(1/3) “Man fears time…”
(2/3) The eugenics of a Mars Colony.
It hurt me to write this. And I promise it will hurt to read this. I’ve been putting this off for several months, and I’m not sure I should have written it. Please consider this carefully before you continue.
The plan, the engineering and the form of the problem.
Elon Musk is planning on establishing a colony on the planet Mars (announcement video). He will attempt to send 1 million people.
There are many problems that have to be solved to make this possible. Many of them are technical: Access to clean water, power generation, and growing food. As difficult as they are, these problems are well-defined and well scoped.
In effect, he seems to be claiming that he and SpaceX will be able to construct an entirely new civilization from nothing but fine red dust. Even this, as absurd as it sounds, I would be willing to grant. Not just because of his track record, but because if the laws of physics don’t forbid it, we should assume that it can be engineered. Musk himself has talked about how some limits result from a lack of imagination about what’s possible. The trouble is knowing what limits are actually implied by physical principles.
There are other problems though, that aren’t as well defined. Who’s labor will make all of this possible? Elon hasn’t been able to shield the workers in his own factories from the weight of his ambitions. The value and the labor must come from somewhere, and the problems of power and exploitation have never been solved by anyone, anywhere, at any time in human history since agriculture.
So who will go to do the work of building this civilization out of the dust? It will fail without the presence of an underclass, like many of the first colonies in America before they began importing slaves like Baldwin’s nigger.
You don’t have to watch the entire video if you’re already familiar with Baldwin. It will help to understand my perspective here.
The socioeconomic pyramid, and its thermodynamic mode.
I need an aside here to clarify something. In the writing that follows I will treat phenomena at the city, country, and international scale interchangeably. This is deliberate, and I think order for this to make sense I have to assume the global economic system has a special property. Notice if we think of it as a kind of ecological energy pyramid, we can zoom in on parts of it and still have a pyramid – essential properties hold at any scale. For me to freely swap observations about behavior at different scales, though, I don’t think it’s strictly required to be a pyramid. It may only be required that the global economic system have scale invariance. This is part of why I think some methods from statistical physics that rely on that symmetry may be useful in understanding it, but that’s another subject. And there’s another thing which is very important: collective behaviors are not necessarily the linear sum, or average of individual behaviors. Normal human intuition totally fails at this. A community may have some kind emergent ‘intent’ all its own that grows out of individual behaviors in subtle and unpredictable ways.
I don’t think Musk is being entirely open about his motivations for going to Mars. He says he worries about asteroids, and other “eventual” extinction events, but his main concern is clearly human originated scenarios. Those other more astronomical events belong to some longer timescale that wouldn’t put his attempt to leave on such a short timetable.
Make careful note of the omissions:
Musk 1/21/2014: I think demographics is a real issue where people are not having kids in a lot of countries. Very often they say well we’ll solve it with immigration. Well immigration from where? If many parts of Europe have an average of 50 or 60% of what’s needed for replacement – or China for that matter – they’re at half replacement rate. Where exactly are we going to find 600 million people to replace the ones that were never born? I think people are gong to have to regard, to some degree, the notion of having kids as almost a social duty – within reason. If you can, if you’re so inclined, you should. Otherwise civilization will just die, literally.
The birthrate is inversely correlated to wealth, inversely correlated to education, and correlated to religion. So the more religious you are, the less educated, and the poorer you are the more kids you will have. And this is true between countries and within countries. In the U.S. the highest birthrate is in Utah, with the Mormons.
I think if you say what are the threats to civilization, the lack of people is obviously a threat to civilization. We are going to face in the mid part of this century – and particularly the latter part of the century – a demographic implosion the likes of which we haven’t seen including the Black plague. The math is obvious. When did China ever experience a 50% reduction in its population? Never. Basically pre-writing, because no one’s ever written of such a thing. Even the Black Plague – I think they might have [lost?] like a quarter, but never a half, yet Spain – birthrate of 50%. It’s as if someone went through and killed half of the population – or at least of the future population. There’s something better happen to turn this around. Otherwise, you have an inverted demographic pyramid and it’s going to – [gestures falling over] at this rate the only thing that will be left will be robots.
For a while I thought Musk intended to run away from the planet, like he ran away from South Africa. That he planned on leaving all of the human dross behind and remaking a world with what he believes are more worthy people. But his actual sentiments must be more complicated than that, and I can’t pretend to be able to read his mind.
When white Americans and Europeans make prognostications about the future, it is their habit not to take into account the agency of Africans, and other people of the global south. Their predictions usually reveal an implicit assumption that non-whites are some kind of mud people with no capacity for conscious thought or planning of their own . Often these countries are forgotten completely. But Elon Musk was born and raised under apartheid South Africa, a rapacious reader and fully aware of the world around him. He shouldn’t have this problem. This is why I think the omission was deliberate.
