Mars viewed through spacecraft window

Elon Musk Needs a (Better) Plan for His Martian Civilization

By Sarah Ruth Bates

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Science Stories: The Art of Scientific Storytelling

Series Introduction by Alison Hawthorne Deming

Science Stories showcases the impressive literary work done by graduate students who participated in the first run of “The Art of Scientific Storytelling,” a new course I taught in Spring 2020 at the University of Arizona. The course, developed in collaboration with my Creative Writing program colleague Christopher Cokinos, was eligible for credit in the new Graduate Certificate in Science Communications offered by the College of Science. Its aim was to inspire creative works that were science-smart, works that might enhance science literacy among readers. The class read contemporary writers who covet the perspectives of science and the personal stories of scientists who write for non-technical audiences. We read memoirs, essays, op-eds, and poetry. We read works inspired by chemistry, astronomy, paleobiology, traditional indigenous knowledge: Primo Levi, Hope Jahren, Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Jamie, Alan Lightman, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Maggie Nelson, among others. The students came from a range of disciplines including optical science, astronomy, geography, climate adaptation, hydrology, mathematics, speech pathology, and creative writing. The conversations were rich and the talent abundant. They surprised me each week with their inventive and insightful takes on writing assignments. We offer this showcase of our experiment in the meeting of art and science.

The Noah’s Ark story has always bothered me. God decides that the world is broken and needs to start over, so He loads up a boat with all the animals and one family of humans, floods the earth, drains it, and presses “go.” (Metaphorically, just imagine the Silicon Valley bropreneur version of God, in His hoodie and jeans and Allbirds, sipping His green juice). The World 2.0 is supposed to run better than the beta version. But God hasn’t done any debugging. He’s running the same code again, expecting a different result. Why should Noah’s descendants behave any differently than the first round of people? (Evidence: they are us, and we didn’t.)

We’re past the age of hand-of-God interventions, and no one seeing a burning bush has been widely hailed as a prophet in thousands of years—but a certain bropreneur is planning a new world for human beings. Elon Musk wants to put a million people on Mars by 2050.

Musk has styled himself the Elizabeth Warren of the cosmos: he has a plan. His website,, depicts a series of sleek, phallic objects pirouetting through CGI skies. An embedded video is titled, Making Life Multiplanetary. The agenda: first mission to Mars, 2022; second mission, 2024. “The ships from these initial missions will also serve as the beginnings of the first Mars base, from which we can build a thriving city and eventually a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.”

That’s a big swing. It kind of has to be: Silicon Valley pitches sell investors on promises they can’t yet fulfill, so that they can get the money to eventually fulfill them. All normal, for a strange, and disproportionately influential, corner of the world that has sprouted its own norms.

The trouble, though: Musk has thought through some of the consequences of this aspiration, but has neglected others. A good plan has to be as thorough as it is audacious. Musk wants to establish a self-sustaining civilization on Mars.

This is new rhetoric for space exploration. We’re more used to the concept of a colony in space: a satellite group of people, both dependent on the society it came from for resources, and beholden to that society for governance. But Musk wants to create—and thinks he can create—a self-sustaining Martian civilization.

Self-sustaining means self-governing. That move creates a huge opportunity, of a kind that humanity hasn’t had in hundreds of years. This is not just an opportunity to establish a new government. It’s a mandate to do so.

The planet would probably feel infinitely spacious at first, as Earth once did.

Let’s say that Musk actually can create a self-governing society on Mars. What would the school systems be? The infrastructure? What would the taxation rates be? The currency? How would different jobs be compensated? The mechanisms of communication with, and obligation to, Earth? The systems of government? Election of officials? Courts? Would they write a constitution? How would they negotiate restrictions on emissions? Use of fossil fuels? Mining? The planet would probably feel infinitely spacious at first, as Earth once did.

These are huge, and urgent, questions. They can be treated as incidental, their answers defaulted to, or they can be decided intentionally. If the former, we’ll default to Silicon Valley norms: rule by green juice and hoodies.

What would unmodulated Green Juice Governance look like? Not great. Zuckerberg’s not Musk, but they’ve come from the same ideological space. Writer Andrew Marantz has described how Silicon Valley entrepreneurs have created problematic spaces on social media, because they think about the engineering of those spaces, but not about the social dynamics that will arise within them. Those are just digital spaces, and they’ve had disastrous consequences (see: the 2016 election). What would happen if that same ethos—or, more to the point, vacuum of ethos—made a space civilization, without looking at social sciences as part of STEM?

This is a grand opportunity for our species to learn from its mistakes—and a grand risk to make the same mistakes we’ve made previously. How can we harness that potential, and avoid those pitfalls? Musk needs to convene a group of multidisciplinary academics to work on these questions. We have the entire history of human civilization to learn from. That’s a lot of data.

A Martian government would, of course, reckon with different constraints from the ones we function under on Earth, some of which we’d be able to anticipate, and some that we couldn’t. And the citizens of that government would themselves determine how it would run. But they’d have a lot to do already. We can launch them into space with, or without, carefully considered information on how they might self-govern; we owe them the latter. 

The precarity of a Mars civilization makes it tempting to foreclose these kinds of questions. They could seem more abstract, less urgent. But that precarity is exactly why such questions warrant deep consideration.

Elon Musk is an engineer, and he’s hired mostly engineers, coders, and metallurgists. If he wants to take an action that would involve all of the sciences, he needs to convene a multidisciplinary group of academics to work with him, and he needs to do it now. He should plan the political science of a potential Mars civilization with the same urgency, and the same resources, that he brings to planning the breathing support.



Sarah Ruth BatesSarah Ruth Bates is a writer based in Tucson, Arizona. Her work appears in Bhe Boston Globe Magazine, Hobart, Off Assignment, Appalachia Journal, and elsewhere. She’s an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of Arizona, where she teaches composition and edits Sonora Review. Catch her at @sarahrbates and

Header image by Vadim Savosky, courtesy Shutterstock. is the world’s first online journal of place, publishing a rich mix of literature, art, commentary, and design since 1998.