Imagining Elon Musk’s Million-Person Mars Colony – The greatest thought experiment of all time
How can we apply the Mars colony’s principles to the billions of refugees and impoverished people on planet Earth today?
Think about the billions of people on planet Earth today who are trapped in absolutely miserable conditions. There are tens of millions of refugees, many of whom are now living in squalor and in terrible poverty. There are nearly a billion people living in slums. In the United States – one of the richest and most prosperous nations on Earth – tens of millions of people live below the poverty line. The full magnitude of the misery being experienced across the planet is impossible to grasp.
We know, from a moral and ethical standpoint, that all of this suffering and poverty is horrific, abominable and wrong. To have billions of people on the planet living miserable lives in appalling conditions is completely unethical, inhumane. There is no question about it. But the problems seem so huge, so gigantic, that it is easy to believe that no solution is possible in any near-term time frame.
So let’s narrow the scope, and get down to a scale that a human mind can comprehend. Let’s focus on Syrian refugees – the people who fled from Syria when war and turmoil destroyed their country, their homes and their way of life. The causes of the turmoil were many: ISIS, civil war, government bombings, etc. [ref]. Syria was once a relatively stable country with a population of about 22 million people, but much of the country was destroyed, so people fled:
Syria’s population has shrunk to just 16.6m, down from a pre-war level of around 22m. With 4m UN-registered refugees abroad, at least 1m more unregistered and 7m internally displaced people, more than half the country’s population has been forced to move. UN officials think the number could be significantly higher than that, since estimates of the pre-war population vary widely. One indicator of this is satellite images of night-time electric-light intensity (evidence of human activity) which has fallen over 80% since the start of the war. Up to 250,000 people have died over the same period [ref].
To put this into perspective, 22 million people out of a world population of 7.5 billion people represents 0.3% of the world population. The millions of refugees from Syria therefore represent about 0.1% of the global population. In other words, approximately 1 out of every 1,000 people on Earth is a Syrian refugee.
Millions of these Syrian refugees lost absolutely everything as Syria was destroyed. Therefore, many of them have ended up living in terrible conditions inside of refugee camps. These videos demonstrate the situation faced by many Syrian refugees today:
We read articles like these:
- [ref]: “In the nearly six years since protestors in Syria first demonstrated against the four-decade rule of the Assad family, hundreds of thousands of Syrians have been killed and some twelve million people—more than half the country’s pre-war population—have been displaced.”
- [ref]: “The war in Syria has plunged 80% of its people into poverty, reduced life expectancy by 20 years, and led to massive economic losses estimated at over $200 billion since the conflict began in 2010, according to a UN-backed report. The Syrian Centre for Policy Research painted a devastating picture of the “systematic collapse and destruction” of Syria’s economic foundations in the report, saying the nation’s wealth, infrastructure, institutions and much of its workforce have been “obliterated.””
- See also: Ancient city of Aleppo: Before and after, Life in Syria before the war
These refugee camps that are filled with displaced Syrians in many cases are appalling, especially when compared to the living standards in a developed country, or when compared to Syria before the war. One of the larger camps is known as Zaatari, in Jordan. While it is certainly better than dying of exposure or starvation, it is a terrible place to live, and people have been forced into living there for years because they have no alternative:
- [ref]: “Approximately half of school age children are currently enrolled, but attendance rates are unknown and likely to be significantly lower. Although they are safe from the effects of direct conflict, there are high cases of sexual violence and rape in the camp. Girls are often married of very young in order to secure a dowry that will help families buy basic amenities.
- [ref]: “My wife was about to give birth to twins so it was important to get more settled before their arrival. I borrowed money from a friend to buy two caravans for us to live in. Imagine once living in your own house and now you come home to a caravan where there isn’t enough space to sit or sleep and no electricity.”
The Zaatari camp for Syrian refugees near Jordon, where 80,000 people live in a 2 square mile compound [ref]
Think about the problem these refugees face. They are living in primitive camps, often with no electricity, limited water, walking to communal restroom facilities hundreds of feet away, packed into tents and shipping containers. Their home nation is, for all practical purposes in the near-term time frame, gone. Therefore there is no option to return home. If they could somehow return to the home nation, their houses, businesses, etc. have all been destroyed. The nations nearest the refugee camp – Turkey, Jordan, Lebanon, etc. – will not accept any more refugees for fear of economic or cultural collapse. Europe has closed its doors as well. There is nowhere to go outside the camp: No other nation will take these refugees. The refugees cannot work in most cases, therefore they have no money, and they are reduced to living on handouts in the camp from NGOs and the UN.
What if we tried to take action in any traditional sense? For example, what if we transported one million Syrian refugees from their tent camps and we import them to the United States? There would be three fundamental economic objections:
- That these one million new residents will take jobs from the citizens already living in America, or …
- That these one million new residents will consume economic resources (welfare, health care, education, etc.) that are funded by the taxpayers of America, while these refugees are contributing little or nothing to the economy in return. In addition, the majority of refugees may never be integrated into society [ref].
