Riskgaming

Astronauts all lie, but the biggest lie is that we will colonize Mars (Zach Weinersmith, Part 1 of 2)

Description

Transcript

This is a human-generated transcript, however, it has not been verified for accuracy.

Sam Arbesman:
... given the biological issues, the legal issues, all these kinds of different issues, and there are still obviously many, many people who view settling space as some sort of moral imperative. And then both in the beginning of the book and also at the end of the book, you kind of lay out the arguments and say, "Okay, these are actually not nearly as compelling." I would love to hear your thoughts on that. When people talk about existential risk and therefore this is required, and then how do you address that?

Zach Weinersmith:
Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, I never want to be in the position of trying to figure out what other people's internal motivations are, because that is dangerous ground. I would say one of the other big research projects we had is we found just any book from the past future casting space we could find we bought, and we would read these. And so I have books going back to the 1920s, if you want to be a little more broad, maybe the 1860s, about a future in space. And they use a lot of the same justifications over time for why we should do this. I think a lot of them are basically, they're aspirational and they're cool, but they're basically not serious. So, I very quickly do a couple examples. So, people will say...
Actually, a guy who I think hates our guts, Dr. Robert Zubrin, believes in something called the Turner thesis, the basic idea being that on the American frontier, all these Europeans, they fanned out west and it was tough. And so they had to be tough and resolute and individualistic, but also democratic. And that is how we became Americans and got our cool unique value system. It's a theory that was proposed in 1893. It was dominant in history until maybe the 1950s or so. It's not taken seriously in the academy anymore. You can argue that that's because there are a bunch of pointy-headed leftists who don't have any fun, which I think that's probably something like his view.
I don't want to over-trivialize it, but I think it's something like that. And the basic deal is the evidence is not good. We have an article we're trying to put about this, which is basically the Old West is not the Old West you think it is, and even if it were, it wouldn't apply on Mars. Just to give one example, the thesis, and there's broader versions of this that people make a lot, the idea that the Old West was a place where people just did whatever they wanted all the time is crazy. Set aside the offensive aspect where they were committing genocide over and over and over again for four centuries, five centuries.
The federal government was there. Much of the 19th century, most federal spending was in the West. You don't prosecute thousands of genocides without a federal government presence for armies. Armies had to be fed, clothed, housed, transported. So, it's just a myth. It's not to say that crazy stuff didn't happen out west, but the idea that it was a kind of free-for-all where men were men, et cetera, it's just not serious.

Sam Arbesman:
Yeah. And even my sense is, even within many western frontier towns, there was actually very strict gun control, which I think is kind of like... Going back to the space element, you have to have very strict controls on everything in order to make it work, because these are closed systems.

Zach Weinersmith:
And that leads to the next thing, which is even if you imagine it was like in the movies where it was just cowboys doing cowboy stuff, and there was no federal government, we were on our own as tough white guys, even if you imagine that's true, it won't apply on Mars. So, part of the Turner thesis, I don't want to get too in the weeds on this, but part of the thesis is that this was all possible because land was cheap. And that part is true. But first of all, often forgotten is that a lot of that land was not taken. Even in the 1930s they were still trying to give it away.
They couldn't give it away, because people don't want crappy land. They want good land. The good land went. The bad land is now national parks. Bad for agriculture. But so Mars is all bad. All of it. Nobody's going to want it in the same way they wanted the west. And furthermore, in those days you could get to the land. There's a story with Oklahoma. There have been times when people literally raced to put down a flag and could just get the land, and that was that. And on Mars, you're going to have to be backed by high finance and high tech and high government. Even if it were true, even if the myth were true, it will not apply on Mars.
So, anyway, you can apply this kind of logic to a bunch of situations like the idea that, well, we'll get technology faster because it'll be tough out there, as if the tough parts of Earth are the ones that generate all the good technology, which is just a bizarre claim. It's not supported. And more serious claims are maybe that we'll fix the environment, but the evidence is not good. And I don't want to get derailed here, but basically there are all these nice, we should do this type of claims that are basically silly. And I think part of why we have these is because the economic case is so weak for space. There's just not a good... You can make money providing services to governments on Mars. The idea that you can make money by going to Mars, I think is basically silly.

