Mars: where Matt Damon grew potatoes and David Bowie summed up the pastel-blue, consumer-centered undoings of the second half of the twentieth century. As I was listening to this year’s Keynote speaker Dr. Karabekir Akkoyunlu, I could not help but think about the SpaceX Mars program of “sending people to the Red Planet by 2026”. Akkoyunlu’s speech draws parallels between past pandemics, the white upper hand that has stood the test of time, and how COVID-19 has exposed the exploitative nature of these parallels, prompting us to question how we deal with crises and socio-economic issues.
Akkoyunlu commenced his speech by acknowledging the general assumptions people have about the pandemic, that it is a temporary state, “ a bad dream from which soon enough we will wake up and go back to our lives as we knew and enjoyed before.” The last part of this sentence turned on a switch in my brain that held the door open for the never-ending questionings and debates I had been turning over. What did we know, and what did we enjoy before the pandemic? Was our enjoyment an act of exercising our physiological and psychological wants, or simply blind participation in a system that was fed from an inequality and exploitation that will eventually lead us to an ecological apocalypse?
Akkoyunlu cautioned the audience not to perceive this crisis as an “external and temporary” one. Temporary reactions and solutions can be useful when the heating system is not working, and you have to wear extra layers of clothing for the weekend. In this case, all our temporary solutions provide time and space to come up with more grounded strategies. However, where do we draw the line between the crises where temporary solutions should or should not be enacted? I would suggest climate change should be a starting point (and a crucial one) to reconsider how we manage crises. This pandemic crisis we are facing right now is not a fleeting one, but a cautionary breaking point of an exploitation-centered understanding of globalism that could well foreshadow many more catastrophes to come.
From a critical lens concerned with ecological crises, the SpaceX Mars program now seems like a form of escapism; a mere conqueror fantasy. It allows us to remain oblivious to the natural outcomes of the destructive nature of the hungry, cold-blooded hands which caused COVID-19 to break out in the first place. Akkoyunlu reminded us that “We can easily label COVID-19 as the Chinese virus and blame it on strange people eating exotic animals. But what about our collective role in supporting unsustainable farming practices that push the boundaries of human activity into previously undisturbed ecosystems?”
It is impossible to deny that watching colored videos of Mars gives us a thrill, and fills us with a childish excitement that equals the promising atmosphere created in Jules Verne novels. But when the possibility of being able to reside on another planet is pruned back from all the technological enthusiasm and promises that accompany it, the core motivation lays before our eyes: finding a new place we can call home. Why should we celebrate the genius of humankind which will end up only an anthropocentric fantasy?
Is there life on Mars? If so, how can we conquer, plague, and spit on this untouched planet? Mars has been the object of our desires to flee, and cease to be present on earth where our troubles overwhelm us. The implications of this future contain multitudes. Mars has always been a bright dot in midnight blue among thousands of stars, allowing us to dream that it is possible to build a life from scratch. An unraped land that awaits us.
The utmost disrespect towards nature that derides and neglects biodiversity and our rights to breathe and have clean water is derived from wanting more money and more power. The mission for Mars is testimony to this claim. Colonizing Mars is an implicit declaration of the lost hope we have for the planet we call home. It suggests the burial of the biodiversity that gifts life, as well as the abandonment of the stricken soil which we ourselves polluted.