- That these one million refugees represent just the tip of the ice berg. There are approximately 65 million refugees roaming planet Earth today [ref], and hundreds of millions more people living in dire poverty who need relief. When does it end? The answer: Never. And it is likely to get worse as Africa’s population explodes in the coming years [ref], [ref], [ref]. Moving distressed populations to developed countries cannot work because there are too many people in distress. [ref]
These are the same economic objections, combined with cultural objections, that cut off the flow of refugees into Europe. Europe basically walled itself off to refugees [ref], [ref], [ref], [ref]. And really, there is no way to get around these objections, because an influx of refugees can be devastating on both the economic and the cultural fronts. This video from the Foreign Policy Association talks about both problems. See also this.
Therefore, importing refugees and other impoverished citizens of planet Earth into developed nations is never going to happen in any significant way going forward. But something must be done. Leaving millions of human beings rotting in tents in the desert with no future prospects is an incredible waste of human potential. The same goes for the hundreds of millions of human beings currently rotting in slums, ghettos, favelas, etc.
Given this political reality, what if we try a different solution? What if we take a million refugees or slum dwellers on Earth and we set them up with an economic system like the one envisioned in this book for the Mars colony? These would initially be experimental cities, like those discussed in Chapter 16. As experiments, the first several will be the most complex, as kinks and nuances are worked out. Then the successful cities can be replicated – the movement of millions of impoverished people into new colonies on Earth can begin in earnest.
What would be the steps for creating the first new city to house one million refugees? Let’s take a look at one possibility…
Step 1 – Find land for the colony
Let’s imagine that we are going to take one million refugees and give them 1,000 square miles (2,600 square kilometers) of land to develop using the socio-economic-political model proposed in this book for the Mars colony (1,000 square miles represents approximately two-thirds of an acre per refugee). The first thing we need is to find the land for the refugee colony.
The good news is that there is plenty of land available in the Middle East. At its peak, ISIS claimed to occupy approximately 100,000 square miles (282,000 square kilometers) of land [ref]. Think about this – a relatively small terrorist organization was able to conquer and occupy a land area equal in size to the United Kingdom, population 63 million [ref]. We simply take back land from ISIS in Syria and use it for the new colony.
Alternatively, land can be found in one of the world’s great deserts, for example the Sahara desert in Africa. There is a significant effort already underway in the Sahara desert – It is called “The Great Green Wall” [ref]. The refugees and their new society can fit right into this plan. For example, they can establish forests that will sustain them in the future as their colony develops. The colonists can use sustainable practices to reclaim the desert and make it fruitful, as envisioned by the Great Green Wall organizers.
Is the Sahara big enough to support this kind of development? Yes – the Sahara desert covers approximately 3.5 million square miles. At a rate of 1,000 square miles per 1 million people, the Sahara desert could in theory support up to 3.5 billion people. The Sahara desert can easily absorb all refugees and slum dwellers on planet earth today if so desired.
Can the Sahara support agriculture? If Mars can support agriculture, and support the million-person colony that Elon Musk proposes, so can the Sahara desert. It is interesting to note this fascinating fact about the Sahara:
“During the Neolithic Era, before the onset of desertification, around 9500 BCE the central Sudan had been a rich environment supporting a large population ranging across what is now barren desert, like the Wadi el-Qa’ab. By the 5th millennium BCE, the people who inhabited what is now called Nubia, were full participants in the “agricultural revolution”, living a settled lifestyle with domesticated plants and animals. Saharan rock art of cattle and herdsmen suggests the presence of a cattle cult like those found in Sudan and other pastoral societies in Africa today. Megaliths found at Nabta Playa are overt examples of probably the world’s first known archaeoastronomy devices, predating Stonehenge by some 2,000 years.” [ref]
See also these links on reviving desert land:
- The Al Baydha Project in Saudi Arabia
- This project in Israel
- Prize-winning technology to make the desert bloom
Here is one way to think about what we are proposing. On planet earth today there is 57 million square miles of land. It breaks down like this:
“The total land surface area of Earth is about 57,308,738 square miles, of which about 33% is desert and about 24% is mountainous. Subtracting this uninhabitable 57% (32,665,981 mi2) from the total land area leaves 24,642,757 square miles or 15.77 billion acres of habitable land.” [ref]
If we create 7,500 colonies on earth of 1,000 square miles each, that is only 7.5 million square miles. That is enough colony space to house the entire human population. 7.5 million square miles is about one third of the available 24.6 million square miles of habitable land. Or it is about half of all the desert land of the planet.
Step 2 – Secure a reliable source of water
One thing the new refugee colony will need is water. People personally need water to drink, to bathe, to wash clothes, etc. And people also need water for agriculture. There are two possibilities with water use: An open system and a closed system:
- Either plants will be grown outside, probably with the help of some type of drip irrigation system in order to conserve water. A great deal of water is lost to evaporation/transpiration and must be replenished [ref].
- Or plants will be grown inside in order to make maximum use of small amounts of water. A great example of what is possible can be seen at places like Thanet Earth [ref], where gigantic hydroponic greenhouses grow prodigious amounts of food: “A staggering 2.5 million tomatoes will be cropped every week of the year; 560,000 peppers and 700,000 cucumbers will be picked weekly… The scale of the £80 million project is mind-boggling. When complete, its seven greenhouses will sprawl across 220 acres of Kent countryside.” That sounds like a lot of money. But divided across a million people, this is only about $100 per person. And since human time will be abundant and easily allocated to the task in a refugee colony, the construction cost will be even lower. Two or three of these facilities could completely cover all of the fresh produce needed for the colony, at a cost of only $200 or so per colonist.
