A friend was lamenting recently how the prospect of leaving Earth to try to jump-start human civilization on another planet -- as opposed to trying to save life on the planet on which we live -- appeals to a sizable number of people, particularly under-40s, in the industrialized West.
More than 200,000 have signed up for a chance to spend the rest of their lives on Mars (if they get there alive) as part of the Mars One project. That is a sliver of the total population, but it is still a lot of people. And space travel advocates who talk about this to groups of students and public audiences say interest is rising.
My friend and I ended up talking about what I called, in the spur of the moment, The Mayflower Mentality. It is a way of treating land as a disposable commodity: you seize it, you suck it dry of life-nourishing utility, and once you have outgrown or exhausted it you gird your loins and take off for the next possibly consumable realm.
This is nothing new or fancy. It is the story of capitalist conquest. And in the wake of the fate of the Americas in the centuries following European "discovery," Mars is yet another possible New World to be taken and gulped. The capitalist journey, actually, is just a succession of appropriated New Worlds, from Africa to Asia to North and South America and, possibly next, the fearsome and irresistibly un-mined landscape of Mars.
The United States has made a creation myth of this, with grade-schoolers pledging allegiance to the pluck and grit of Pilgrims who bucked royalty and oppression to sail westward to possible death. The story has acceded in recent decades to mention of the collateral damage of genocide and ecological ruin. But the underlying article of faith -- that Western capitalism is an awe-inspiring force of continual advancement to the New Worlds it must occupy every few generations -- remains.
And so, as the Earth bakes and drowns in the outcome of our most recent outposts of occupation, Mars awaits. The rebuilt Mayflower readies for docking. All aboard!