Vision is a flowing river

A Path of Hope for the Future

Keynote address delivered at the 2000 Houston Youth Environmental Leadership Conference, 1/26/00

Yesterday a teenager sent me an email letter in which he said, “I feel cheated that it’s all UP TO ME. By being in the younger generation, I have to save the world before I can even begin to think of building a life for myself, or there will be nothing to build my life on.”

I think this is a profound statement and a statement of profound importance to this particular audience. I’ve known several generations of kids your age, and I can tell you that feeling cheated is something NEW, and something new is always worth paying attention to.

The kids of my own generation didn’t feel cheated, we felt terrified. We grew up in the coldest part of the Cold War, cowering in the shadow of the H-bomb, expecting at any moment to see the world come to an end in a nuclear holocaust. All we knew was that we had to get down to the business of getting as much of the good life as we could before the end came. We were the Silent Generation, and all we wanted was to get out there and get a job, a career, a marriage, a family, a house in the suburbs, squeezing in as much as we could before it all went up in smoke.

The kids of the sixties and seventies didn’t feel cheated. They were just fed up with their parents’ idea that the best life was the one the Silent Generation was struggling to get–the job, the career, the marriage, the family, the house in the suburbs. They wanted to LIVE, to have a little fun, and to hell with the goddamned H-bomb. Who could blame them?

Michael feels cheated, he says, because it’s all up to him. If you haven’t yet been told that it’s “all up to you,” believe me, you will be. Of course, this business of it all being up to you is pretty standard commencement day rhetoric. Every commencement day speaker worth his or her salt has got to say, one way or another, “The future is in your hands. Today the torch passes from one generation to the next,” blah, blah, blah. This in itself is not new. I heard the same thing when I was your age.

But it meant something different when I heard it. It really was just commencement day rhetoric back then. Nowadays it means something different.

Nowadays it means something like this. My generation and my parents’ generation and their parents’ have really screwed things up here, and that’s no joke. I can’t even bring myself to look at the latest WorldWatch Institute estimate of how much time we have left to turn this around before we head down a slide from which no recovery is possible. It was 40 years the last time I DID have the nerve to look, and that was about ten years ago.

What does this figure mean? It doesn’t mean human extinction in forty years. It means we have 40 years to find a new path for ourselves, and if we let those 40 years go to waste and just go on the way we are, the momentum that is carrying us forward to extinction will be too great to overcome. So that date is not the end of it all, it’s just the point of no return. Irreversible.

So when people tell you now that it’s all up to you, they really mean “If you can’t find what we were unable to find and our parents were unable to find and their parents were unable to find (which is another way for us to go), then you may very well live to see the extinction of the human race.”
I’m sure you haven’t failed to notice what a monstrous copout this is.

Oh yes, we–your parents and their parents and their parents–have screwed up the world royally, and we admit it!! But if YOU don’t find a way to FIX what WE’VE done, then it will be YOUR fault! Not OUR fault, because we have an excuse. We were just dumb and greedy. And because WE’VE been dumb and greedy, YOU’RE going to have to be smart and self-sacrificing. Got that?

Michael puts it in a nutshell: “By being in the younger generation, I have to save the world before I can even begin to think of building a life for myself, or there will be nothing to build my life on.”

Your parents didn’t have to save the world before building a life for themselves. Maybe it would’ve have been a good idea–but they didn’t HAVE to. So they didn’t.
You HAVE to, because if you don’t, as Michael says, there will be nothing LEFT to build your life ON.

So that’s the deal. Forget about having fun. Forget about taking up some career just because it happens to appeal to you. Forget about getting the good things in life that your parents have. Forget about the six-figure salary. Forget about the BMW. Forget about the 8000 square foot house. Those things are okay for people like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and Donald Trump and Steve Case, because they belong to the same old, unregenerate generation as your parents. They can AFFORD to be dumb and greedy. They don’t HAVE to save the world first. YOU DO.

