Friday, November 8, 2013

Future Expats: Emigrating to Mars

Natural color image of Sol 52 on Mars
Photo courtesy of NASA
Forgive me for today's flight of fancy, but given that I love being an expat and I love science fiction, the two naturally converge from time to time.

There are currently two different companies who have long-term plans to colonize Mars. SpaceX, long-term, envisions a colony of 80,000 people on Mars. Mars One, on the other hand, plans to colonize Mars and use reality TV subscriptions to pay for it. With an increasing number of space-based companies, sooner or later someone is going to try to colonize another celestial body. As it turns out, expatriation to Mars has interesting social and legal consequences.

Mars One even has an official trailer to introduce themselves:


And if you want to learn more about Mars, you can explore it with Google Earth:


But what would happen if you moved there? First, let's forget about the perils of the months-long trip in a rocket to Mars as those are already well-known. And I don't think we have any historical guides to draw from: there are no natives to subjugate, nor would emigration be large-scale enough to really have fair parallels. There will be no "open frontiers" for people to settle. You'll be in a tin can along with everyone else. So what's going to happen? Well, we'll consider this in the context of the Mars One approach of sending four people every two years.

I've previously written about the Four Stages of Expat Life:

  1. Honeymoon
  2. Homesickness
  3. Coping
  4. Living

The strategies that I generally recommend for dealing with homesickness and transitioning to stage three aren't viable. You're not going to arrange a Skype call with your best buddy. There is no local culture to immerse yourself in. You won't nip down to the shop and pay double the price for that bag of Fritos, hoping to relax with "comfort food". Just going out for a stroll can kill you and you're going to spend the rest of your life trying to build a freakin' planet for others to live on. There will be no respite. There will be no turning back. And over 200,000 people have applied to emigrate to Mars.

Of course, while we're considering this, also consider that you're now a vegetarian, if not a vegan. Some people would be very frustrated by this. Utilizing animals for meat/food production is an incredible waste of energy and even though Elon Musk has made it clear that he doesn't care what you eat on Mars, it might not make a lot of economic sense to bring chickens (I would love to see a cow in a space suit). Since there's no native culture on Mars, those who move there will be creating one and I could easily see the entire planet growing up thinking that "meat is something Earthlings eat". And the cultural changes will stick! Sooner or later children will be born there and given that gravity on Earth is three times what they'll be used to, there's a good chance they can never visit. That will create a permanent cultural gap.

Here's another fun thing to weigh on future colonist minds: can you imagine being one of the first four to land on the planet and two years later, when the second four are launched into space, their rocket blows up and multiple lawsuits shut down the Mars colonization program? The legal mess would be heartbreaking, but it would be nothing compared to those already on Mars, wondering if they'll get more supplies or even colonists. "Forever alone" takes on a whole new meaning.

The horror awaits ...
Image courtesy Mars One, used under Fair Use (I hope)
And here's another fun thought, one that would make a very nifty science fiction movie: you're in the second group of four people heading to Mars and halfway through an eight-month flight when an accident kills one of the four already on Mars. And then another. And then a third. And you have one person left who is, in all likelihood, an insane murderer and he's waiting for you. You have four months to figure out how you're going to survive. Have fun! And there's not a damned thing anyone could legally do about it.

And presumably some nation is going to want to claim that Mars colony, but the 1967 Space Treaty, one which most nations have signed, explicitly forbids any national government from claiming a celestial body, claiming them as the common heritage of mankind (an international legal principle, believe it or not). Interestingly, under this treaty, any interplanetary exploration or colonization must be carried out for the benefit of all of humanity. Get enough people on Mars to make it economically self-sustaining and they're going to say "we weren't even born when that treaty was signed". And truth be told, it will be pretty hard to force them to change their minds.

Another thing which I find particularly curious is the idea of taxes. Under current US law, any US citizen who flies to Mars will have to file a tax return every year. I wonder how that's going to be enforced? I already suspect that well-known US citizens abroad, such as Boris Johnson, a British politician with an estimated net worth of $185 million are being quietly ignored by the IRS, thus possibly setting a legal precedent of "let's only pick on the easy targets". US citizens on Mars won't even be able to relinquish their citizenship because, legally, they have to do so at a consulate. A consulate is occupied by a consul and they're a political representative from one state to the territory of another. Under the 1967 treaty, it's unclear to me if the US could even legally set up a consulate on Mars and since the US recognizes jus sanguinus, meaning that all US citizens pass their citizenship to their children, could we wind up with a planet of tax dodgers? I'm looking forward to the first interplanetary tax war.

Legally speaking, is this a "celestial body"?
Image courtesy NASA
There is, however, one simple way to avoid the legal issues presented by the 1967 space treaty: read the damned thing. That's right, read it. It's very short. I'll wait. Once you read it and think about it for a while, you'll see multiple fatal flaws. For example, the beginning of Article 1 of the treaty reads:
The exploration and use of outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.
Don't think "rational", think "lawyer". What would a lawyer do? They would ask "what's a celestial body?" and all would come crashing down. The term is never defined and that's fatal in law. Is the ISS a celestial body? If so, all current corporate plans to launch space stations are moot and strangely, no nation is arguing to shut down corporation exploitation of space.

But if that doesn't sound like a compelling argument there's another one. When you read the treaty's enforcement mechanism ... oh, that's right! There isn't one! It's all talk, no action. There is absolutely nothing in that treaty which can compel any nation to obey it. And you can bet your ass that if the US-based SpaceX corporation starts colonizing Mars, the US government is going to involved. Maybe there will be an IRS office on Mars after all?