Water can come from one of seven sources depending on the location:
- A river
- A lake derived from a dammed river
- An aquifer
- Collected rainwater
- Desalination plants (the energy required for a reverse-osmosis water treatment plant is something on the order of 10 kilowatt-hours of electricity per cubic meter of water, or 38 watt-hours per gallon [ref])
- Tanker from another place with plenty of fresh water (an oil tanker holds up to 84 million gallons of oil [ref] and costs just 2 or 3 cents per gallon for transport)
- Condensation from the atmosphere [ref]
A typical person in the United States uses about 100 gallons (378 liters) of water per day [ref], but nearly all of this water can be captured in the sewer system, treated and re-used over and over again.
Agriculture is a different story, because the amount of water needed can be immense using “traditional” farming techniques. This article points out that it takes 287 liters of water to produce 1 kilogram of potatoes (35 gallons per pound) [ref]. Wheat can consume 2 to 10 times more water depending on the growing conditions. Unless water and/or rainfall is plentiful, some sort of greenhouse water reclamation strategy will be needed to conserve water used for agriculture, or different farming practices will be necessary [ref]. See also these links on reviving desert land:
- The Al Baydha Project in Saudi Arabia
- This project in Israel
- Prize-winning technology to make the desert bloom
Step 3 – Understand that a refugee colony will require some amount of seed money per refugee
In order to get a colony of one million refugees started on Earth, some amount of money per refugee is going to be required, just like in a normal refugee camp. For example, each refugee living in a camp today needs funding for food, since refugees in camps typically have no way to grow their own food. The same goes for refugees living intermixed in urban areas.
“Here’s how it works: Each needy Syrian refugee family gets a banking card. Family members use it to shop for food at the 450 participating stores and markets; a family of five gets about $135 per month.” [ref]
Looking at this quote, it works out to only $27 per person per month, or 90 cents per person per day. By American standards, that is an incredibly small amount of money per person per day for food. But if we extrapolate even this meager level of funding, just for food the UN is spending $324 million to feed one million refugees per year.
At the Kilis camp in Turkey, they are spending $2 millon per month for 14,000 refugees, or $143 per refugee per month [ref]. This is $4.75 per person per day. To handle one million refugees at this level would require $1.74 billion per year. If we want to think about this in round numbers, Turkey is spending $2 billion per year for one million refugees, or $2,000 per refugee per year. And keep in mind that these refugees are living in abysmal conditions at this level of funding.
The point is, if we spent a few billion dollars to set up a million refugees in a self-sustaining colony, then the need to spend money on them ends once they become self-sustaining. The refugees are also living in a modern, vibrant, luxurious city instead of living in squalor. Consider that it is expected to take a decade or more before the Syrian refugees can be repatriated to their home country [ref], [ref], if ever, and you can see the value of helping refugees to create societies that become independent.
[Side note: This analysis makes the financial crisis in Venezuelan all the more tragic. Venezuela has a source of income – it can easily sell oil for cash. If that money were then used to operate Venezuela like a Mars colony, Venezuela could be an incredibly wealthy country instead of hosting the economic catastrophe that has unfolded over the last several years.]
Step 4 – Write the software and operating manual for the colony
You may have heard the story about the corn grown by the Pilgrims who arrived in America. The story goes that the native people, the Wampanoag, taught the Pilgrims to use fish as fertilizer:
“Planting began in the spring. With gratefulness for the gifts from Mother Earth, the Wampanoag caught fish called herring as they ran up the rivers and used them to help fertilize the planting lands. Corn seeds were put into soft earth mounds covering the herring. Around the time the corn plants were the height of a human hand, it was time to plant the beans and squashes (including pumpkins) around the base of the corn. As the corn grew, the beans climbed and wound around the corn stalks. Since the 1600s, we have discovered that beans add nitrogen, an important nutrient the corn uses up, to the soil.” [ref]
The point is that the Pilgrims had help – teachers who showed them how to grow food successfully in the new land.
The refugees who will be starting this colony are going to need instructions to help them grow food successfully, in the same way that the Pilgrims did. These instructions can be written by farmers, scientists, engineers and other helpful people in the developed world to create an open source “operating manual” for the colony, along with training videos. The “best practices” collected in the operating manual will greatly improve the success rate for the colonists. Then the colonists can take over the manual and improve it as they learn from their day-to-day experiences. This improved operating manual can then be copied and used with subsequent colonies.
The operating manual can grow to encompass all aspects of the colony’s management, including cooking, the construction of housing, the manufacture of farm equipment, the manufacture of consumer products, etc.
Software engineers will also need to create the software that tracks all of the tasks needing to be done for the colony, and allocates colonists to those tasks. This software can be developed as an open source project so that many people can help with development and improvements.
If the legal or political system is handled by AI or by distributed voting, this software can be written as well [see Chapter 15].