Is it any wonder that Michael feels cheated?

When he speaks of being cheated, Michael unconsciously brings into play the language of games. I mean that Michael dimly recognizes that a game IS being played with him, and I’d like to take a few minutes to examine the game that’s being played with him–and with you when people tell you that “It’s all up to you.”

In his book, The Book: or, The Taboo Against Knowing Who You Are, Alan Watts examines the notion of the “double-bind.” “A person,” he writes, “is put in a double-bind by a command or request that contains a concealed contradiction. ‘Stop being self-conscious!’ ‘Try to relax.’ . . . Society, as we now have it, pulls this trick on every child from earliest infancy. In the first place, the child is taught that he is responsible, that he is a free agent, an independent origin of thoughts and actions. He accepts this make-believe for the very reason that it is not true. He can’t help accepting it, just as he can’t help accepting membership in the community where he was born. He has no way of resisting this kind of social indoctrination. It is constantly reinforced with reward and punishments. It is built into the basic structure of the language he is learning. . . . we befuddle our children hopelessly because we–as adults–were once so befuddled, and, remaining so, do not understand the game we are playing.”

I hope you’ll leave here today with a better understanding of the game that is being played with you. “The child,” Watts says, “is taught that he is responsible, that he is a free agent, an independent origin of thoughts and actions.” This is what you’re hearing when people of an older generation say, “It’s all up to you.” You might say that this is HALF of the game. They themselves were told, “It’s all up to you,” when they were your age. But if you watch them in action, you’ll see very clearly that they don’t act as if it were all up to them. They act as if it were all up to SOMEONE ELSE. They were taught, just as you were, that they are responsible, that they are free agents, but they know perfectly well that this is make-believe. SOMEONE ELSE is responsible for saving the world. SOMEONE ELSE is a free agent CAPABLE of saving the world. It may not come to mind immediately who this SOMEONE ELSE is, but you’ll certainly recognize it when you hear it.

Who is everyone WAITING for to save the world? Who is EVERYONE waiting for to save the world?

They are waiting for our LEADERS, of course. This is the other half of the game. The first half of the game is: It’s all up to you. The second half of the game is: they don’t have to do anything because they’re waiting for the President to save the world. They’re waiting for the Secretary General of the United Nations to save the world. They’re waiting for some unthinkable industrial giant to save the world. They’re waiting for some great thinker to save the world. They’re waiting for Mikhail Gorbachev to save the world. They’re even waiting for Daniel Quinn to save the world!

Someone UP THERE, someone in AUTHORITY!

Well, guess what, folks. There is NO ONE “up there” who is remotely CAPABLE of saving the world. Most of the people I’ve just mentioned aren’t even THINKING about saving the world. Trust me, you will never hear Al Gore or Bill Bradley or George Bush utter one word about saving the world*. And whichever one of them is elected our next President, he will not spend a single minute of his administration thinking about saving the world. This is not something they should be blamed for, in all honesty. We don’t ELECT presidents to save the world, and any candidate that campaigned on that basis would be laughed off the stage. We elect ALL our political leaders to address SHORT-TERM goals.

The kids of your grandparents’ generation were told, “It’s all up to you”–and they waited for SOMEONE ELSE to save the world.

The kids of your parents’ generation were told, “It’s all up to you”–and they waited for SOMEONE ELSE to save the world.

Now the people of your parents’ and grandparents’ generation are continuing the game by pointing at you and saying, “It’s all up to YOU.”

I’d like to try to persuade you to REFUSE to play the game. Don’t let anyone get away with saying, “It’s all up to you.” No. It’s all up to EVERYBODY. Refuse to accept your parents’ and grandparents’ copout. It’s not good enough to say, “We’ve failed, so it’s all up to you.”

Tell them, “STOP failing!” Which means stop WAITING!

Tell them, “There’s nothing to wait for. There’s no ONE to wait for. No one is going to save the world but the PEOPLE of the world, and you can’t make it the sole responsibility of MY generation. We are the ones with no experience, no clout, no connections, no power, no money–and it’s all supposed to be up to US??? What are YOU going to be doing while WE save the world?”