Sam Arbesman:
And yeah, if the kind of economic argument or the moral argument or the frontier argument or even technological advancement argument and progress don't really hold, then people still fall back on the existential or existential risk kind of argument of like, "Okay, we at least need a backup of humanity." And you make the argument that actually, for a very long time, not only will it not be a backup, but it's like a nothing compared to the original version we have.

Zach Weinersmith:
Yeah, yeah. There are a couple versions of that claim that we need a plan B. Don't put all your eggs in one basket. Stephen Hawking has made this argument. He passed away, but he used to make that argument. Elon Musk has made this argument. Lots of people made this argument. But when you start thinking about it, it doesn't really hold up that well. So, first of all, if you really need a backup for humanity, it would be much cheaper to dig some kind of mega-bunker that could survive the asteroid we're all afraid of. For that matter, you could put a city on the bottom of the ocean, which would probably be just fine under those conditions. Either of these could survive a nuclear war, global warming, whatever it is we're afraid of. Maybe if you're worried about AI killing everybody, but I feel like once AI has murdered us all, they can go for Mars too.
So, one, there are much cheaper options to reduce the specific existential risk. Two, if you're going to prioritize funds around existential risk, the marginal dollar given to climate change mitigation is almost certainly better spent than some kind of Mars plan. Three, the Mars plan is intentioned with climate mitigation because people will often say, "Well, it runs on hydrogen and oxygen so we can make it clean," but it ain't clean yet and it's not going to be for a long time. And last, and this is really important, which is, are we certain that having a plan B in our own solar system actually reduces existential risk? So, one way to say it is, what are you more afraid of, a dinosaur-sized asteroid eliminating civilization or giving humanity at large, including private actors, the ability to move gigantic objects at high speed in space all the time?
What's more likely to kill us in the next thousand years? Those asteroids, there's a great table in Daniel Deudney's book, Dark Skies, where I forget the exact risk, but the risk of a dinosaur-sized asteroid, they strike something like once every 10, 50 million years, some huge amount of time. So, actually the risk is really low. It's very visceral, it's very vivid, but it's quite low. I would say this: what's a higher risk, dinosaur-sized asteroid or whoopsie by Elon Musk? And then the last thing on that, in the very long term, we only talk about this briefly because we really try not to get too speculative, but a world where inside the same solar system you're multi-planetary, not anytime soon, but at some point in the long term, there is a risk that you get into a multi-planetary war.
So, the reason I say not anytime soon is because it would be very easy to crush any kind of settlement. And the moon is a harsh mistress. I don't know what Heinlein's excuse was, but they could have just dropped an EMP on the moon and the habitat would've been without air and it would've been over. Realistically, you can't defend against Earth in the short term. But if at some point you really had a advanced self-sustaining civilization on Mars, we're both down gravity wells. It's very easy to do damage to your opponent. And importantly, part of why we don't use things like nuclear weapons or gas weapons, or at least we don't very often and it's considered very taboo, is because of the risk of blowback. Biological weapons too. Well, there's no blowback out of a gravity well, other than the anger of your opponent. So, multi-planetary war could be extraordinarily frightening. So, with all this together, it's at least not obvious that the existential risk equation is add one basket of eggs. There's much more going on, and it's just not at all obvious that this reduces risk.

Danny Crichton:
See, one basket of eggs or an egg in the middle of a basket-

Zach Weinersmith:
I don't know. Yeah, I don't know.

Danny Crichton:
... is relatively protected, but if you put two eggs next to each other where they can clash with each other, suddenly there's a lot more danger.

Zach Weinersmith:
Yeah. If you hang one above the other, it's not good.