Step 5 – Write the training manual for citizens, the social contract and the initial laws for the colony
The citizens who will inhabit the refugee colony will need training in this new socio-economic-political system and its implications, as well as training to understand social norms, laws, rules, etc. of the new refugee colony. Therefore volunteers can write the training manual and courseware. Once trained and tested, new citizens in the refugee colony can sign on to the colony’s social contract [see Chapter 11]. The initial set of laws used to govern the colony can also be established and used during training [see Chapter 15].
Step 6 – Establish the colony’s layout and development plan
Much like any large commercial development in the United States, a refugee colony containing one million residents will need planning. Roads, power lines, internet lines, water and sewer lines, fire hydrants, schools, medical facilities, shopping areas, factory areas, entertainment areas, parks, forests, etc. all need to be planned out. There will be standard plans in the operating manual, but they will need to be adjusted for the local terrain.
As an example, North Carolina State University has a Physical Master Plan developed by the office of the campus architect, that shows how the campus will develop over time. The plan manages decades of planned growth.
The operating manual will also contain building and maintenance instructions for housing, schools, hospitals, factories, etc.
In addition, the style(s) of housing chosen will be incredibly important, as are the building materials. Wood construction makes sense in America because wood is plentiful, but may make no sense in Syria or the Sahara desert. See Step 17 for further discussion.
Step 7 – Begin bringing the first wave of refugees in
Refugees can arrive in phases, to begin construction, to start growing food, etc. We start the very first refugees in tents or caravans as in a normal refugee camp, and they immediately begin to build the first phase of housing. This first wave of refugees is cherry-picked for the roles they will fill. The incoming refugees start an intensive training/education program and are organized by software into a cohesive group of people – a society – that can begin to support itself.
In order for the training to occur, and also to facilitate intercommunication, the refugees will each need tablet computers and WiFi access. Something like Kindle Fire Android tablets would be completely adequate and are currently selling for around $50.
Step 8 – Create a safe and secure environment for the refugees
One of the biggest problems infecting a traditional refugee camp is unsafe living conditions. Theft, rape, harassment and violence are often epidemic in refugee camps, and they destroy the quality of life for all residents.
However, it is easy to control these problems and keep order with a trained police force and common sense security protocols. Here is one success story:
“Many of the world’s displaced live in conditions striking for their wretchedness, but what is startling about Kilis [a refugee camp in Turkey] is how little it resembles the refugee camp of our imagination. It is orderly, incongruously so. Residents scan a card with their fingerprints for entry, before they pass through metal detectors and run whatever items they’re carrying through an X-ray machine… at least as many streetlights as you would find in a nice suburban neighborhood… High gates bar entry, and barbed wire tops the walls. Police officers and private security mill about… I asked almost every one of the dozens of Syrians I interviewed during the four days that I spent in the camp about crime. All reported that other than the occasional fight, they were not aware of any. This was true not just in Kilis but in Nizip I, a tent camp that was founded after Turkey realized it couldn’t build enough container camps to house all the Syrian refugees. Because there are no doors to lock, and bathrooms are located in blocks, security is always more lax in tent camps. But even here, the residents’ assessments didn’t differ. “It’s fully safe!” a bubbly 38-year-old named Warda Aboud assured me, throwing her arms out in front of her, palms down. While rape is an epidemic in many camps, at Nizip I, Aboud said, she didn’t worry about it: “There’s guards everywhere. At night, the lights are like daylight. I can go out alone at 4 a.m., 3 a.m.” Both Kilis and Nizip I appear to lack the black markets found in camps around the world, where donated supplies are stolen and sold back to refugees. This has been widely reported as a plague at the Za’atari camp in Jordan, where the practice consolidates wealth and power among gangs that form there and leaves some refugees lacking food and even shelter.” [ref]
There are several problems that can occur in a large police force, corruption and oppression of the citizenry being two of the most common. A large police force can itself begin to behave like a gang if not closely monitored and controlled [ref]. Extensive training and certification of security personnel along with independent oversight can help quell both.
Step 9 – Start the public works system
The police force described in the previous section is one part of colony administration, which includes water, sewer, trash collection, internet, electricity, and so on [See Chapter 9]. All of these services can start up by training refugees to fill the different roles.
Step 10 – Start the health care system
There are a wide variety of roles that operate in the health care arena: nurses, nurse assistants, nurse practitioners, EMTs, paramedics, doctors, surgeons and so on. Many of the arriving refugees will have medical training of some kind already and can fill roles in the healthcare system immediately after certification.
The health care system in the refugee colony can also take advantage of specialization and acceleration in a way that is uncommon in America today. Here are some examples:
- Institute universal health care from the start [ref]
- Use electronic record-keeping and secure medical records from the start [ref].
- Agressively negotiate drug prices and promote/accelerate generics [ref], [ref].
- Some doctors offices in the U.S. now employ tiers of service using nurses and nurse practitioners before patients see a (more expensive) doctor. This is similar to the model seen in tech support. When you call a tech support line for any consumer product, you talk to the first tier of operators. They handle all of the common and mundane problems, and pass everything that they cannot handle up to the second tier of more experienced operators. These operators handle everything they can, and pass rare cases up to tier 3. Health care is starting to work the same way, with lightly trained nurses handling mundane and common illnesses like colds, flus, strep throat, ear infections, checkups, etc. They can pass everything they cannot handle up to the next tier of more experienced nurses, and so on. Eventually, only significant medical problems end up seeing a doctor, reducing the need for doctors.