Obviously in the few minutes I have here I can’t give you a blueprint for saving the world. But I can give you a couple of fundamental notions that I think you can follow with complete confidence. The first of these might be called Quinn’s First Law. It won’t surprise you. It may even strike you as obvious. Here it is. No undesirable behavior has ever been eliminated by passing a law against it.

The second is Buckminster Fuller’s Law, which is this: You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Most of the time when people write to me to ask what they should be doing to save the world, there is in the back of their minds two general notions of how change takes place. One is the notion that passing laws makes things change. The other is that fighting makes things change. We’re trained to think that you really are DOING something if you’re out there fighting and getting laws passed.

But if you heed these two laws, you may think differently about this. Once again they are Quinn’s First Law, No undesirable behavior has ever been eliminated by passing a law against it, and Fuller’s Law, You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

Here is Quinn’s Second Law: What people think is what they do. And its corollary: To change what people do, change what they think.

At the present time, there are six billion people on this planet pursuing a vision that is devouring the earth. That’s our problem. Our problem is not pollution. Our problem is not consumerism. Our problem is not capitalist greed. Our problem is not conservative selfishness or liberal utopianism. Our problem is not lack of leadership. Our problem is a world-devouring vision that six billion people are pursuing.

Now what can we do about this vision? We can’t legislate it away or vote it away or organize it away or even shoot it away. We can only teach it away.

If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, people with a new vision. It will not be saved by old minds with new programs.

Vision is a flowing river. Programs are sticks set in the riverbed to impede the flow of the river. But I don’t want to impede its flow, I want to change its direction.

Is it so easy to change a cultural vision? Ease and difficulty are not the relevant measures. Here are the relevant measures: Readiness and unreadiness. If people aren’t ready for it, then no power on earth can make a new idea catch on.

But if people are ready for it (and I think they are), then a new idea will sweep the world like wildfire.

In our culture at the present moment, the flow of the river is toward catastrophe, and programs are sticks set in the riverbed to impede its flow. Our path of hope is not to add more sticks to impede the flow. Our path of hope is to change the direction of the flow–away from catastrophe.

I think people are ready for this new idea.

Don’t pay attention to people who talk as if saving the world is someone else’s business–bigshots in international politics or bigshots in international commerce. I say again: If the world is saved, it will be saved by people with changed minds, and anyone can change a mind. I mean that. Back in the seventies, a lot of eight-year-olds came home and told their parents, “By God, you’re going to stop smoking!”–and they made it stick. Back in the eighties, a lot of eight-year-olds came home and told their parents, “By God, we’re going to start recycling aluminum cans!”–and they made it stick.

I’ve changed lots of minds, through my books–but the absolute fact is that my readers have changed more minds than my books have. A lot more.

One by one, readers did the work. Not me–people like you. Having done this work, having carried the word to parents, to children, to teachers, to friends, to relatives, even to strangers, they would then sit down and write me to say, but how can I help save the world? And I’d write back and say, “Look, you’re already doing it!”

If the time is right, a new idea will sweep the world like wildfire.

Let me share with you the most inspirational story I’ve heard in a long time. This story comes to me from a high school teacher in Alaska who was using Ishmael in a third-year science course. One of the students in his class was recognized as a probable drop-out. She was a lukewarm student at best–indifferent and uninterested. But instead of dropping out, after reading Ishmael, this young woman did the strangest thing anyone had ever heard of, including me. She took it upon herself to buy copies of Ishmael for her parents and to organize a week-long seminar in her own living room that her parents were commanded to attend in order to engage in a Socratic dialogue on Ishmaels themes. From that point on, she never looked back, and no one thinks of her as a probable dropout any more.
Let me make it clear that I’m not telling this story to because I’m proud of what Ishmael did. I’m proud of what this seventeen-year-old girl did! She found a path of hope for the future–all on her own. She didn’t ask me, she didn’t ask her parents, she didn’t ask her teachers, she didn’t ask her friends, she didn’t ask anyone.

