/ 6 February 2020

Bid to settle Mars could solve Earth’s crisis

Potatoes In Space Greenhouse
An artist concept depicts a greenhouse on the surface of Mars. Plants are growing with the help of red, blue and green LED light bars and a hydroponic cultivation approach. (SAIC)


‘But if we want humanity to advance a step further, if we want to bring it up to a different level than that which Europe has shown it, then we must invent and we must make discoveries.”

These words were written by Frantz Fanon, an influential writer in the anti-colonial liberation struggle, in the concluding chapter of his book The Wretched of the Earth (1961). The chapter is an ode to humanism and a reflection on Africa’s potential contribution to humanity as it emerged from the atrocities of colonialism. Fanon’s parting message is that Africa should not try to mimic the West, but rather focus on contributing its own inventions and perspectives in the service of humanity. Fanon captures this by writing: “For Europe, for ourselves, and for humanity, comrades, we must turn over a new leaf, we must work out new concepts, and try to set afoot a new man.” 

At this point you might be asking: “What do Fanon’s concluding remarks in 1961 have in connection with humanity’s quest to reach Mars?” 

Almost 60 years after he died, Fanon and his teachings have been reawakened as young Africans have become conscious in the face of ever more complex problems. It is not enough to regurgitate Fanon; rather we should contextualise and build on his philosophy in a changing Africa and a changing world. 

It is a long-established view among most Africans that Africa and its people have much to contribute to the advancement of our world. But one finds that we still limit our contributions, choosing to confine them through the narrow lens of the “Third World”. Although these contributions are important, we confine our possibilities to the limitations of the present. 

In South Africa this mentality is prevalent and has reinforced the pessimism that has become the contemporary South African view. Consider President Cyril Ramaphosa’s last State of the Nation address, in which he spoke of smart cities and bullet trains whizzing across the country. The nation’s response to his vision was one of ridicule and calls that he should “get his head out of the clouds” and focus on more pressing problems. 

But the articulation of a long-term vision is an essential function of any country’s leader. It should be our desire that our president thinks not only five years into the future but 20 and 30 years ahead, with the hope that his contributions today can begin a journey to a different society tomorrow. 

With our planet facing an array of interconnected crises, including climate change, an out-of-date economic system, growing inequality and revolutionary advancements in technology that will fundamentally transform how we work and interact with each other, it’s not enough to think only of the present. Our contributions as Africans must be future-focused and provide an equitable alternative not only for ourselves but for all of humanity. 

This train of thinking needs to be extended to how we think about sustainability. Africa has the undesirable burden of having contributed the least to the climate crisis yet is being affected by it the most. Climate change fundamentally threatens all the developmental goals we have set for ourselves. Consider, for example, that, if the world warms by an average of 3°C, which we are on track to reach, this will mean an average rise of 6°C in Southern Africa. A 6° rise in average temperature in this part of the world would result in the failure of the maize crop, which most of the population is dependent on for food. The devastation would render all developmental interventions useless. 

But one does not have to wait for the Earth to heat up further to understand the seriousness of millions of people reported to be facing food insecurity because of drought and the devastating effects of tropical Cyclone Idai, which hit Mozambique, Malawi and Zimbabwe in March last year. As South Africans, we know that any crisis in Zimbabwe becomes a problem for us, especially through the manifestation of increased migration as Zimbabweans are once again forced to flee their country. 

Our perspectives on anything that pertains to the sustainability of humanity is essential and, as crazy as this sounds, this includes humanity’s quest to settle on Mars by the middle of this century. When Africans, similar to many other people, comment on the likes of Elon Musk’s efforts to reach Mars in the 2030s, the prevalent opinion is that this is a waste of money that would be better served solving issues on Earth. 

But this view ignores the historical fact that space travel has been an enabler of technological advancement that has affected on our everyday lives. In 1961, when President John F Kennedy committed the United States to sending astronauts to the moon by the end of the decade, the technology to achieve such an incredible feat had yet to be invented. This ambitious goal, mainly driven by Cold War rivalry, forced engineers and scientists to develop the technology that would make manned flight to the moon possible. 

Some of these inventions and innovations include efficient water purification systems, lightweight breathing masks (which are essential for firefighters), solar panels, and cordless devices such as drills. In total, Nasa is responsible for 6 300 new technologies in their bid to understand space better. 

Similar to the beginning of the 1960s, the technologies and innovations necessary for manned flight to Mars — and settlement of the Red Planet — have yet to be invented and forces engineers and scientists to think outside the box and accelerate the pace of innovation. Essential to our ambition to reach Mars will be sustainability. Considering that it is estimated that a one-way manned trip to Mars would take seven months, the success of the mission and future settlement will be dependent on how sustainably we reuse water, how we source energy and we ensure food security on a barren planet. 

These considerations, if applied successfully to our ambition to reach the Red Planet, will answer the big questions that we have on Earth about how we transition our societies towards reusable water, sustainable farming in regions facing desertification and how we fundamentally rethink urban living and settlement (inclusive of smart cities). 

In an interview with the online publication Observer.com, Stephen Petranek, the author of How We’ll Live on Mars, said that going to other planets could help us mend the destruction we have caused on Earth. In Petranek’s view, the settlement of other planets gives us incentives, resources and space to test out new technologies that could limit or reduce the effects of climate change here on Earth. 

One such example is the difficulty of growing food on Mars; the soil is salty and dry, but nutrient rich. Any endeavour to grow crops in such a hostile environment would have to consider efficient resource use. The success of such experiments would have a widespread effect on our ability to grow food in the most arid areas on our own planet. 

It is therefore essential, considering that Africa is at the forefront of food, water, and resource insecurity in the face of climate change, that our scientists, engineers and policymakers are involved in humanity’s quest to reach Mars. Our absence from this endeavour will result in technical solutions that are of little relevance to our context. It is not enough for African governments to focus on the “bread and butter issues” of today. They must also have one eye on those future-focused developments that can help us ensure that the bread and butter issues of tomorrow are not worse than those of today. 

I leave you with the words of Fanon, who wrote: “Humanity is waiting for something from us other than such an imitation [of the West], which would be almost an obscene caricature.” The world awaits unique perspectives and innovations that will bring security and equity to all of humanity. This we can only deliver through our involvement in the collective philosophical and technical ambitions of humankind, such as the race to reach Mars. 

Sikhulekile Duma is an adviser in international and government relations in the mining sector and wrote this article in his personal capacity