Danny Crichton:
Exactly. I want to take this a slightly different way real quick. We're talking about existential risks, but obviously, and we were talking about this with Kelly on an earlier call, I'm sorry she couldn't join us, but existentialism, which is... Obviously this has in some way become, some people call it a cult. Some people call it a religion. Some people call it a calling or a vocation. This idea that creating a multi-planetary species, sure it's not going to happen. The science doesn't make sense. None of it really adds up.
But one of the questions is, but is that a good mission? And you described this in your epigram at the beginning of the book of saying, "Look, we were using the same evidence, the same data. You're not going to like our conclusions, but we all agree on the mission of making a more equitable human kind of species," et cetera. I'm curious what you think about it from the existentialism point of view. Obviously people are very gung-ho about wanting to do this, even if it's impossible. Is that still a worthwhile agenda or is that distracting from other ways of organizing the spirit of progress and how we organize our lives?

Zach Weinersmith:
Yeah. So, I view my job with a book like this to just say what the deal is. I personally think space research is awesome. I'm a professional dream killer. I have to show up and give these talks where I say all the problems look like, but I love this stuff. I never even talk about this-

Danny Crichton:
Sam, I think I just found my job title as a professional dream killer.

Zach Weinersmith:
A dream killer. Yeah.

Danny Crichton:
That's what I just do, just shit all over everything.

Zach Weinersmith:
No, I remember it was probably more than one conversation, but I remember just sitting at the kitchen table with my wife and mutually realizing that we were going to instead write this book that was more broadly negative. And it was like, "Well, we could still have written a book that was nicer about this stuff, but it would've just felt unethical." This seems to me where the facts lead. If someone is motivated, and I suspect they are, to go work at SpaceX and produce worldwide internet access because the real fantasy is to live down a hole on Mars, that's fine. These things are inspirational and that's cool. And by the way, we're really only talking about settlement. Settlement is where the negatives show up.
If you're talking about sending some people to put boots on the ground on Mars and poke around, I'm skeptical that it's the best use of scientific dollars, but I don't get to make budget calls and I would cheer when I saw it. I would be very excited. We make a lot of jokes about Elon Musk. When Starship landed its first booster, I remember my wife started tearing up. We care about this stuff. But I can't write a book and say, "Well, this fantasy that I think is bogus, well, at least it's inspirational." I'm a pop science person. I just have to tell the truth as I see it. I don't think it's bad for people to have goals, but I do think if at some point we're getting serious, and as you mentioned, there really is a revolution in the ability to put stuff in space, we have to move past the fantasy.
If all the engineers want to believe whatever they want and it gets them to produce internet, like I'm talking to you on Starlink right now, that's great. But at some point I'd like the lawyers to show up. Because one thing we talk about, and I won't get in the weeds on this, but there's not actually that much valuable turf on the moon to the extent any of it is valuable. And we've already got saber rattling from China and the US, and it's really weird. As someone like me who thinks going to the moon has no economic value, if anything, it's like a drain on government coffers, an awesome one that gets you good PR, but there's no investment return that's not going to grow the economic pie of the planet Earth.
But there's still a risk of people fighting over it because it has salience to people. So, I would rather reduce that salience, let the lawyers remove all the fun. Everybody can keep reading science fiction, but if there's some risk of escalating international tensions for no reason instead of just doing boring science, that to me is something that ought to be dealt with in a clear-eyed fashion. Yeah, sorry. I hate being in the position of being like, "Fuck your dreams." For my daughter, I have recounted Apollo 11 maybe 50 times, because I love telling her this story and the way her eyes get big when I talk about how they got off course and they had to correct and wasn't Armstrong amazing. But when you get down to the business of living, you got to make sure the shower works and the toilet's operating. And so that's what we're going for.

Sam Arbesman:
And I feel like at the end you try to leave us at least a certain amount of optimism in the sense of like, "Okay, we believe in this stuff, but here are the things that should be done." In terms of, "This is the research program that should be followed." And so whether it's trying to better understand physiological effects or certain things around agriculture. What are the things that you think people should be spending all this huge amounts of money actually on?

Zach Weinersmith:
Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah. So, yeah, our editor requested this. Because the original ending was just kind of like-

Danny Crichton:
The editor is always the one who's like, "Please turn it around."