If the time is right, a new idea will sweep the world like wildfire–because of people like this seventeen-year-old girl.

Because of people like you.

Because of this seventeen-year-old girl, there are two more people in the world with changed minds. That’s no small thing, believe me. Because where there are two with changed minds, there can be four. And where there are four, there can be eight. And where there are eight, there can be sixteen. All because of that one that started the whole thing by saying, “I’ve got to change these two minds.”

That’s exactly how new ideas sweep the world like wildfire–and that’s how I see it.

That’s our path of hope for the future.


*At the time this was written Al Gore was one of the folks “up there,” where it was best to keep one’s mouth closed about “saving the world.” Being no longer “up there” Mr. Gore is now free to express his concern about the future of the world (and this speech, if it were being written today, would not include his name in this list).

Thousands Of People Are Willing To Die On Mars

WHY THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE ARE WILLING TO DIE ON

MORE THAN 200,000 ASPIRING SPACE EXPLORERS VOLUNTEERED FOR A ONE-WAY TRIP TO MARS. ARE THEY INSANE?

Editor’s note: Mars One recently narrowed its pool of candidates to 100 people–many of whom we featured in the November 2014 issue (part of which exists here). We’ve reposted this story for your convenience.

I.

Early on a Saturday morning, about 60 planetary malcontents gathered in a narrow auditorium on the campus of George Washington University. They’d come to hear about a plan to build a self-sustaining colony in space, and they hoped to be among its first settlers, leaving the rest of us to live and die on .

“How many of you would like to take a one-way mission to Mars?” asked the balding engineer on stage. His face was a peachy monochrome, with sharp, craggy features set like a mini moonscape, and he had slightly pointed ears. On his lapel, a sticker read: “GREETINGS! MY NAME IS: Bas.”

When nearly everybody raised their hands, Bas Lansdorp’s lips curled into a grin. These were his constituents, the folks who had pledged to serve as guinea pigs for a bold and strange experiment. Just the day before, he had been on CBS This Morning, patiently explaining his idea. “I just want to make sure I understand that correctly,” the dumbfounded host had said. “If you go on this mission, you are going and not coming back.” But here at the first-ever Million Martian Meeting, in August 2013, Lansdorp saw only believers. “Wow, this is a really easy crowd!” he beamed.

Most of the armchair aliens shared a demographic, the young-man Marsophile: guys with tattoos across their necks and arms, goatees and mustaches, variations on the Weird Al look. But there were also older women in the room, and kids too young to drive. What brought them together was an abiding belief in Lansdorp’s central message, that humans should be expanding onto other planets, and they should do so now. A few years ago, President Obama announced that the U.S. would put astronauts in orbit around Mars by the mid-2030s, but budget cuts and sequestration have slowed the project down, if not killed it outright. Even if NASA gets the mission back on track, the agency has said it will only send humans to Mars if it can also bring them back—a maddening bit of bureaucratic circumspection for the crowd assembled in Washington, D.C. “The technology to get you back from Mars simply doesn’t exist,” Lansdorp said, stirring up his audience, and it may not exist even 20 years from now. “We need to do this with the stuff that we have today, and the only way we can do that is by going there to stay.”

“The technology to get you back from Mars simply doesn’t exist. We need to do this with the stuff that we have today, and the only way we can do that is by going there to stay.”

Until three years ago, Lansdorp had little to do with Mars. Trained as a mechanical engineer, he co-owned a wind-energy startup that aims to generate power using tethered gliders. But in 2011, the Dutch entrepreneur sold some of his stake in the business and started working on a grand idea: If governments are too stingy for a trip to Mars, or too risk-averse, then private business should take over. “I realized that if it’s going to happen, I’d have to do it myself,” he said to the crowd. Along with his Mars One co-founder, Arno Wielders, Lansdorp devised a plan to fund the trip primarily by selling it as entertainment. In studying the Olympics, Lansdorp found that the broadcast rights yield upward of a billion dollars. A reality television show about the first extraplanetary town in history, he figures, could be worth much more—at least the $6 or 7 billion necessary to build and launch the payloads.

