Imagining Elon Musk’s Million-Person Mars Colony – Chapter 16

Imagining Elon Musk’s Million-Person Mars Colony – The greatest thought experiment of all time

by Marshall Brain

Chapter 16

Building Experimental Cities on Earth Today
to Find the Optimal Configuration for the Mars Colony

How do we know that a million-person Mars colony will really work? What will actually happen when a million people arrive on a new planet and start living their lives?

What if the one million people arrive on Mars and their society quickly stratifies into a small number of “haves” and a very large number of “have nots”? This is what we see in America today, with half of the people in the U.S. classified as poor or low income [ref]. In India, things became so stratified around 2007 that 80% of the citizens in India made less than 50 cents a day, or $190 per year [ref]. How do we prevent this kind of stratification from happening on Mars?

Or what if the Mars colony quickly starts to look like Chicago, with gang violence and hundreds of murders per year [ref]? There are parts of Chicago today where it would be unwise for outsiders to tread, and where the people who live there are afraid to leave their homes at certain times of day [ref].

Or what if organized crime were to corrupt the entire Mars colony? It happened in Italy [ref], and for a time organized crime was so bad in the United States that a whole new set of laws called RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act) had to be created to address the problem [ref].

How can we know that the Mars colony will actually work as a society? How do we know that it will not devolve into a festering slum, or a city plagued by corruption and murder?

The way to know what kind of society will work on Mars is to test different possibilities here on Earth with experimental cities. We build these experimental cities, set the conditions and rules for the people who will inhabit them, and then we let large groups of real people live their lives in these cities so that we can see what happens.

Think about all of the different variables that would need to be set correctly in order to have a million-person colony on Mars actually work:

  • What kind of people should we send to Mars? Should they all be Type A, go-getter, winner-take-all kinds of people? Or should they all be calm, rational, logical, well-balanced people? Or something else, or some combination? Is some kind of mix of different personality types needed to get an optimal outcome on Mars? For example, we know that many of the Europeans who originally settled the United States had reasons for being here (profit, religious freedom, etc, and they were willing to make a harrowing journey into the unknown to start anew [ref]). Many of the original settlers in Australia were British prisoners [ref].
  • What kind of government should the citizens of the Mars colony have? There are a number of different systems in use on Earth – which would be best on Mars? Should Mars use a monarchy? A dictatorship? A republic? A democracy? Should there be a number of tribes, with tribal leaders calling the shots for each group? A theocracy? Should the Mars colony be run like an aircraft carrier or other military operation, with a captain-of-the-ship or general-of-the-army at the top, a strict hierarchy of leaders under the captain/general, and well-defined roles and responsibilities for each rank in the hierarchy? There is a small but vocal group on Earth who think anarchy (no hierarchy) would be best [ref]. Or should we create something entirely new for the government of Mars, as discussed in Chapter 15?
  • How should the citizens of Mars create new laws, rules and social norms for themselves as the colony evolves through time? Will abortion be legal or illegal on Mars? What about guns? What about recreational drugs (alcohol, cigarettes, marijuana)? What about “hard drugs” like heroin, or new drugs that are invented on Mars? What about traditional and non-traditional forms of marriage, including polygamy? These are all “hot button” issues, at least in the United States, and there tend to be strong opinions on both sides of each issue. How do we handle these hot button issues on Mars? See also Chapter 11.
  • If a Mars colonist disobeys the laws/rules, what happens? See also Chapter 11.
  • How will the education system work on Mars? The health care system? The Police department? The court system? The transportation system? The housing system?
  • Will there be money on Mars, or no? A ship like the Star Ship Enterprise in science fiction does not seem to need money. You could easily run an aircraft carrier without money, since the food, housing, health care, etc. of the thousands of people on board the ship are all covered automatically. What will the economy of Mars look like? Chapters 4 through 8 of this book discuss a new economic system for Mars.
  • Will there be couples and marriage on Mars, or something different? Will anyone on Mars be able to have children whenever they feel like it and in any number, or will there be a different system?
  • How much training will Mars colonists receive before they arrive on Mars? For a typical “space mission” today there can be years of training. Enlistees for the Army or Navy go through months of boot camp and training. Will there be mandatory training for the people going to Mars, or not, and if so what form will it take?
  • Will people on Mars have defined roles and responsibilities (similar to an aircraft carrier), or will everything be much looser and more haphazard like we see in a typical economy on Earth today? And then what happens with children born on Mars? How are they assigned roles and trained for them, or do they pick whatever roles they want?
  • And so on…

