New World Same Humans #54

Elon Musk says Mars is the next frontier. But the true frontiers of the 2020s are within us.

Welcome to New World Same Humans, a weekly newsletter on trends, technology, and society by David Mattin.

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A short note this week. There are two reasons; one personal and one interplanetary.

First, I took a few days off for my birthday. Even a newsletter obsessive has to live a little 🎉

Second, NASA’s Perseverance became the fifth rover to land on Mars. Looking at the pictures it beamed back to Earth, and given the otherworldly weirdness of the year we’ve just lived through, it felt a good moment to pause and reflect.

Mars has long served, at least in the cultures of the Global North, as a token that stood for the other, or alien. A symbolic frontier land.

What does that mean to New World Same Humans? This newsletter is about modernity and our journey through it. And modernity, or our version of it in any case, has always depended on our belief in the frontier. The great advances of modernity were made possible by the location and exploitation of other lands and people who we conceptualised as somewhere out there, in a faraway place. A place that we wanted to believe was beyond the realm of consequences.

Fast forward to 2021. Via technological modernity we have, in all kinds of ways, hit up against the limits of our planet. A climate crisis is unfolding. We know we must constrain ourselves or exhaust our home. These new circumstances have brought home a radical truth, moral as well as practical. There never were any frontiers here on Earth. There was never an out there. There’s only us.

Amid that truth, the Perseverance landing. After a year spent locked in our houses, here are photographs of a radical outside. A glimpse, a possibility, of a new kind of frontier.

As recently as 2012, when NASA’s Curiosity rover landed on Mars, the idea of the Red Planet as a practical frontier still seemed outlandish. Today, not so much.

In 2021 we’re in the grip of a new story about Mars, modernity, and frontiers. The billionaire technoguru Elon Musk tells us that humans can one day build a new home on the planet. Musk says he hopes to populate Mars with 1 million people by 2050; the earliest settlers will live in glass biodomes, he says, before terraforming the Martian environment so that it can support life. Meanwhile Jeff Bezos, Musk’s rival in the billionaire space race, talks of 1 trillion humans living throughout the Solar System.

Some argue that space exploration is a waste of money, given all the expensive problems we have here on Earth. It’s a compelling argument, but I’m not so sure. We humans are spiritual, as well as material, beings. And if the human spirit is not expanding, it is dying. We need big stories. Pushing out into space can help us tell them.

But if that project becomes another fantasy of unlimited power and control, and of endless expansion without consequence, then it will undo us. Perhaps we will one day build meaningful human settlements on Mars and other planets. But our first design when it comes to the billions we spend on space exploration should be something else. Not a new home, but a renewed clarity when it comes to our life on this one.

That is the true prize on offer. The message that Perseverance is beaming back to us from Mars, if only we would hear it, is that the frontiers of the 2020s lie not in some great beyond, but within us.

What does that mean in practice?

We should seize the unique chance we now have to come together around post-pandemic moonshots on poverty, global public health, and education. And most of all we must reorient our relationship with modernity, so that it is founded not in a vision of endless growth, but one of balance. That means a relentless drive towards clean energy, and new ways to recognise and support the domains of human life that exist outside the traditional economy.

The new world we need to build is right here. We just need to see it.

That imperative – to see the world as it is today and might be tomorrow – is what New World Same Humans is all about. Our community is founded in the belief that we don’t have to leave our shared future to the powers that be. And that we can come together to supercharge one another in our efforts to envision, and build, a better tomorrow for all.

We’re just getting started. Thanks for being a part of the journey.

I’ll be back as usual on Wednesday with news and analysis in New Week Same Humans. Until then, be well,

David.