The show would need a cast, of course, and that’s where the meeting’s would-be Martians sought to do their part. Since April 2013, Lansdorp’s team has been screening résumés sent in from around the world by anyone who cares to pay a modest application fee (the amount varied by country). The first phase of this stunt ended last December, when they narrowed down the pool to 1,058. These hopefuls will be interviewed and the group further whittled down this year. In the end, just four will be selected for the first mission—two men and two women, each from a different continent on Earth. Their trip to Mars is scheduled to land in 2025.

The people in the auditorium knew they faced long odds of being chosen, and that even if they were selected, the project might not make it off the ground. Still, Mars One has given hope to hordes of folks who have so far harbored their peculiar dreams in private. During the casting process, some 200,000 people checked in at the Mars One website, and a related interest group on Facebook accumulated 10,000 members. One tattooed young man in D.C. wore a T-shirt with a message that summed up the spirit of those assembled: “Bas is sending me to Mars,” it said across the front; on the back it read, “Thanks, Bas, you’re a good dude.”

For someone who doesn’t share the dream—an Earth-bound journalist, perhaps—that spirit seems quixotic at best and suicidal at worst. If Lansdorp sends four people to their living ends on a harsh and empty world, what will have been the point? Is Bas a good dude, or a dangerous megalomaniac? Lansdorp has a ready answer for any doubters: “People can’t imagine that there are people who would like to do this,” he said, as he wrapped up his presentation. “They say we’re going to Mars to die. But of course we’re not going to Mars to die. We’re going to Mars to live.”

II.

In January, NASA scientists announced they’d found a jelly doughnut on Mars. Or at least, a rock that looked a little like a pastry, with white around its edges and a strawberry-colored center. That such a find should have been the subject of global news reports says less about its own significance—it was just a rock, after all—than it does about the barren world on which it settled.

It’s been 10 years since Spirit and Opportunity, the twin rovers, landed on the Red Planet. In that time they’ve rolled around for almost 30 miles, taking stock of a terrain that reaches out in all directions as a pock-marked plain of dusty, murky brown. They’ve weathered temperatures that range from 70° in the summertime to -225° in Martian winter, frequent and ferocious dust storms, an unbreathable atmosphere consisting mainly of carbon dioxide, and enough radiation from cosmic rays and solar flares to riddle a person’s DNA with cancerous mutations. Who would choose to spend a life in such a nasty, brutish place?

At the conference lunch, I put this question to a young man named Max Fagin. Forget your likely death on the mission, I said. Pretend that there will be no computer glitch or landing failure, and that your ship won’t end up inside a giant fireball. Imagine that you won’t get sick or break a limb and have no doctor to help you. Let’s say that technically it all goes right. What, then, about the stuff that you’ll have left behind forever? What about the feel of falling snow, the gentle breeze, or swimming on a scorching day?

“I would feel incredibly sad about missing all those things,” said Fagin, a master’s student in aerospace engineering at Purdue University. “But the whole point of going to Mars is that you’d have better substitutes. Any human being can visit the ocean. Anyone can visit the forest. These are beautiful things, but they are commonplace. I will get the chance to experience a sunrise on Mars. I will get the chance to stand at the foot of Olympus Mons, one of the tallest mountains in the solar system. I will get the chance to see two moons in the sky. I just can’t imagine being nostalgic for a life that 6 or 7 billion people are experiencing right now.”

“Any human being can visit the ocean. Anyone can visit the forest. These are beautiful things, but they are commonplace. I will get the chance to experience a sunrise on Mars. I will get the chance to stand at the foot of Olympus Mons.”