The point is, there are dozens of variables that we can set for the Mars colony. If we set them correctly, we get a million happy residents living prosperous and incredible lives filled with purpose and meaning on the surface of Mars. If we set them wrong, we might get the appalling slums that we see in India today.

The only way to experiment with all of these variables – to have any sense of what will work and what will not on Mars – is to create experimental cities here on Earth and try things out. It is interesting to realize that we do not have the slightest idea what would be the best kind of society to send to Mars. On Earth we tend to be experts in misery as opposed to happiness when we create societies and governments. No one in their right mind, for example, would purposefully design the kind of rampant inequality seen in the United States today [ref], [ref], or America’s health care system [ref], or America’s transportation system [ref], for a Mars colony. No one in their right mind would purposely choose to replicate today’s North Korea or Ethiopia or Venezuela or Syria or Saudi Arabia on Mars. We might instead start with a country like Denmark or Iceland as a model [ref], [ref] and improve from there. On Mars, the goal would be to find the optimal – to find a societal system that maximizes happiness, prosperity, togetherness, health, etc. for every Mars colonist.

And then, ideally, once we figure out out an optimized societal system for Mars, we should be able to create these kinds of optimal societies on Earth as well. We should be able to bring prosperity and happiness to millions of people on Earth by creating new Earth cities patterned after the optimal city designed for Mars. Because think about how bad it has gotten on Earth:

  • There are nearly a billion people living in slums around the world, and they would be much better off living in an optimized Mars societal system
  • There are 65 million refugees either roaming free, living in cities or living in often-appalling refugee camps. They would be much better off living in an optimized Mars societal system
  • There are tens of millions of Americans living below the poverty line, and they would be much better off living in an optimized Mars societal system [ref]
  • And so on…

Creating experimental cities on Earth

Before we transport a million people to Mars and set up a colony there, we would like to have some confidence that the colony will work. The obvious way to do that would be to create a replica on Earth where we can work out all of the kinks and bugs relatively easily. After all, if we send a million people to Mars and the colony fails, that means there are a million miserable or dying people trapped on Mars.

So we would like to create a demonstration colony on Earth with a million people living there. We might create this colony in Siberia or some other arctic desert where we come as close to the Mars climate as possible. The Earth-based demonstration colony would create a walled in city under glass (or underground) and try to simulate as closely as possible everything we plan to have happening on Mars. If the Mars colony will try to create a complete, stand-alone human society, replicating all of Earth’s science, technology and manufacturing capabilities, then the demonstration colony on Earth would do the same thing [See Chapter 13]. It would be a complete simulation.

But long before we get to the million-person-simulation point, we could run much smaller experiments to learn what works and what doesn’t work for large groups of humans.

We could set up different experimental, isolated cities and populate them with different mixes of people. One experimental city could contain a random cross-section of humanity. One could contain the hand-picked best and brightest people on earth. One could contain a mix between the two. One city could have a highly trained and disciplined population. One city could have no training at all. One city could run the new inhabitants through a six-month boot camp to train them to work in harmony together. One city can use one type of education system and rehabilitation system, perhaps modeled after Finland [ref]. Another could use much harsher measures. And so on.

