The issues Donald Trump and I can find to agree on are few. I know this makes us both sad. Some people mock him for gorging himself on multiple Big Macs and Filets-o-Fish, but this is actually my favorite thing about him. I understand he likes elephants. And as of Monday, it turns out we agree on a third thing: sending human beings back to the moon, and to Mars.
It’s an insane proposal, of course, and I don’t believe the president really means it any more than he means to build his wall — he has probably forgotten saying it already and will deny it if asked. I don’t even think going back to the moon is a good idea, per se; there’s not much there, unless there are any Easter-egg monoliths waiting for us. It doesn’t make much sense as a jumping-off point for Mars or a training ground for deep-space travel, and to quote President Barack Obama: “I just have to say pretty bluntly here: We’ve been there before.” No offense to the moon, but it’s boring; it doesn’t inspire anymore.
I also don’t subscribe to Stephen Hawking’s notion that we need to get off this planet and establish a viable human population elsewhere lest we go extinct. I tend to side with Kim Stanley Robinson, author of a trilogy about the colonization of Mars, who in his more recent book “Aurora” portrays the dream of extraterrestrial colonization as a dangerous escapist fantasy — dangerous because it lets us imagine that we have an out, that we can just ditch this planet after we’ve ruined it instead of grappling with the imminent, serious, possibly terminal problems here, the only homeworld we’re ever going to get.
I don’t support going to Mars for practical reasons at all. I think we should plan to go to Mars because it would be a healthy sign that we, as a civilization, are still planning for a future — that we intend to live. Because right now, frankly, we’re not acting as though we do. We’re acting more the way a friend of mine did in the last year of his life: letting the mail pile up unopened, heaping garbage in the house, littering the floor with detritus, no longer bothering to turn over the calendar pages. He’d clearly decided, on some level, to die.
We’re mostly hiding from the horrifying facts mounting ever more unavoidably around us, keeping ourselves zonked out on anything from Xanax to Oxy, immersed in the worlds of Warcraft or Westeros while the actual world is burning. Billionaires are building sumptuous bunkers instead of doing anything that would forestall the deluge or revolution they’re barricading against. Mounting a mission to Mars would be bold and hopeful, a gesture of faith, like planning a vacation to Bali next year when you’re battling cancer.
Ray Bradbury, author of another famous Mars book, called space travel our modern version of cathedral building: a vast, ambitious, multigenerational undertaking, a shared vision to work toward together as a culture. Right now, we don’t have such a vision, or even a culture, for that matter — just a degrading, every-man-for-himself scramble for the last scraps of cash the 1 percent have overlooked, like one of those parking-lot contests where you have to keep your hand on a truck until everyone faints from exhaustion. We could use a worthier project.
Anytime NASA shows us photos of phantasmagoric storms on Jupiter or Saturn spectacularly backlit, some killjoy demands to know how many billion dollars it cost and why we couldn’t have spent that money on some of our pressing problems here on Earth. I notice these citizens never seem to muster up the same fiscal outrage over the squandering of trillions to kill foreigners or lock up brown people. Something’s gone out of us since we explored the last of Earth; maybe some heroic overreach like a Mars program would get us all out of our cultural funk and inspire us to take on other equally hubristic challenges, like saving the world from drowning.
It’s hard to blame people for being demoralized these days, especially in America. It’s depressing to live in a collapsing empire, and it can distort your sense of perspective. But empires rise and fall, and it’s a mistake to get too sentimentally attached to any one of them. Civilization is the thing at stake now: humanity.
Apocalyptic fatalism is the same sort of lazy escapism as fantasies of hyperspace day trips to Rigel. Evangelicals who think it’s O.K. to wreck this world because there’s a better one waiting for us need to grow up; eco-warriors who gripe that Earth would be better off if human beings just exterminated themselves should get back on their meds. Silly and stupid and selfish though human beings inarguably are, I am, reluctantly, for them — for us — because so far as we know, we’re it for consciousness in this universe, the only game in town. And we owe it to something more than just ourselves or even our progeny to survive.
If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and human consciousness is extinguished, so is all beauty. The Alps will be cold stone again, the Orion nebula hot gas. And not just the beauty we apprehend but all that we’ve made: Beethoven and Coltrane, Leonardo and Kurosawa. Extinguished, too, our accumulated understanding of this universe — the whole human testament from Buddha to Newton — not to mention the achievements of the nameless geniuses who first tamed an animal, grew food or made a fire. If we kill ourselves off with our animal aggression or let ourselves die through callousness or greed, we will have betrayed those ancestors and countless descendants, and leave the universe blind and dumb again, unintelligible to itself. And then it’ll have to start over. Probably with the raccoons.
Some friends of mine gave birth to a child last week, a boy named Max. There are days when I feel like another baby is about the last thing this planet needs, but one traditionally suspends cynicism on these occasions. I sent the new mother a quotation I found by Carl Sandburg: “A baby is God’s opinion that life should go on.” I hope someday, after she and you and I are all dead, Max might stand at the edge of the Valles Marineris, a canyon longer than America, or on the slope of Olympus Mons, a volcano 14 miles high, and look for the blue-white morning star he came from. And maybe take a moment to remember us, who came before him and helped get him there. And then turn to look outward, at Jupiter, at Saturn, and the stars.
Tim Krieder is the author of the essay collections We Learn Nothing and the forthcoming I Wrote This Book Because I Love You.