Above & Beyond

Red Planet: How We’ll Govern Mars

Technical and engineering obstacles are solvable when it comes to interplanetary colonization–the real challenge is governance

4 min read

A flag for Space Communists. Image credit: DassieKapital

In the early 21st century, humankind faces risks. Risks of antibiotics waning in effectiveness, of potentially hostile artificial intelligences on the horizon, of rising temperatures and endless droughts threatening food and water supplies, not to mention chaotic leadership changes in nuclear-armed nations.

We need a solution to “black crow events;” extinction-level threats on a planetary scale. Having an off-world genetic backup would be a wise insurance policy and diversify our species’ exposure to risk, just in case everything goes a bit Mad Max. But even if we can set up a colony, we’re going to need a clear political vision for a society that’s 22 light minutes away from modern seats of governance.

Without wanting to sound too dismissive, technical and engineering obstacles are a solvable problem when it comes to interplanetary colonization efforts. The real challenge is governance. Wherever we go next, we have to make it our new home, somewhere that we can thrive and build a civilization–even (especially) if something catastrophic happens to Earth.

Our species has built civilizations across the many and varied biomes of our world, but we cannot underestimate the importance of a political vision for an environment where even access to pressurized air must be guaranteed as a human right, not the commodity it is in Total Recall. The challenge for a future outside the only home we’ve ever known is not just about getting there, but how to thrive and propagate a society that deserves a place out among the stars.


The first thing to consider is who will hold sovereignty over the colony. It’s more than whose flag is on top of the habitation modules, it’s the power over life and death, responsibility for diplomacy and justice. A Mars project’s success is vital, whatever the founding organization’s ideology. This mission not only represents a genetic backup, it will act as the template for how we approach all future settlements, within our solar system and farther afield.

Colonists aren’t just tools to achieve this end, their role–their stake–in the project will dictate the sustainability of the settlement and those it prototypes. The human race cannot afford a Martian Roanoke, Jamestown, or East India Company–for the sake of our species and our future, this colony cannot fail or be reduced to a petri dish where we recreate our prejudiced history and cultures of the past.

A poster shows an astronaut rapelling down a Martian cliff face. The text reads MARS EXPLORERS WANTED.

The issue with corporate initiatives–as seen in countless sci-fi books and movies–is that colonists are treated as consumers, not citizens. Corporate settlements in human history benefited from undermining their colonists’ citizenship, using their de facto sovereignty to direct labor and profit from taxation and trade. SpaceX plans to put a staggering $500,000 ticket fee on the journey for prospective settlers, rendering colonization and genetic backup an option only for Earth’s immensely wealthy few.

If sci-fi alarm bells are ringing at this point, you’re probably thinking of Blomkamp’s Elysium, where the rich leave the polluted Earth for a utopian orbital, or Bioshock‘s Rapture, a Randian haven beneath the Pacific Ocean. Notably, both collapse due to internal political conflicts and pressure from a disenfranchised working class. It’s not just a socioeconomic issue, but an approach to human worth that threatens the values we hope for. Look at Wall-E, with its humanity infantilized by consumerism, ruled by a tyranny of its own making–democratic despotism. The treatment of colonists as consumers perverts democracy and weakens the bonds of partnership essential for success of pioneer society. Crucially, Mars is more important than focusing on profit or recouping investments, and diversity is too important to only send those who can afford tickets.

If corporate sovereignty is undesirable, could a federal nationalist/ internationalist state of Mars work? Asimov’s “Foundation” series describes a federated galactic government, promoting trade and maintaining defensive fleets, while allowing autonomy for societies to govern their own matters internally. This kind of hands-off federalism could benefit our Martian colony; self-actualization and autonomy are absolutely vital, not as an ideological goal but as criteria of project success. Though initially Mars will rely on regular imports, extensive trading and political participation with Earth has to be emphatically discouraged for the sake of safety. Sharing an economy would undoubtedly stimulate Martian growth, but critical infrastructure independence–food, oxygen, machine tools, government–provides redundancy against species-wide existential threats. The very purpose for founding a Martian colony!

Our own history tells us the dangers of colonial overreliance on trade: Early in the 17th century, the Jamestown colony depended heavily on imported supplies, since its inhabitants lacked skills and resources for self-sufficiency. In the winter of 1609″”1610, poor harvests and supply fleet failure led to mass starvation, driving settlers to cannibalism. Though The Martian‘s Mark Watney is able to eke out rations and farm crops for himself, it’s unlikely that an entire society could survive dependent on vital supplies from a dying Earth.

Fundamentally, a federally administered Mars, governed from Earth, is problematic given that NASA and Elon Musk, founder and CEO of SpaceX, expect us to have boots on the ground around 2030. If we accept that a colony must represent humanity, not merely national interests, which institution could be the federal core? We live in an era where the European Union project faces extraordinary obstacles and the United Nations even lacks power to prevent wars of aggression by its own security council. Before thinking about a federally incorporated Mars, we have to tend our own garden first.


Can we at least have some form of liberal democracy on Mars? I’m not convinced. The ideology of free-market liberalism is exclusionary and unsustainable in an environment where resources are so critically finite. The necessities of creating a functioning frontier society requires that personal gain be put aside. It’s not just a collection of isolated individuals, a Martian colony has to work. It has to. It has to be free from external governance, it has to become self-sufficient, and its colonists must have true citizenship–a stake in the world they are helping to realize.

Socialism has, historically, struggled on Earth, because it speaks to a world where land has notional value and capital confers real benefits. A pioneer society though, engineered for survival, requires that everyone work for the benefit of, as LeGuin’s The Dispossessed puts it, the “social organism.” It’s an anarcho-syndicalist vision of society, where cooperative economic action serves the common good and focuses on satisfying human needs; where each citizen has a cellular function. A viable Martian colony will not judge citizens by worth and value measured in commodities, but on their abilities and compassion for their society.

When imagining humanity’s future, I think of the communitarian, post-scarcity worlds of Star Trek and The Culture. We have a long way to go before we get to that point, but while taking the revolutionary step of establishing an off-world colony, let’s use the practical necessities of pioneering to create a compassionate revolutionary state! Let’s become a species Carl Sagan would have been proud to see venture to the stars.


How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Above & Beyond section, which looks at our understanding of the universe beyond Earth. Click the logo to read more.