Zach Weinersmith:
Please turn it around. But actually, once she suggested it, it was like, "Yeah." Because it is good to stick your neck out a little and say, "Well, if we had to do this, what would you do?" As I recall, the scenario we posit is essentially, if the government idiotically gave me and Kelly 20 billion bucks a year with a specific goal of space settlement, what would we do? Because for people who don't know, you might have the idea that NASA has the goal of space settlement or something like that, and they don't. NASA is a lot more grab-baggy. It's a government agency whose major task, at least when it comes to humans, is something like PR. There's plenty of great science, all sorts of cool stuff, but it's a national prestige thing. That's why you said humans to space. There's a great book on that by Alex MacDonald called The Long Space Age.
But so, suppose there really was an organized Let's Colonize Mars plan. And so what we argue is there would be three main tracks. One would be human reproduction. It's one of the biggest impediments we have, and importantly, would take a really long time ethically to get answers to how to do it safely. So, we talk about this in the book. The state of our knowledge is almost nothing. We have some experiments with vertebrates, but not many. Some of them seem to go just fine. Some, there are serious problems. But the data set is so small, it's hard to know if that was dumb luck. And if there is a problem, it's hard to know what caused it. Was it the high acceleration on the trip up? Was it the microgravity? Was it something we're not seeing? So, basically the data is quite poor. What you'd want to do is try to have an organized program of scaling up through animal models, which has its own ethical questions, obviously, but eventually to get to where we could be confident that a human woman could safely have a baby, both for her and for the child.
And then, and this is important, that child has to, if you want to have a settlement, has to develop into an adult who can have babies too, which is a much bigger, much tougher, much longer science project. So, that is track one. That itself would be huge and very difficult. Track two, another area where we don't know enough, is how to create closed loop ecological systems. So, if you've ever read about Biosphere 2, that's the most famous one. And basically you're talking about a sealed bubble where the plant and bacteria life generate enough oxygen and you can recycle all the waste from humans and, if you're keeping animals, animals, and basically have an ecosystem that is separate from its surroundings, other than letting in sunlight. We don't know much about how to do it. Biosphere was easily the biggest. It was three acres. It had eight humans in it.
By the end, they were starving and fighting with each other. And so assuming linear scaling, which is probably a bad idea, although I don't know in which direction it's a bad idea, if you take just Biosphere 2, to support, I think, a million people, we estimated you'd need a greenhouse the size of Singapore twice. So, I think for your finance-fluent audience, you might assume you'd get returns to scale, but the reason you might not is that Biosphere 2 was able to take power off the grid and the people in it didn't have to build it. So, it might be more complicated, but we don't know. There are a couple small scale experiments you want a lot more. Probably Biosphere could have actually been optimized quite a bit more. It was run by crazy people who were not optimizing. So, probably there's a lot of great work to be done, but there's not a lot of money in it.
So, this is one of our points. If you were a billionaire who's really serious about this stuff, this is absolutely a track you'd be spending a lot of money on. Nobody is. There's some very small government-run programs in Japan and Europe and China and the US. So, that's track two. So, those are the things you really need. There's other tech stuff obvious that we talk about, but that stuff I see as much more... There's remunerative stuff in that. So, we're building more bigger rockets for actual money-making stuff. We're building life support systems for arguably money-making tourism stuff that's still kind of in the pipe. But these other things, you would not naturally develop orbital obstetrics for a tourism program, I hope. And so, we need that. And then the last track, which is the really hard one is, and I don't want to get off the rails here, but basically the legal regime we have right now is kind of scary because it disallows territorial claims, but does allow resource extraction, which is really perverse and conflict-prone.
And there's disagreement, broadly speaking, between the West and China and then also within the West and also Russia. And India is becoming the next big player, and it will be interesting to see where they stand in this mix. And so there is a risk of something like turf wars or escalation or resource wars that again, I think, are pointless. So, you'd want to ideally work out some kind of legal regime. We suggest, just to suggest something, that it could work like how we do with the seabed, which disallows territorial claims, but does allow organized extraction in a nice, glacial bureaucratic way. So, that's the third track. So, that's a lot of homework. But broadly speaking as to the legal point, really what you need is a more harmonious Earth where war and terrorism are either unthinkable or much less likely. Because you are putting enormous power into the hands of a large number of people if we have a huge space infrastructure that's not super tightly regulated.

