Shouldn’t We Fix Poverty Before Migrating to Mars?

Migration is the story of my life: my parents and grandparents journeyed across four continents to flee war and find jobs, eventually finding their way to the US. And yet I am disturbed by a deeply troubling part of today’s migration story: collectively, we celebrate entrepreneurs’ attempts to migrate to space while tens of millions of people, desperate to escape despicable conditions, walk, swim, and sail their way through migrant purgatory here on Earth.

The film Elysium portrayed a deeply divided futuristic civilization in which the haves reside on a pristine, perfectly designed space colony and the have-nots are stuck on Earth, which has devolved into a giant slum. This is a typical storyline these days, but in the case of Elysium, this chasm goes beyond fiction: both the space colony and slum scenes were filmed in Mexico City. Elysium is us, and not in some abstract, Avatar-type way in which Hollywood presents a vaguely fictionalized, generalized, and CGI-enhanced version of a classically marginalized group; Elysium is literally us. Inequality has so engulfed one of our largest cities that it takes a film about space colonization by a talented director troubled by its social consequences to help us see this.

Two articles in The New Yorker this week discuss this bizarre reality in slightly different ways, and made me think about how the current migration problem and our obsession with getting to Mars are linked.

Modern Pilgrims — Here on Earth

George Packer’s reflections, posted nine hours ago on NewYorker.com, made me weep. The Rohingya, stateless Muslim migrants from Burma drifting around the Andaman Sea, are part of a brave class of people willing to risk everything in search of a better life. Psychologist John Gartner argued in a 2011 book that the large number of entrepreneurs in the US has a genetic basis: only those who can tolerate unusually high levels of uncertainty and risk would brave the perilous trek across oceans to arrive here. It’s why our nation has what he calls the “hypomanic edge.”

So these boat people are basically the Mayflower pilgrims of our time, trying to find a decent life for their families. They should be heralded as heroes. Instead, they are criminals.

Our hero titles are reserved for entrepreneurs like Elon Musk and Richard Branson who transform enormous sums (about $1B for SpaceX and $500M for Virgin Galactic) into machines designed to carry us toward a future as an interplanetary species.

Elizabeth Kolbert summarizes a few recent books on the subject, quoting Musk: “Are we on a path to becoming a multiplanet species or not? If we’re not, well, that’s not a very bright future. We’ll simply be hanging out on Earth until some eventual calamity claims us.”

Kolbert points out that given present trends, the “eventual calamity” is more likely to be man-made than not, and if this is the case, it’s our complex web of social systems that needs changing, not our geolocation. A species that can’t halt the destruction of its own habitat, violence and poverty (the three biggest near-term causes of mortality and morbidity), isn’t going to be saved by more real estate.

Humanity’s Biggest Problems Start at Home

I attended a dinner discussion a few years ago in Atherton featuring Larry Page and Elon Musk. A small group of Silicon Valley technology leaders attended. I felt out of my depth, but forced myself to ask a question that might elicit patronizing glances. It did.

What would it take to get visionaries like them deeply engaged in the real problems of humanity — poverty, mass incarceration, violence against women — that, because of market failures, don’t offer much money to their solvers?

I was expecting them to discuss market-based solutions, prizes like those the X Prize Foundation and Innocentive are putting up. Prize models have worked well to divert private capital to public solutions, like vaccines.

Instead, Elon looked at me with a grin and said, “I’m not sure poverty is such a problem. I grew up in South Africa and now live near Beverly Hills. The housewives in my neighborhood are certainly more miserable than the kids I saw playing in the townships growing up. It’s relative.”

I was so shaken by the absurdity and apocryphal nature of his comments that I didn’t respond for a few minutes. To his credit, Larry did, laughing and pointing out how wrong his friend was. Study after study has demonstrated, through methods like cortisol testing and massive surveys, that suffering from poverty is only relative above a certain baseline — below this baseline, poverty absolutely causes human suffering. Denying this basic fact is denying the human worth of several billion people on our planet.

Elon Musk is no doubt a visionary. The race to build an interplanetary civilization is a seemingly noble one. But if we don’t focus now on creating a civilization worth spreading, a civilization that lifts up the lowest among us to enjoy the basic benefits of humanity, it’s a race that’s not worth entering, a race that ends just as it began: in Elysium.

Leila Janah is the CEO and Founder of Samasource, a non-profit data services company that operates in East Africa, South Asia and Latin America, and its parent nonprofit, Sama Group. She is based in San Francisco. You can sign up for updates from Leila here.
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