- Think of new ways to think about doctors in order to increase the number of doctors and reduce the training requirements [ref].
- To further reduce the need for doctors, off-load as much work as possible as soon as possible to AI [ref], [ref].
- Use robots and AI whenever possible, for example robot pharmacists [ref].
- Telemedicine can make this process even more efficient.
- Many specialists can be trained only in their specialty. For example, there can be specialists trained in a surgical robot procedure, or removing an appendix. It might take only a few months to train someone to remove an appendix and sew up the site, as opposed to the ten years of training seen in the current American system to train a general surgeon.
- There are many lessons that can be taken from different health care systems around the world. Cuba’s system is particularly interesting: “In 2006, BBC flagship news programme Newsnight featured Cuba’s Healthcare system as part of a series identifying “the world’s best public services”. The report noted that “Thanks chiefly to the American economic blockade, but partly also to the web of strange rules and regulations that constrict Cuban life, the economy is in a terrible mess: national income per head is minuscule, and resources are amazingly tight. Healthcare, however, is a top national priority” The report stated that life expectancy and infant mortality rates are nearly the same as the USA’s. Its doctor-to-patient ratios stand comparison to any country in Western Europe. Its annual total health spend per head, however, comes in at $251; just over a tenth of the UK’s.” [ref]
- See also this, which describes existing facilities in a refugee camp.
All medical training occurs as part of the colony’s normal software-driven training and education program and task allocation system, so the training is “free” and accelerated. For example, this page talks about the training of a nurse in America today:
“An associate’s degree in nursing (ADN) includes courses in anatomy, nursing, nutrition, chemistry, microbiology among others. You’ll also be required to take general liberal arts classes. Earning an ADN is the most popular option for registered nurses and opens the door to entry-level staff nurse positions” [ref]
The “general liberal arts classes” part of this description is symptomatic of a problem. Why waste time on these classes, which have no relevance to the role? By streamlining and accelerating the process, focusing only on what is necessary, and adding automation to the process wherever possible, a first rate and simultaneously inexpensive healthcare system can rapidly evolve in the refugee colony.
Step 11 – Start the education system
In the same way that many of the incoming refugees will already have healthcare training, many will also have education training and can form the core of a growing education system. It will be important to get all children in the refugee colony enrolled in school and attending from day one. It will also be important to create a university system to begin training young scientists, engineers, doctors, nurses, police officers, etc.
Step 12 – Start the restaurant system
The approach to the Mars colony described in Chapters 4 and 5 delivers food to the Mars colonists in restaurants. This is an extremely efficient way to deliver high quality food. Think about the variety and quality of food found on a typical cruise. This is the goal of the restaurant system in the refugee colony.
In order for this to work in a refugee colony on Earth, we need certain essentials found in any Earth restaurant: tables and chairs, stoves and ovens, pots and pans, dishes and flatware, sinks and soap. We need these things at scale. Assume $100 per refugee for these supplies.
Then we will need to train a set of cooks and servers, and give them a set of recipes and techniques to prepare cruise-quality food. The training, techniques and recipes will come from the colony’s operating manual and training library. The colony’s software can then deploy the workers to the restaurants.
Eventually all of the food served in these restaurants will come from the colony. But at the beginning of the process, food will need to be imported as raw ingredients for preparation. To give some idea of the costs, here are the commodity prices of some common foods in December 2016 [ref]:
- Wheat: $125 per metric ton, or 5 cents per pound
- Corn: $150 per metric ton, or 6 cents per pound.
- Soybeans: $390 per metric ton, or 17 cents a pound
- Rice: $390 per metric ton, or 17 cents a pound
- Potatoes: $9 per hundredweight or 9 cents per pound
- Oranges: $1,125 per metric ton. An orange weighs about one third of a pound, so this is 6,600 oranges at 17 cents each
- Sugar: 23 cents per pound
- Soybean oil: $775 per metric ton, or 35 cents per pound
- Cocoa beans: $250 per metric ton, or 12 cents per pound
Think about the ingredients needed to make common dishes:
- To make a chocolate cake from scratch we need: flour, sugar, oil, cocoa, salt, baking soda, vinegar, vanilla extract and water [ref].
- To make a loaf of bread from scratch we need: flour, sugar, yeast, salt, oil and water [ref].
- To make falafel from scratch we need: chickpeas, onion, parsley, garlic, flour, salt, cumin, pepper, cardamon and oil [ref].
The point is that any food, made from scratch, contains simple ingredients that can be purchased in bulk on commodity markets. Then, once the colony’s farms are working, the colony grows its own food using the colony’s available colonists. See Chapters 4 and 5 for details.
Step 13 – Bring in necesary raw materials
What inputs will this group of one million people need to begin sustaining themselves with food? The first thing is a source of water as mentioned in Step 2. Then a supply of seeds. Perhaps some fertilizer (human manure is another possibility, as Mark Watney did in “The Martian”). Some simple farming equipment like tractors and plows will be necessary so that they can begin farming. And some education (see Step 4). The refugees will need to be taught best practices for growing different crops. The biggest resource available to refugees is time, so refugees can combine their efforts using the task allocation system and begin farming.