Danny Crichton:
So, really we just need-

Zach Weinersmith:
[inaudible 00:19:10].

Danny Crichton:
Yeah. We need a-

Zach Weinersmith:
Yes. World peace.

Danny Crichton:
... research track to change human nature. Yeah.

Zach Weinersmith:
That, to me, is the deep problem. That really is why we originally ended on more of a down-note. I do think, in defense of humans as not complete monsters, very broadly speaking, if you look at international law in the 20th century, we regulated all these regimes as commons, and it's basically held. There are arguments that humans have become more peaceful. And there's, I think, at least some evidence. I don't want to be too cynical. But if you look at, to me, the Eurozone, the fact that you have these countries that have been warring with each other since they had other names for thousands of years, and now it's basically unthinkable that France and Germany could go to war.
And that's not that long ago that that would've been a dream. So, I don't know if we ever will get to complete world peace. But the other track there, if you want to get a little sci-fi-ish, is you could imagine a world where they are tractor beams or some sort of crazy Star Trek-y technology, and then you maybe could worry a little less about some of this stuff. But trying to stick to what seems like plausible medium-term technology, you need the humans to behave, which is a tricky, but I don't know, maybe not entirely unsolvable problem.

Danny Crichton:
I'm going to ask a final question. And there's a little bit of a postscript. You're also a cartoonist, in addition to fiction writing, in addition to a non-fiction writing. I'm curious, there are illustrations in the book, but you also have the Sunday morning breakfast comic which you produce. I'm curious how the cartooning aspect of your creative energies flows into this. Did it help to have that visual sense versus just... I come from a purely analytical frame all the time. I have no drawing skills. I can't even draw a board cube, let alone anything else. The only thing worse is dance for me. So, I'm curious if that kind of visual... Or was that access to any kind of additional thought that changed your view on Mars, as a post-script here.

Zach Weinersmith:
I would almost worry it would be a detriment. I find orbital mechanics... I can visualize two things orbiting, but the moment a third thing is present, it doesn't work anymore. And just add a fourth thing, and forget about it. There are different ways to do pop science. So, one way is to take a really complicated thing and just kind of, I don't want to say dumb it down, but make it as simple as you can to try to get across some idea about it. And some ideas will bear that and some won't. I find what we enjoy more is, instead of doing that, as much as possible, tell the truth and just throw in enough fat, throw in enough jokes and stories and things that it'll kind of get the audience through it. We worried about that a lot in talking about international law.
Because there's a book called The Little Book of Space Law. If there's any legal people out there who want to get a quick grip on space law, that's a great place to start. And the first sentence, or at least the paragraph, I think, contains the sentence, it's something like, "The first thing to know about space law is, it's property law. It's mostly property law." You're like, "Oh God, all the joy just got sucked out of me." But it's true. It's how we think about property. Most space law is about that. There's little bits of other stuff, but the main concern is property. And so it is boring. And so that's part of why we wanted to read all these books, was to just find those hidden stories.
Like I mentioned the Heiling Nazis. That was in an obscure book about Operation Deep Freeze, which nobody remembers anymore, but it was the US Navy operation to get permanent human presence in Antarctica. And it was just a obscure reference, and I had to find a paper, and there it was. So, our view was the reason we have these cartoon diagrams and we have jokes and we have stories, is so that we can tell you the truth, like what the actual deal on state formation is, because it is really dry. So, we have done the painful work of understanding it, and we're trying to get it to you in a way that you can tolerate. So, to the extent having a career in humor and in storytelling was helpful, it was probably in one, recognizing and writing those jokes, but in also having a sense of how to put an arc on an essay so that it had a complete thought or story to it.

Danny Crichton:
Well, fantastic. Well, Zach Weinersmith, along with your wife Kelly Weinersmith, and I think you actually say that your children are co-authors of the book as well, of the city on Mars. So, everyone's a co-author. Everyone's a part of the project. It was a family endeavor. But Zach and Kelly Weinersmith and Zach, thank you so much for joining us today and talking about the future of Mars settlement, or really the non-future of Mars settlement. Appreciate you joining the podcast.

Zach Weinersmith:
Thanks for having me. It was fun.

continue
listening