From the U.N. a few years ago (link):
The current world population of 7.2 billion is projected to increase by 1 billion over the next 12 years and reach 9.6 billion by 2050, according to a United Nations report launched today, which points out that growth will be mainly in developing countries, with more than half in Africa.
Musk omitted mention of Africa, and the years between now and this projected peak near 2050 because these years are the most dangerous. Before we have to deal with underpopulation, we will have to ask if the planet can support 10 billion people. I do not believe overpopulation itself is a problem – the problem has always been over-consumption. Birthrates are greater, as he says, for countries low in social development. But no country has ever advanced itself without a growth in externalities. For example in Brazil, the first among the emerging economies, deforestation of the Amazon burdens indigenous people with the costs of development, and overuse of water resources by industry and agriculture have created a dangerous situation for city-dwellers. Brazil’s birthrate has plummeted as it developed, and the education of women improved. But this was attended by a increase in externalities. These externalities may actually be a form of dissipation, required by the second law of thermodynamics, that richer communities and countries are privileged to be able to shove off onto poorer ones .
Eventually this process must end or transition to another regime – and not because the planet has an absolute carrying capacity. That is, not due to the population alone, but the product of population and per capita energy and resource consumption. The latter grows at a rate larger than the decay of the former as a country develops, so that what is gained by a drop in fertility is more than lost through modernization. The most developed countries are therefore the greatest burden, and their externalities eventually consume the whole globe. The people at the lowest tiers of the pyramid, assuming this notion of dissipation is correct, do not have a “heat sink.” At the bottom there isn’t anything unload costs on except the planet itself. Ruin, mainly through climate change follows.
And now in a bid to reach a higher position, people in many developing countries are immigrating to the wealthier countries that exploit their home lands. This effect, combined with the radical shift in the world population due to the wild incongruence in birthrates result in the present global racial tension, as racism is at the center of the process people use to create a moral pretense for systems of plunder. It is how privileged classes can maintain the absurd ideology that the poor owe the rich and not the other way around.
It is my view that the racism and nationalism of human beings virtually guarantees that they cannot withstand a such a rapid shift in the racial make-up of their countries without violence on a large scale. When you ask an American about over population, they are prone to say something that implies they think there are too many Chinese people alive, or that Hispanics have too many kids (offering no such concerns about Mormons). If I were to ask an Indian, I assume they’re liable to make some reference to people of lower caste, or Muslims. People who believe all human lives are of equal worth should recognize they are in the minority, or more likely be honest with themselves about what they are.
The people who voted for Brexit, Trump, and Le Pen know what they are, and they know what they don’t like. What they don’t like is this feeling that their countries are being taken over by people with colored skin. The basic process that is occurring now I have been anticipating for the last fifteen years, though my reasoning back then drew on personal biases from my own experience with people. I can’t express how heartbreaking it has been to realize the person I was ten years ago would have better anticipated the choice whites made in electing Trump, and I have felt myself a fool for having grown out of the slightest amount of cynicism. I used to joke about how easy it would be to Nazify the United States, and that when World War 3 began the U.S. would be the aggressor and its motivations would make the conflict indistinguishable from a race war . Americans have no armor against this, and repeating “this is not normal” won’t help: before the election Americans lived in a country with 20% of the world’s prison population, disproportionately black and brown (The New Jim Crow, Last Days of Solitary) and they were living with that like it was normal. It is a part of human adaptability to become accustomed (or willfully blind) to things that are horrifying(The fall of the third Reich).
Hans Rosling  suggested nothing short of a nuclear war would stop this population growth among the poorest billion, and we may yet have that. Even if apocalyptic maniacs like Steven Bannon and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi are removed from power, the forces that put them in place are so much greater. But I am still a fool, and it makes me happy to be wrong about these things.
The eugenics of a Mars Colony.
Now, what does Musk really believe about the future, given that he’s not saying everything? He isn’t hiding any white supremacist style racism. Musk is either
unaware of how profound a problem racism and nationalism are in the futures he’s talking about,
trying very hard to ignore and feign ignorance of them. Or
believes these problems are more easily solved than those he is working on.
He seems to be like a Trekkie in that he believes the magic of science fiction should be able to solve this problem, without the intervention of any actual science. I find it hard to believe that he could be as daft as the rest of his class; all of the evidence he’s left indicate he’s accepted the privilege of not having to deal with the issue. I believe most whites genuinely don’t understand it, but I believe he does understand it and has chosen silence.