A common question is, “Where will the money for these initial inputs come from?” For example, who is paying for the tractors? As mentioned in Step 3, money is already flowing to these refugees from a variety of UN, NGO and government sources. Each person in a refugee camp is already consuming hundreds of dollars in donated food per year. In that context, giving the colony tractors, or even giving each refugee a shovel ($6 at Walmart) and 200 pounds of seed potatoes ($20 in the commodity marketplace) is something that is easy to imagine.
The refugees can also begin planting forests. There is a significant effort already underway, for example, in the Sahara desert. It is called “The Great Green Wall” [ref]. The refugees and their new society can fit right into this plan by establishing forests that will sustain them in the future.
The refugees can also plant cotton and can begin making clothes (see Step 15 on industrialization).
The refugees also need building materials to get themselves out of their tents and into real homes.
One difference between Earth and Mars is that, on Mars, we can assume that there are resources available “for free”. For example, there are sources of iron that are readily accessible on the surface – hence the red color of the planet Mars:
“Based on these data sources, scientists think that the most abundant chemical elements in the martian crust, besides silicon and oxygen, are iron, magnesium, aluminum, calcium, and potassium. These elements are major components of the minerals comprising igneous rocks.” [ref]
On Earth, things are not quite so easy – most resources must be purchased by or given to the refugees. But there are several pieces of good news:
- Commodity prices for many things the refugees need – iron, aluminum, glass, etc. – are relatively low. Iron, for example, is currently $80 per metric ton, and steel is $300 per metric ton [ref].
- Each person in the society has some finite need over the course of a lifetime for each material. Per-person needs for iron, aluminum, copper, cement, etc. are bounded.
- Raw materials like oil and natural gas can be easily purchased in commodity markets to make things like plastics and polymers [ref] (vegetable oil is another possible feed stock [ref]), and then all of these plastics can be recycled over and over again. One barrel of crude oil contains 42 gallons (159 liters), and weighs 300 pounds (136 kg). It costs approximately $1 per gallon, and the carbon in it can be used to make about 7 pounds of a plastic like polyethylene. Polyester fibers, nylon, etc. can be used in everything from clothing to carpets. Cradle-to-cradle recycling can make every product completely recyclable, so inputs are low after initial purchases.
Step 14 – Establish a source of electricity
On Earth, the average home in a developed country uses 30 kilowatt-hours of electricity per day. So the residents of the refugee camp will be using 7.5 million kilowatt-hours per day (assuming four people per household) if they consume electricity at a normal American rate [ref].
Now we double this number to account for transportation, office space, retail, restaurants, factories, etc. We need 15 million kilowatt-hours per day for the colony.
Assume 1,000 watts of sunlight falls on Syria or the Sahara desert per square meter [ref]. Assume 20% efficiency for the solar cells [ref]. Assume 6 hours of sunlight per day. That is 1,200 watt-hours per day per square meter (11 square feet). So 109 watt-hours per square foot per day for a solar array. A square mile of solar panels is therefore able to produce 3 million kilowatt-hours of energy per day. We need 20 square miles of solar panels for a one million person refugee colony.
We need to leave space between the solar panels for maintenance, and for service roads. So a page like this one estimates more like 30 watt-hours per square foot of land per day. Therefore we need more like 72 square miles of space for solar panels.
If we assume that solar panels cost $1/watt (installed) [ref, taking into account the refugees’ free human time for installation], then the electricity costs $1 per 6 watt-hours per day. We need a total of 15 billion watt-hours, so the solar array for the colony will cost $2.5 billion, or $2,500 per refugee. These panels will easily last 25 years, and there are good indications they will last far longer [ref]. This means that per refugee we are paying only about $100 per year for electricity over 25 years. This is only about 2 cents per kilowatt hour, and solar prices are declining rapidly [ref].
What about energy storage? Battery prices have been falling rapidly as well [ref]. There is also quite a bit of room for innovation. For example, storing electricity in the form of ice may become an inexpensive way to handle energy storage for air conditioning and refrigeration compared to batteries [ref].
Step 15– Start the industrialization and automation process
As the colony begins, it will have no manufacturing capability. Like the Mars colony, this functionality will need to start from scratch and rapidly advance [See Chapter 13 for details]. The good news is that small amounts of industrialization in the refugee colony can yield huge returns in productivity early on.
For example, if we look at the industrial revolution that began in England and then spread to Europe and America starting in the 1700s, much of the early work was focused on the automation of textile production: ginning, carding, spinning, weaving and sewing all became mechanized [ref].
The ability to spin carded cotton into thread, for example, proceeded like this:
- The home spinning wheel – allows one person to spin one thread at a time. A person can spin approximately 4 meters (12 feet) of thread per hour, so it would take 2,250 hours to spin the thread needed for the cloth in one shirt [ref].
- The spinning jenny, invented in 1764, allowed one person to spin 8 threads, and eventually 120 threads, at a time [ref]. However, the thread was not of the highest quality.