The point is, we have no idea right now how a city on Mars needs to be wired in terms of people and policies, because we have never done any of the necessary experiments at scale to see what happens. What if we fill one city with introverts and another with extroverts? What if one city is filled with Type A personalities (more competitive, outgoing, ambitious, impatient and/or aggressive) and another is filled with Type B personalities (more relaxed) [ref]. What if a city filled with Type B introverts is also filled with bliss and harmony, while a city filled with Type A people is miserable? Wouldn’t it be great to know that before we send whole brigades of Type A people to Mars? The thing is, we don’t have any idea right now what the population of a Mars city should look like, because we have never done any of the experiments to truly understand the ramifications of different mixes of different types of people.

These experimental cities on earth do not need to start with a million residents. A city of 10,000 people would tell us a lot. If these tiny cities fare poorly, we learn something important from the experiment. If they succeed, on the other hand, we can scale them up by a factor of 10, to 100,000 people, and try the experiment again. Only the most successful experiments make it to the million-person scale for testing.

Here is how one of these experiments might work. We find a place on earth that is sparsely populated. The place might be a desert in the American southwest, China (the Gobi desert in China, for example, is half a million square miles), Africa (there are 3.5 million square miles in the Sahara desert), Siberia, etc. Or it might be a city like Aleppo in Syria, which is now a bombed out ruin that could be easily bulldozed and reformatted [ref]. We build a city like we plan to build on Mars that we want to test. Think of all the variables that could be tested (much of this discussed in prior chapters):

  • The amount and type of training the city’s citizens will receive prior to living in the city
  • The type of social contract we have them sign [see Chapter 11]
  • The type of housing that will be used [see Chapter 7]
  • The food production system [see Chapter 4 and 5]
  • The type of government and legal system [see Chapter 11 and Chapter 15]]
  • The economic system [see Chapter 4 through 8]
  • The education system
  • The policing system and criminal justice system
  • The transportation system [see Chapter 14]
  • And so on…

Then we fill that city with people selected in whichever way we want to experimentally explore. Then we let the city operate for several years and see what we get. Are the citizens happy or miserable? Fulfilled or despondent? Productive or lethargic? Have tribes, gangs and violence taken over, or is the city prosperous and lively? By trying different combinations of people, economics, education, justice, housing and governance, we search for combinations that yield the best results in terms of happiness, healthiness, fulfillment, prosperity, etc. for the population as a whole.

With ongoing improvements in computer simulation and modeling, as well as the increasing availability of inexpensive computing power in the cloud, we may be able to do some of this experimental work through computer simulation to weed out obvious failures.

There could be dozens of these 10,000-person cities to try out many different combinations of parameters. When we find a configuration that works well at the 10,000 person level, we then move to a 100,000 person configuration. Then the most successful of those go to a full-scale one-million-person simulation.

Experimetal cities could have massive benefits on Earth

These experimental cities are obviously essential to creating a functional Mars colony. It would be silly to create a million-person colony on Mars unless we have some reasonable expectation that it will work, and the only way to have that expectation is to simulate the colony on Earth.

But more importantly, these experimental cities could pay massive dividends for Earthlings who never set foot on Mars. There is no question that billions of people on Earth today have been dealt a terrible hand in terms of their economic and societal situations. If we look at a page like this one, we can see that more than 100 countries on Earth have GDP per capita of less than $16,000. These countries include China, India and just about every country in Africa. This is about half of the world population already. Looking at the situations in India or Africa as examples, no one would choose to be born into these societies if they could avoid it, but of course a baby has no choice [ref]. Ethiopia, for example, has over 100 million people, and GDP per capita is only $1,700. Luxembourg’s GDP per capita is 60 times higher [ref]. Given a choice, a baby interested in things like survival, education, opportunities, etc. would obviously choose to be born in Luxembourg rather than Ethiopia. Even in the United States a child has a one in two chance of being born into poverty or a low income household[ref], and few children would choose that if they had the option [ref].