There were a few more Martians at the table with us; we were eating sandwiches and sushi, foods an astronaut could only dream of. I asked Fagin, Won’t the novelty wear thin? What happens when you’ve seen that sun rise and set a hundred times, and when you’ve walked around Olympus Mons? What happens when you’re in your cramped habitat with nothing much to do except the grim work of staving off an early death? And what about the food? I jabbed my chopstick at a Whole Foods tuna maki. What happens when you’re forced to live on undressed mini lettuce from your agri-pod?

Fagin waited for me to finish my speech, his face a quiet picture of condescension. “You’re seeing things from a narrow point of view,” he said. “It only seems weird to you because of when and where you live. I mean, would you ask an Inuit how he can stand the boredom of all the snow and rock?”

I stuttered for a second and fell silent. Why indeed should I take my pampered life on Earth as a baseline? Maybe life on Mars wouldn’t be so different from the lives that humans led for thousands of generations. Later on I’ll find rebuttals to his argument: The Arctic teems with wild animals and plants, hardly like the lifeless wasteland one would find on Mars. And, as it happens, the Inuit do suffer dire rates of suicide and depression. But I’m sure these facts wouldn’t matter much to Fagin. In 2010, he spent two weeks crammed into a tiny research station in the empty Utah desert, where students tried to simulate a stay on Mars and put on space suits every time they went out for a walk. “I didn’t have as much time there as I wanted,” he told me.

But what about your family? I sounded desperate now, as if I needed to make him see that Mars One would only lead to misery and death. Yet Max Fagin would not be swayed. The colonists will be more in touch with home than soldiers were in Vietnam, he said, and certainly more so than the migrants who came to America before the first transatlantic cable. The first settlers on Mars will trade video-mail with their families. “My parents have been comfortable with the notion for quite a while now,” Fagin said. “They know that they’re going to lose me eventually, because the planet is going to lose me.”

III.

Late in the afternoon, once the presentations had wrapped up and the Martians were gathering for a postconference trip to the National Air and Space Museum, I found Lansdorp near the stage. He had just finished an interview and the camera crew was packing up. He seemed wearied by his publicity tour; his grins appeared forced when replying to questions that he had been asked again and again since the project was announced. “Saving humanity is not anywhere on my list of reasons to do this,” he told a small ring of reporters. “I started this because I wanted to go myself.”

Though he calls himself a lifelong Mars enthusiast, Lansdorp didn’t have the expertise to plan the mission alone. As a graduate student at the University of Twente in the Netherlands, he designed systems for a hypothetical space station, and that’s how he connected with Wielders, a payload study manager at the European Space Agency. “He knows about space, and I don’t,” Lansdorp said. Wielders told him that a one-way mission would be feasible, if they could raise a lot of money. That’s when the pair devised their plan to sell the broadcast rights and show the journey on TV.

Their concept has some flaws. Big-event programs make a lot of money, but they’re often brief and action-packed. (Lansdorp’s model, the Olympics, is a good example.) Mars One wants to run a show for decades, with most of the airtime in the next 10 years dedicated to the arduous process of crew training. What happens if networks aren’t interested in a multiyear commitment? What if no one likes the show? Or what if everything is going well, and then the colonists decide they want some privacy, and turn off the cameras?

“Saving humanity is not anywhere on my list of reasons to do this. I started this because I wanted to go myself.”

To work out the details, Lansdorp recruited the help of one of the biggest names in European reality TV: Paul Römer, the co-creator of the Netherlands’Big Brother. He emailed the producer blind, and heard back right away. (“What are the odds?” Lansdorp says. “You contact some media expert and he turns out to be a science-fiction fan!”) In June, Mars One signed a contract with Darlow Smithson Productions, a subsidiary to a company where Römer once served as chief creative officer. The show will document the candidate-selection process and could potentially air in early 2015.