- The spinning frame, invented in 1767, is a bit more complicated but spins higher quality thread. It could spin hundreds of threads at a time, and required another machine to produce the rovings that fed the machine. [ref].
- The spinning mule, invented in 1779, and then completely automated in 1825, could spin over 1,000 high quality threads at a time. [ref].
Similarly the power loom first appeared in 1784, then was automated in 1842. The cotton gin appeared in 1794. The Singer sewing machine first appeared in 1851. Even more complicated devices like circular looms to make socks (complete with heel pouches) appeared as early as 1866 – around the time of the U.S. Civil war.
By the year 1900, over a century ago, the problem of spinning thread and weaving it into cloth was completely solved. Advances have been made since then of course, but the point is that machines like the spinning mule were produced at a time when manufacturing capabilities and materials were quite primitive by today’s standards. So people in the refugee colony will be able replicate and manufacture these kinds of machines easily, saving millions of hours of human time [ref].
In the same way, the refugee colony will be able to manufacture its own tables, chairs, dishes, flatware, stoves, ovens, clothing, housewares, furniture, etc.
Things like tractors and harvesters went through the same kind of historical progression. Therefore, the operating manual will contain instructions, training, videos, etc. for manufacturing efficient batteries, electric motors, compact transmissions and so on to manufacture tractors and other farm equipment. There is actually a strong precedent for this, called the Global Village Construction Set:
“The Global Village Construction Set (GVCS) is a modular, DIY, low-cost, high-performance platform that enables fabrication of the 50 different Industrial Machines that it takes to build a small, sustainable civilization with modern comforts. The package has these attributes:
- Open source
- Low cost
- User serviceable
- Closed loop manufacturing (full recycling of all raw materials)
- High performance
- Flexible fabrication
- Industrial efficiency” [ref]
The same kind of approach, at a higher level, can be taken for every type of farm equipment described in the colony’s operating manual.
To make all of these different things, the refugee colony will need raw materials. There is some finite amount of raw materials that a human being needs to live a modern life. With 100% recycling, these materials can be used over and over again. Here are some of the materials that will need to be purchased for each refugee [ref]:
- Hot rolled Steel: $600 per metric ton
- Aluminum: $1,750 per metric ton
- Copper: $550 per 100 pounds
These raw materials can be turned into tools, machines and products.
Step 16 – Begin constructing real housing and other facilities
Assume that, because of the cost of raw materials, the refugee colony starts with cruise ship style housing (200 square feet and a private restroom per couple). Assume that the housing can be built at a raw material cost of $30 per square foot in multi-story buildings [see Chapter 8]. This means approximately $3,000 per refugee for housing.
The fundamental problem that needs to be addressed here, and it will be the same problem on Mars, is the raw material choices when it comes to building construction. Imagine if a refugee colony could be started in a forested area. In this case, it is easy to construct housing from wood, because the wood is free – it comes with the land. This was the situation granted to the original settlers of the United States almost everywhere to the east of the Mississippi river [ref]. If there is no wood available on site, then wood becomes expensive (approximately $1 per board foot, or $300 per cubic meter today [ref]). Growing a stand of trees, unfortunately, takes 45 years.
Building in Syria or the Sahara desert could cause several responses when choosing materials:
- Build primarily with steel instead of wood. Steel construction is strong, durable and long-lasting [ref], [ref].
- Use concrete or cinder block construction, which is quite common in Syria.
- Build underground
- Use a faster growing species like bamboo and transform bamboo fibers into other materials [ref].
- Develop a completely new type of building material, and/or a completely new type of architecture. 3D printing of housing would fall into this category [ref], [ref]. So would something like monolithic domes [ref].
Research and decisions can be made and then wired into the operating manual and site plan for the refugee colony. Different decisions will be made depending on the site chosen for the colony.
Step 17 – Move rapidly toward a completely functioning and improving society
The citizens in the refugee colony will at this point have everything they need to advance their society forward: food, clothing, housing, health care, education, public works, manufacturing, etc. will all be operational, growing and improving. This will be a significant improvement over the conditions currently endured by refugees, slum dwellers, etc.
The point of this set of steps is not to be 100% comprehensive, but to demonstrate that a refugee colony designed using the socio-economic-political principles of the Mars colony can provide millions of refugees with a real and self-reliant city as opposed to the poverty and aimlessness that refugees typically experience in a refugee camp found on Earth today.
Understanding total costs for the first refugee colony
The New York Times ran a fascinating article in 2014 entitled, “How to Build the Perfect Refugee Camp”:
“Perfect” is a bit of a stretch however. For example, one family interviewed in the article has 12 people living in 230 square feet, sleeping on the floor. The fact is that the Kilis container camp described in the article is still a camp, and it is still considered “temporary” for all of the residents, and it is pretty appalling unless compared to dying of starvation or exposure.
The biggest problem, however, is that the people living in the camp lack any autonomy, any freedom of any significance, and they are completely dependent on handouts. They have little opportunity to grow their own food, to make their own things, to improve their housing situation, etc. The article puts it this way:
“Besides the comforts, and the cleanliness, and the impressive facilities of the Kilis camp, there is one important thing to note: Nobody likes living there.