Now it is a feature of systemic racism and class structure, being dependent global properties, that their effects are robust to many kinds of individual behavior. By that I mean the system’s organization alone reproduces a proximate cause, and that there’s some large class of individual motivations that all correspond to the same macroscopic behavior. It may be our curse to participate in systems whose emergent malice lies beyond the reach of our intentions. Though this is not to excuse the feedback loops that appear between leaders and constituents (The Color of Law, still need to read this one).
And this is how the escape to Mars will reproduce a kind of eugenics, which selects on the correlates of socioeconomic status. And I dare to say Musk has already made this observation. He knows that like Tesla’s cars, access to Mars will have to be rich people first. His claim of making it so everybody can go means everybody in the developed world who is not poor, especially white Americans (who have on average 16 times the wealth of black Americans). He may believe it is unavoidable that if we want to go to Mars at all, it will have to be done like this.
There is a dread implication here I hope you’ll be spared noticing. It may be the worst thought that has ever stained my mind. It is nearly unspeakable. I will not reference this implication further.
If he believes the wealthiest people can just leave Earth behind he is wrong. His actions seem to indicate that he does believe that. This is why it was necessary to write the pyramid post first. Because it directly attacks the core vanity that causes Americans to misapprehend their relationship to the rest of the world, and wealthy people of all countries to the working class(Coates). Their success is not independent of class stratification, it requires it. No society has yet been able to function in any other way, and without an alternative the colony will fail like our civilization here is failing.
Again, the Mars colony has as much chance of success as American colonies did before they started importing slaves. For the Mars colony to function, they would have to bring not just people who can afford to go, but also people who can’t afford to go, whose labor is made necessary by the exploitative thermodynamic mode of our societies.
We don’t get to run away from our problems. We face them and fix them, or else carry them with us wherever we go. Something fundamental about how humans live and relate to each other, our relationships as defined by flows of energy and resources have to be altered. And no one will escape without finally answering James Baldwin’s question, “Why was it necessary to have a nigger in the first place?” That the ruling class is terrified of this question and evaded it is the reason we are in this situation.
Most of us will remain on Earth, to deal with these problems and evolve as a species, if the laws of physics even allow it. To transcend the conditions of our lives or die. We are hurtling toward a singularity and flailing desperately for some guarantee of survival. This is humanity, in extremis.
(3/3) In Extremis. (soon)
- I was considering posting a review of I Am Not Your Negro, but it seems unnecessary (Dagmawi Woubshet, Cassie da Costa, Holly Genovese). I notice the movie has been called prescient and even ‘prophetic’, but those folks misunderstand. Baldwin was talking about his world and his time. It only sounds like prophesy because so little has changed. And really black folks have very little to learn from it, as beautifully as it elucidates and corroborates their testimony. White folks are having their worldview shaken (A.O. Scott) only because they’re so profoundly ignorant.(return)
- Or to take Steven Bannon and his favorite book as an example, these assumptions are just as often explicit and openly racist.(return)
- This may be easier to understand with an example at the city scale. It is necessary (to externalize costs) to have power plants and factories spew pollution into the air. Will the rich neighborhood tolerate this? Of course not – put the black folks downwind and let their children pay the price. This sort of thing happens in nearly every city in America. In this case, because some chemical process is occurring that brings matter from an organized state to a more disorganized one, namely that pollutants diffuse, it is clear that the avoided cost is a kind of dissipation. It is a separate claim, and harder to justify, that many of the social problems in poor communities(The Poisoned Generation) are also a kind of system state that takes in entropy produced by wealthier communities. I cannot justify the claim that this “dissipation” may be required by thermodynamics, and I don’t know how to predict a theoretical limit on it if it is required.(return)
- It doesn’t seem to be required that most Americans become racist for this to happen. There is a violent ethnonationalist core in the Republican party, and it is only required that they be allowed to act freely. These people are prepared to use violence to get what they want, but white moderates are not prepared to withstand violence on their own bodies to stop them. The lives of people of color just don’t matter enough. So white nationalists may escalate without response. The reaction to Black Lives Matter made it clear from whom most Americans will tolerate violence.(return)
- Has Rosling gave an incredibly simple breakdown of things seven years ago, if you need that. It is critical to remember the caveats he had to offer in that talk, which many cornucopians prefer to ignore. He said population might hold at 9 billion; the most recent projections are closer to 10 billion. We will never reach this number. Because consumption (in this ‘mode’) grows exponentially, and I find it hard to imagine an energy source that can grow at that rate.(return)
- I’m not going to entertain the suggestion that the plan may be to use AI and construct robots for labor and resource extraction. Although I consider it plausible Musk intends this, it’s better saved for a later post.
- There is going to be a major sex ratio problem that Musk doesn’t seem to have anticipated at all. And it seems his companies may have a sexism problem that the American media is trying to keep quiet about (the Gaurdian isn’t). Sometime soon one of the geniuses at SpaceX is likely to have an “Astonishingly good idea.”