As for the space technology, Mars One says nothing will be built in-house; Lansdorp wants to purchase all equipment off the shelf or develop it with private vendors. He expects to use an upgraded version of the Falcon 9 rocketproduced by SpaceX, and a landing capsule from SpaceX or Lockheed Martin. He’ll need a pair of rovers, too, not built for science like the NASA bots, but for moving Martian soil and laying sheets of thin-film solar panels, in preparation for the settlers’ arrival.

The Mars One timeline is ambitious—perhaps too ambitious. It’s not clear that Lansdorp’s contractors will be able to tweak their technologies (for rovers, life-support units, space suits, and so on) to fit the needs of the mission at the necessary pace. And given the expense of recent, much more modest missions to the Red Planet—Mars Science Laboratory, which involved landing only the Curiosity rover, cost $2.5 billion—Lansdorp’s projected price tag seems rather low. While Mars One won’t say how much money it has in the bank, the company does not appear to have raised more than a tiny fraction of what it needs. “At this moment, the weakest link is really the fund-raising,” Lansdorp said at the meeting. “If we had the $6 billion in the bank right now, I’m very convinced that we could pull this off. But to convince the people who have to give the money upfront to finance the hardware—that’s our biggest challenge.”

Even the attendees in D.C. had some doubts about Mars One. “We know this could fail. We know it’s a long shot,” one told me. But that’s not really the point. Lansdorp has shown that their path to Mars need not be blocked by budget-cutting bureaucrats. They don’t need to wait for guys like Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, or Dennis Tito, the millionaire who plans to mount a Mars flyby in 2021. Earlier this year, more than 8,000 people pledged $300,000 to Mars One on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. A few years ago, all these dreamers would have been alone in their frustration. Now they’re meeting up online and organizing conferences. The Martians have a movement, and it’s growing.

IV.

When I describe Mars One to friends, many seem to take it personally; they call the Martians lunatics or worse. They’re not unusual. On the Aspiring Martians Facebook group, knee-jerk hostility has been the subject of many long discussions. As one user wrote in January, “I’m sure I’m not the first one to have noticed that anywhere anything Mars One–related is posted, we’re told (in the comments) that we are crazy, wannabes, psychologically deviant, on a suicide mission, in for a rude awakening, the mission is a hoax, technology needed doesn’t exist, and, in some cases, that we deserve to die for participating.”

Lansdorp sees this too. There are some people who want to go to Mars, he said during the conference, and lots who don’t. “These people will never really understand each other.” But a simple lack of understanding does not explain the anger that emerges when the Martians share their dream in public. It’s not just that their trip seems difficult or crazy. It’s that they seem to be running from Earth. What’s wrong with our planet?, we want to ask. Life here isn’t good enough for you? Or perhaps it’s something personal: I’m not good enough for you?

“It has nothing to do with anything rational,” Lansdorp told me, when explaining why anyone would want to go to Mars. “It’s almost the same as love. You want it for some reason you cannot really explain, and sometimes one love is more powerful than other loves that you have.” Lansdorp began his project because he wanted to go to Mars himself, but now that he and his girlfriend are expecting a child, he says he has given up the idea of going first. He doesn’t want to miss seeing his child grow up. “But I do understand there are people who would do that,” he said.

The desire to go to Mars is “almost the same as love. You want it for some reason you cannot really explain.”

I wouldn’t leave my girlfriend, either. When I look into the sky, I feel only wonder—a movement of the mind, not of the heart. But as we spoke, I thought back to a Q&A I’d once attended with the astronaut Michael J. Massimino. Someone asked him what it’s like to take a spacewalk and see the Earth from far away. He said it was the most amazing sight he’d ever seen, but that it also made him deeply sad. Why? Because he knew that he’d never have the chance to share the vision with the people he loved the most.

In that light, a one-way trip to Mars made a peculiar sort of sense. An astronaut doesn’t abandon his family, and choose another, greater love to take its place. Instead he ventures into outer space on their behalf, on behalf of everyone he leaves behind, no matter the physical or emotional cost. The would-be Martians talk of sleeping under double-moon-lit skies, but they also know that they’ll be as alone as any human beings in the history of time. And that’s precisely why their journey matters, for us as well as them: They’ll live on Mars, so the rest of us don’t have to.