“It’s hard for us,” said Basheer Alito, the section leader who was so effusive in his praise for the camp and the Turks. “Inside, we’re unhappy. In my heart, it’s temporary, not permanent.”
“What if it was permanent?” I asked him.
Quickly, he answered, “It’s impossible to accept this.”
Rouba Bakri, who told me Kilis was a perfect camp, acknowledged that keeping her spirits up was difficult. “We’re trying our best,” she said. “We’re visiting relatives, volunteering, trying to keep busy. But it is nothing like a home.”
Another Kilis resident, Mahmoud Joundah, agreed. “This is a five-star hotel,” he said. Then with his next breath, “We’re not happy here.””
Given a choice, it is likely that most refugees would like to be able to turn back time and put everything back to how it was, living in Syria. Since that is not a possibility, the alternative is to give people something significantly better than what they have today. This possibility is offered here in the form of the Mars colony’s socio-economic-political approach.
The other thing the article points out is that Turkey is spending nearly $5 per refugee per day in this camp, and that money will need to be spent indefinitely in the current configuration. One reason is because the large majority of the man-power and human time that the refugees represent is idle, rather than building and growing a community and a society.
This $5 per day per refugee could be used instead as seed capital to build a self-sustaining society patterned after the Mars colony approach. This society of Syrian refugees could be built on the Turkish border. It could be built in Syria from land reclaimed from ISIS. It could be built in the Sahara desert, or many other places. The point is that, instead of being refugees, these people could become autonomous and prosperous in a place that they grow and build and improve with their own efforts.
All that we need to do is give them the socio-economic-political system that sets them free.
As mentioned in Step 3, it will take seed capital to do this on Earth. Some amount of money is needed to bootstrap the Mars colony approach. If we were to drop one million refugees onto a blank site, and kick off the Mars colony approach, how much money will this bootstrapping take? If we look through the previous steps, the kind of costs we are talking about include:
- The cost of securing a water supply (highly site dependent).
- The cost of the land, if there is a cost (for example, there is quite a bit of desert land on Earth today that could be considered essentially free).
- The initial cost of importing food, until the colony becomes self-sustaining on food production.
- The cost of Thanet Earth scale facilities to grow produce (estimated at $200 per colonist in step 2).
- The cost of an initial electricity supply, e.g. solar panels (In Step 14 this cost is estimated at $2,500 per refugee).
- The cost of initial electronics to connect everyone together and provide both an information and communication platform. One proposal is something like Kindle Fire Android tablets, currently selling in the United States for $50. Any low-cost tablet would do, along with ubiquitous WiFi or a cellular system [ref].
- Any costs associated with writing the operating manual and operational software for the colony.
- The cost of initial supplies for the first wave of refugees: tables, chairs, stoves, ovens, etc. that the colonists will initially need as their society boots up.
- Any initial costs associated with security.
- The cost of raw materials needed by the colonists. There is some finite amount of steel, aluminum, copper, etc, that a colonist will use in a lifetime. By understanding the lifetime needs, these could be considered one-time costs. Given that a metric ton of rolled steel costs $600, these costs can be manageable on a per-colonist basis.
- Initial costs of housing.
- Initial costs of medications, farm equipment, etc. until the colony is producing these things itself.
Let’s imagine that these costs total $10,000 in round numbers per colonist. The colonists are then living in a self-sustaining society. It sounds like a big number until we consider the alternative. Syrian refugees are costing $5 a day per refugee in the Kilis camp, and these costs could easily last a decade or more. These costs could potentially last for generations. A decade at $5 a day is $18,250 per refugee. By comparison, the Mars colony approach could be a bargain.
There is one important difference to note between the economics of the Mars colony and an Earth-based refugee colony. Because of the costs and distances involved, the Mars colony needs to be an economically independent entity. “Trade” in any traditional sense is limited by the distance. A refugee colony on Earth is not necessarily constrained in this way, especially at the start. Therefore the refugee colony could produce goods for sale if it so desired. The Mondragon Corporation in Spain offers one potential model to consider [ref].
The question is: can humanity get its act together in a significant way and make this kind of opportunity available to a group of one million refugees? And then, once the first refugee city is working, can humanity repeat this effort thousands of times to rescue the large fraction of humanity that is living in miserable conditions right now?
Go back and look at the misery seen here and here. Now compare it to the living conditions seen here or here. This is the kind of difference in the quality of life that we are talking about in this chapter. Add to this freedom, autonomy, the ability for refugees and other people living in abject poverty today to live happy, prosperous lives in a modern city they have built themselves. The difference is night and day for billions of people on planet Earth.
It certainly would be worth trying. Billions of human beings living in misery is no way to run a planet.
Mars Colony Table of Contents
- 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:
- Inside the Rift, The Second Intelligent Species: Marshall Brain on Jobs, Mars, and Technology
- “Stuff They Don’t Want You to Know” Podcast, Moving to Mars with Marshall Brain
- “The State of Entrepreneurship” Podcast, Entrepreneurship and Mars
- Institute for Emerging Issues, First in Future Podcast, Parts 1 and 2
- See also:
[Feedback and suggestions on any part of this book are greatly appreciated. Contact information is here.]