the Mars Cultural Handbook should present both sides.

Interfaith Cooperation

Star Trek shaped a lot of people’s imagination of the future. Its creator, Gene Roddenberry, set guidelines including the absence of religion. Writers often found their way around that guideline. SpaceX, NASA and others shy away from discussing religion. Atheists and agnostics among them may expect religion to take a back seat. They will be surprised.

Christians will go to Mars. Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Sikhs, Taoists, Shintoists and Zoroastrians will go to Mars. We the humans of the new frontier will sense a depth to our existence and shall yearn for purpose in our lives. The apprehension of divinity, the need for deep connection and the dialectic between sacred and profane will all go to Mars with us. So will a few demons. God might already be there.

The question is whether each faith community will celebrate and worship only within its own boundary or will sometimes join the rest in ceremonies to recognize the value of the whole people. That question is huge. Spiritual bonds are primal. Very few societies have disavowed religion. The Mbuti and the Soviet Union come first to mind. A religion-free Martian colony is way against the odds. Don’t plan on it.

Earth has many initiatives for interfaith dialogue, among them: Charter for Compassion, Interfaith Alliance and Parliament of the World’s Religions. Leaders among them could propose rites, prayers and activities to be shared by any colonists who wish to participate. These proposals could funnel through the same online winnowing process as topics like conflict resolution. We can choose winners the same way.

Beyond Mars

We only get to build a first colony once. How we succeed or fail will echo through the generations. The first colonists are among us now. One day we will wake up and the planets will feel close.

With our help, colonists will choose what knowledge to prioritize, what wisdom to center upon and what artwork to take with them. With luck and skill they will avoid dystopian consequences like those imagined in The Expanse and other great science fiction.

What if SpaceX keeps to its optimistic schedule? How far away is 2024? Should we start the long process of preparation now?

The first step to setting up a curriculum funnel is to convince a key decision-maker. That person may be in government or the private sector. Does anybody know somebody who knows Elon Musk? Why not bring this idea to his attention in a serious way? Send him a link.

About the Author

Tom earned a doctorate in anthropology with specializations in ethnic relations and psychological anthropology. He occupied a variety of management positions in the private sector. He served as regional director for a public-private management consulting initiative. Tom has taught a variety of college-level courses and helped MBA program candidates prepare for entry into their chosen curricula. His science fiction poetry has appeared in print as well as here at Medium.

In other words, Elon, he has the precise qualifications for the as-yet non-existent position of Civilization Progress Facilitator. You will find his phone number and additional details in a trash can in your Talent Acquisition Department at SpaceX. Check the junk email folder as well. Don’t blame the talent team; resume-rejection algorithms reject anybody with too many past jobs. Please note that Tom was not responsible for the three companies going out of business or the other company imploding after losing a billion dollar lawsuit. He has been available since day one of the pandemic lockdown. He would LOVE to work for you. 😁


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