The ethics of colonizing Mars

Elon Musk, inventor and CEO of SpaceX, recently shared his vision to build the first human city on Mars within a decade. For the cost of a home, The Interplanetary Transport System would take you and 100 tons of cargo to the Red Planet.

In 2013, the Kepler spacecraft found nearly 40 billion Earth-like planets in the Milky Way galaxy. As NASA explores the heavens for more habitable planets, Musk has mused about his “duty to maintain the light of consciousness” via space colonization. Last year, astronauts were able to taste fresh food grown in space, and NASA continues to invest in Veggie technology, a critical component of space transportation. A multi-planetary species is one that lives on more than one planet, and the work to make humans multi-planetary has begun.

Should we take ourselves to other planets? Human rationality and values have woven dark, damaged, all-powerful systems into the tapestry of civilization. Most notably among these systems is capitalism and its partner, consumerism. Do we see ourselves moving planet to planet, sucking life out of each one for our own survival? If we are to impress ourselves onto this universe, we must solemnly inquire about our impact on it.

Capitalism and consumerism have become the epitome of perpetuating systems that adversely turn our species parasitic. Consumption has increased the size of our landfills while decreasing the ethical standards we expect from businesses. Industry and mindless consumerism intertwined to create our current state. Now, they must disentangle and consumerism must lead industry out of planetary and ethical degradation. Mindful consumerism is how we can turn business into a force for good. A mass-scale shift in consumer spending will inevitably create a value-shift in capitalism, which will upend modern civilization’s parasitic effect on this planet.

The dawn of modern consumerism began in the 1940s, not even a century ago. Fossil-led supply has grown in tandem with advertising-fueled consumerism. Industry won’t become a part of the solution unless society creates strong market demand for sustainability and social impact.

Robert M. Pirsig, who wrote Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, an investigation into the metaphysics of modern rationality, notes that the litmus test for a functioning machine is the satisfaction and tranquility it provides the user. Humans bring neither satisfaction nor tranquility to Earth and its life forms. Instead, we’ve developed systems that extract great value from the Earth and give little back. Pirsig’s solution to when a machine is broken gives us two paths forward: We can change ourselves or change our machine.

Humans bring neither satisfaction nor tranquility to Earth and its life forms.

In our current collective state, we would be a burden on other planets and forms of life. We must change ourselves urgently and then pass on higher sensibilities of consciousness, rationality, ethics and values to future generations to build upon. The exponential pace of technology demands that the time for root-shifts in our structures is now, as this will be nearly impossible as a multi-planetary species.

Mindful or conscious consumerism is the application of personal economics toward goods or services that entrench environmental and social solutions into their business models. Conscious consumerism occurs when consumers align their wallets with their values. When mindless consumption is traded for mindful consumerism, we create ethics where there previously were none. The shift toward conscious consumption is led by millennials; in a global Nielsen survey, 73 percent of young respondents said they are willing to pay more for sustainable goods.

Capitalism needs conscious consumerism to support companies whose supply chains, profit structures, product, packaging and more express value in their eco and ethical impact. When these businesses make a profit, they set in motion a perpetuating system of positive change that, unlike charity or CSR, is entangled within its rationality rather than a byproduct of it.

I grew up in Nigeria, Zimbabwe, Vietnam, Bangladesh and India because of my father’s work in impact investing with the World Bank. As I bid farewell to the majestic spirit of southern Africa six years after calling it “home” and celebrated Tet in Vietnam, I was humbled by my front-row seat to the power of capitalism to make meaningful environmental and social impact. Consumers can and should support businesses that lift communities out of poverty and add value to the environment.

While the trend toward conscious consumerism has already begun, it hasn’t generated nearly enough momentum to keep up with our pace of environmental destruction. Nielsen reports that in 2015, sales of consumer goods from brands with a commitment to sustainability grew more than 4 percent, while those without such a commitment grew less than 1 percent.

Conscious consumerism occurs when consumers align their wallets with their values.

Across industries, businesses that are good for the planet and its life are experiencing growth. Innovation and entrepreneurialism have engendered new business models and birthed creative solutions to our greatest crisis. There hasn’t been a more exciting and dynamic time to exercise one’s values upon budgets. In food, local and organically grown produce continue to become more accessible. The cost of solar energy is reducing. Faster change is required for us to see large enough shifts in consumer spending that will meaningfully combat our urgent environmental and social crisis. The power lies within the daily choices of average consumers who choose what and how to buy.

History will look back at us and wonder why we didn’t make more conscious choices about what we consume in order to save our ecosystem. As those fortunate to have means and choices in consumption, will we arm ourselves with knowledge and values to wield our economics for our planet, rationality and ethics? When we make our next purchase, will we support those parts of the solution? Will we avoid the simple Google search to locate ethical, sustainable alternatives to our traditional toiletries or clothing, or will we continue our current habits due to convenience, cost and lack of knowledge or will?

Do we deserve to become multi-planetary? Let us become productive participants in the glorious dance of life. If we can dream of the insurmountable task of becoming multi-planetary, then surely we can fathom expending the energy, resources and willpower that come with making mindful purchase and waste decisions.

If we can succeed in preserving our current planet and its ecosystems, we save human consciousness and the integrity of our values. As Elon Musk describes his desire to keep the “light of consciousness” alive, I press that we also ensure it’s brightly illuminated and worthy of traversing this magnificent universe.