Elon Musk's vision for the humanity and colonizing Mars makes me incredibly uneasy. It's not that Elon Musk has said very many inappropriate things, it's that so much of the dialogue about colonizing Mars - inspired, initiated and often influenced by Musk - uses language and frameworks that are a little problematic (and I'm being very generous).
In Episode 10, Season 6 of StarTalk Radio with Neil deGrasse Tyson on March 22, 2015, deGrasse Tyson dialogues with Elon Musk with additional commentary with Bill Nye and Chuck Nice providing some major points worth noting.
Musk's venture capitalism science dreams are driven by his interests to impact the Future of Humanity via 1) The Internet, 2) Sustainability of the Environment, 3) Space Exploration, specifically extending human life beyond on Earth, 4) Artificial Intelligence, and 5) Re-writing Human Genetics.
I love Neil deGrasse Tyson. He's science Bae and definitely a #BLACKandSTEM hero; but Dr deGrasse Tyson doesn't routinely or readily or deeply discuss intersectional or social justice issues as it relates to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. This means that he has completely different types of conversations with guests than I would. On the plus side this means he can engage with wider and broader audiences on a variety of science topics. He talks about a LOT of cool topics with so many interesting and amazing guests. On the super plus size his presence and brand is transitional. He's trusted as a Scientist -- not a black one, not a "started from the bottom" one. His appeal is wide. This is beyond revolutionary and exciting and needed.
However, with broad respect and platform I am disappointed that he (or anyone else in a similar position regardless of identity) fails to at least acknowledge more nuanced narratives. So, I was relieved when Bill Nye interjects and makes two important comments that hint to critical social justice issues. First, Nye offers an additional item to Musk's list to impact Humanity: the need to include women and girls in STEM access and education. Nye, Tyson, and Nice touch on the importance of enfranchising people who have historically been excluded from STEM and this too positively impacts humanity. But the conversation doesn't delve deeply into this important point and no one acknowledges the BIG elephant in the room of racial/ethnic exclusion. Intersectionality isn't addressed at all. *feels*
Second, Nye acknowledges his own ethnic identity, that of deGrasse Tyson's and Chuck Nice, and the identity of Elon Musk and the cultural baggage of Musk's identity (he was born and raised in Apartheid South Africa). There's a brief discussion about the historical significance of human behavior and colonization, but it's as thin as Mars' atmosphere.
Join us as Neil and Elon talk about NASA funding, getting humans excited for the colonization of Mars, and why Elon feels it’s important to not be stuck here on Earth. ~ from The Future of Humanity StarTalk summary
This language bothers me. Stuck?! Why would we be stuck earth. Stuck implies left behind in a bad situation. And as Musk discussed all of the scary Earth ending possibilities it sets up his bold plan to impact humanity as the answer to save us. And as I listened to the (followup) language that Elon Musk fan boys like Stephen Petranek engage in, I am bothered more. Last week, I was down in the center during Petranek's TED2015 talk
hosting a pep rally for the Mission to Mars discussing key points from his forthcoming book and felt increasingly uncomfortable with this proposal regarding the Future of Humanity via space colonization. I 'm nagged by frames or narratives that are presented as universally attractive and necessary and heroic where the protagonists seem to mostly reflect Hollywood action movie casts and plots. *eye rolls*
I began to question, first in my mind then out loud - Who's version of humanity is being targeted for saving? And with the language of proposed interplanetary exploration and settlement using generous references to Christopher Columbus and New World Exploration and British Colonization and US American Manifest Destiny I was halted. I'm not on board for this type of science adventure. Here he was, Petranek, this wealthy white guy telling us, the TED audience, how this other uber wealthy white guy, Musk, will save humanity by allowing humans (who are uber wealthy, too because a seat on M2M costs big $$) to go and live on Mars. "If the light of the future is preserved beyond earth" saves humanity, then I see only a very narrow invitation to this life boat. *cue Titanic references* I'm the child of descendants who experienced the not-so-grand side of those European conquests. Yeah, no I'm not feeling any of this. At. ALL.
I took to Twitter and said so and the conversations it sparked are the stuff of amazement - and not the good kind. It was especially disappointing to see how Homer Hickam, a not-insignificant figure in space science exploration responded to my challenge of these uncomfortable and insensitive narratives. Important conversations need to be had.
Diversity, Inclusion, Access and Ethics should be a critical part of these conversations about space science, discovery, exploration, and yes eventual travel and emigration. And when we look around and see a homogenous group of individuals discussing these issues - issues that command insane budgets, we should pause. Why aren't other voices and perspectives at the table? How much is this conversation being controlled (framed, initiated, directed, routed) by capitalist and political interests of the (few) people at the table?
And when we call out these oversights on inclusion how do we respond? How are people responding? There is so much work to do. So much.