Elon Musk is obsessed with going to Mars. Not just to visit. No, he wants to send a million people there. He wants regular flights, like a train leaving the station. Hop on, hop off. He wants to colonize.
If you don’t know who this guy is, you’ve been living in a cave. He’s the man behind Tesla’s electric cars, reuseable rocket ships that land vertically, Paypal and more, if his heart survives the stress of his high-voltage lifestyle. I just read a fascinating biography by Ashlee Vance that is incredible – he’s just getting started and he already has a well deserved biography that will need a new chapter added every 6 months.
I didn’t find anything in the biography strange. He’s a person who sees problems and likes to fix them – he can’t just sit there and watch people do things wrong. He is motivated by a central set of values we can all relate too – save the world from the evils of oil, overpopulation, and banking fees (seriously, banking fees are evil). But this Mars thing struck me as curious. As a child, Elon would build homemade model rockets and shoot them off. Not the Estes kits, I mean made-from-scratch rockets. So the trip to Mars, and the colonization of a new planet, seems to be the efforts of a man tapping into his inner child, something I urge all of us to do.
The inner child needs to be taken care of.
I’ve learned over the years that if there’s something from your childhood that resonated with you, that has stuck with you, that is deep inside and scratching to get out every day, you’ll never be free of that thing. You can’t suppress it. You can’t ignore it. You have to feed that longing rather than push it down. Meaning, do what you love, even if what you love originated when you were 10 years old. And from that depth you’ll find strength, passion, creativity, and success. And happiness, for that matter. People who stifle their inner child are miserable. How does that play out in practice? It means just follow your dream, even if that dream seems silly to other people. Love dogs? Become a vet. Love cars? Become a mechanic, or engineer, or driver. Your love of dogs or cars probably originated from a childhood experience, and that’s ok. That’s more than OK, that’s great. Go for it.
So Elon wants to build rockets. And go to Mars. But what does that mean? As a storyteller, I don’t see things as they are, but rather as they are interpreted. And it is we humans who infuse things with meaning. We turn ordinary objects into symbols, and use those symbols to push our ideology on others. We are at constant war over the meaning of things. Reading the brilliant book Story Wars (Winning the Story Wars by Johah Sachs) pushed that point home not long ago. This excellent review of the nature of modern mythmaking uses a bit from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero’s Journey but adds in some archetypal characters and core values to make a compelling case for the need to control narrative.
When a crack opens up in our myth, the floodgates open. Basically, our myths are ancient, and not designed to deal with the changes our world is experiencing. We can either reinterpret the old myths to fit our new endeavors (Elon is the new Noah? Or Moses? Or Satan?) or we can create new myths that suit ourselves. And that new myth becomes what in politics is called a wedge issue. It squeezes in between two established factions and forces you to take sides. And although many people don’t take Elon’s Mars colony seriously, we have to. Because he’s going to get there, and as it becomes real, we are going to have to understand what it means to leave earth. And whoever owns that narrative is going to own the history of the human race.
Whoever owns Mars owns humanity.
Seems dramatic, but that’s what’s going to happen. And I’m not talking about physical ownership of Mars. I mean the story of Mars. When we go to Mars, there will be no money, no nations, no history. It is a blank slate. And how we build the philosophical Mars is going to determine how we build every other human colony.
One day we’ll go beyond Mars, but the story we tell the children of Mars is going to be THE narrative that drives humanity onward.
Sachs provides ample illustrations in Story Wars. Marketers can either use the negative approach (you’re ugly, drink this and you’ll be pretty) or the empowerment approach (this product will help you reach your personal goal) when selling their brand. And the colonists of Mars are going to have to tell a story to their children, the story of Earth, the story of the planet they left behind. And they can use the negative model (humans were too greedy and irresponsible to protect Earth so we had to leave) or the positive model of empowerment. The only thing is, I couldn’t think of one good (and by good I mean positive) argument for leaving Earth. We’ve destroyed this planet. Greed has consumed us, and we’ve consumed ourselves. We’ve taken all the resources, killed the animals, and tossed the planet aside like a styrofoam cup. Is there any other narrative we can come up with to explain our exodus from the poisoned planet?
Then I met a guy from NASA named Sean Fuller. He’s the Moscow Director of Human Space Flight for the International Space Station, so he knows a thing or two about leaving Earth. More than a thing or two. He’s been keeping humans alive up in space for decades. He gave a talk at a university recently where he remarked that the best thing about space is that you can’t have politics involved. You just can’t. People will die. The temperatures are so extreme, the vacuum of space so unforgiving, you can’t squabble. You start arguing over water and electricity like we do on Earth, and people will die. Nations have to work together out of necessity, until at some point the nation just ceases to be important. The Mission takes precedent.
There are no borders on Mars.
The one thing that really resonated with me is when he said that when you look down on earth from the International Space Station, you can’t see any borders. All the borders are artificial. They’re all in our minds. All the wars and nationalism and horrors in the name of king and country are all illusions. And so that’s why I think Mars is significant. That’s why Mars matters. That’s why we need it. We need that vantage point to being again on a planet with no maps, on a world with no borders. We need to start from scratch and say “here on Mars, there will be no hunger, no poverty, no extortion, no nations. No past, only a future of cooperation and prosperity.”
We go to Mars not to tell the world that Earth is bad, but to tell the solar system that humanity is good. That we can shed our feuds and our nationality and move forward. That our step away from our home is a step of maturation, the first step of a child becoming an adult. Sure, we pooped in our diapers. That’s what kids do. But on Mars, we become the species we were meant to be. Not politics, no war, no money, no racism, no nationality. So while Elon may be embracing his inner child and making toy rockets, humanity must embrace its inner adult and get ourselves to Mars while there’s still a human race to save.