What if we can find configurations with experimental cities that are easy to replicate, and then we apply what we learn to Ethiopia to make their lives 50 or 60 times better in terms of their economics? Or we apply it to all of India? Or we eliminate all of the poverty in America by giving people much, much better societies to move into? This would be a huge win for billions of people on Earth.

We should start building experimental Mars cities on Earth today, whether or not we ever end up going to Mars. The things we learn have the potential to improve the lives of billions of people on Earth.

Bonus – Attempts at Utopia

There have been a number of historic attempts (i.e. 100 years ago) at creating “utopian societies”. These videos will give you a historical perspective, and also demonstrate that “getting things right” will be important if a million-person colony on Mars is really going to work:

Failed historical attempts at utopian cities, including New Harmony (1824), Fordlandia (1928), Fruitlands (1843), Palmanova (1593), Shakers (1700s), Arcosanti (1917), etc.
Michio Kaku: Can Nanotechnology Create Utopia? A look at how scarcity affects utopian visions, and a possible solution through nanotech.
One perspective on “the perfect country”
A compendium of different thoughts and views on utopia

Experimental Cities

Masdar City near Abu Dhabi is an experimental city designed to demonstrate the future of cities
Masdar City will eventually house 40,000 people in an energy self-sufficient way
The Sustainable City – a net zero energy development near Dubai

> > > Go to Chapter 17

Mars Colony Table of Contents

  • Preface
  • Chapter 1 – Elon Musk Makes His Big Announcement about the Mars Colony
  • Chapter 2 – The Many Thought Experiments that Mars Inspires
  • Chapter 3 – Why Do We Need a New Socio-Economic-Political System on Mars?
  • Chapter 4 – Imagining a New and Much Better Socio-Economic-Political System for the Mars Colony
  • Chapter 5 – What Happens When We Add a Massive Amount of Farm Automation to the Mars Colony?
  • Chapter 6 – How Will the Mars Colony Produce its Clothing?
  • Chapter 7 – How Will Housing Work for the Mars Colony?
  • Chapter 8 – How Will the Mars Colonists Construct Their Housing?
  • Chapter 9 – How do we provide other services like water, sanitation, police force, fire department, health care, etc. for the Mars Colony?
  • Chapter 10 – What might a typical “work week” look like on Mars? Who gets a free ride on Mars? Who will do the undesirable jobs on Mars?
  • Chapter 11 – What do we do with lazy people on Mars? What do we do with the assholes?
  • Chapter 12 – How would insurance work on Mars? Yes, insurance…
  • Chapter 13 – How will we make chips on Mars? Pharmaceuticals? Medical devices? “Stuff”? Will Mars be an actual backup plan for humanity?
  • Chapter 14 – What Will the Transportation System on Mars Look Like for Mars Colonists?
  • Chapter 15 – What will the political system look like? How will it be organized?
  • Chapter 16 – Building Experimental Cities on Earth Today to Find the Optimal Configuration for the Mars Colony
  • Chapter 17 – How can we apply the Mars colony’s principles to the billions of refugees and impoverished people on planet Earth today?
  • Chapter 18 – How will entertainment work on Mars? What types of entertainment will be available for Mars colonists?
  • Chapter 19 – How will children work on Mars? Who gets to have children? What is the colony’s stance toward children?
  • Chapter 20 – Starting the process of building experimental Mars colonies on Earth – Mars Colony Simulation 1000A
  • Chapter 21 – Can the economic system proposed for the Mars colony significantly improve the Welfare situation in the United States?
  • Chapter 22 – How much land will the Mars colony need?
  • Chapter 23 – Thought Experiment: What If Everyone Makes the Same Wage?
  • Chapter 24 – How Will Innovation Work on Mars?
  • Chapter 25 – Will there be advertising on Mars?
  • Chapter 26 – What should be the ultimate goal of the Mars colony?
  • Appendix A – Restaurants
  • Interviews with Marshall Brain on the Mars Colony:
  • See also:

[Feedback and suggestions on any part of this book are greatly appreciated. Contact information is here.]