Just before I left the conference, I met another Martian, Leila Zucker. She’s a physician in her 40s, happily married, yet inclined to set it all aside. “I can work to make things better on Earth while I’m here,” she told me, “but I could work to make things better on Earth while I’m on Mars. The idea that I’m running away or something . . . no, I’m not. People who think that are small-minded and scared. The whole idea is to expand the human race.”

Earlier she’d spoken on a panel, taking questions from the crowd. “None of us are planning to die, but all of us recognize that we could,” she said at one point. “You don’t get my life for nothing, but I will give it up because this is my dream.” Then, as the session drew to a close, she abruptly began to sing: “I wanted to go to the Red Planet Mars/but I didn’t get picked by Bas/I wanted to go to the Red Planet Mars/now I gaze longingly at the stars/But I don’t care I wasn’t picked for space/I’m cheering for the future of the human race/Someday we’ll all go to the Red Planet Mars/’Cause Mars One leads the way to the stars!”

When she sang the last two lines a second time, all the other Martians joined in.

This article was originally published in the November 2014 issue of Popular Science under the title “Bas Lansdorp Has A Posse.”

26 Pictures Will Make You Re-Evaluate Your Entire Existence

26 Pictures Will Make You Re-Evaluate Your Entire Existence

The universe, man… THE UNIVERSE.

1. This is the Earth! This is where you live.

This is the Earth! This is where you live.

NASA Goddard Space Flight Center Image / Via visibleearth.nasa.gov

2. And this is where you live in your neighborhood, the solar system.

And this is where you live in your neighborhood, the solar system.

3. Here’s the distance, to scale, between the and the moon. Doesn’t look too far, does it?

Here's the distance, to scale, between the Earth and the moon. Doesn't look too far, does it?

4. THINK AGAIN. Inside that distance you can fit every planet in our solar system, nice and neatly.

THINK AGAIN. Inside that distance you can fit every planet in our solar system, nice and neatly.

PerplexingPotato / Via reddit.com

5. But let’s talk about planets. That little green smudge is North America on Jupiter.

But let's talk about planets. That little green smudge is North America on Jupiter.

NASA / John Brady / Via astronomycentral.co.uk

6. And here’s the size of Earth (well, six Earths) compared with Saturn:

And here's the size of Earth (well, six Earths) compared with Saturn:

NASA / John Brady / Via astronomycentral.co.uk

7. And just for good measure, here’s what Saturn’s rings would look like if they were around Earth:

And just for good measure, here's what Saturn's rings would look like if they were around Earth:

Ron Miller / Via io9.com

8. This right here is a comet. We just landed a probe on one of those bad boys. Here’s what one looks like compared with Los Angeles:

This right here is a comet. We just landed a probe on one of those bad boys. Here's what one looks like compared with Los Angeles:

Matt Wang / Via mentalfloss.com

9. But that’s nothing compared to our sun. Just remember:

But that's nothing compared to our sun. Just remember:

10. Here’s you from the moon:

Here's you from the moon:

NASA

11. Here’s you from Mars:

Here's you from Mars:

NASA

12. Here’s you from just behind Saturn’s rings:

Here's you from just behind Saturn's rings:

NASA

13. And here’s you from just beyond Neptune, 4 billion miles away.

And here's you from just beyond Neptune, 4 billion miles away.

NASA

To paraphrase Carl Sagan, everyone and everything you have ever known exists on that little speck.

14. Let’s step back a bit. Here’s the size of Earth compared with the size of our sun. Terrifying, right?

Let's step back a bit. Here's the size of Earth compared with the size of our sun. Terrifying, right?

John Brady / Via astronomycentral.co.uk

The sun doesn’t even fit in the image.

15. And here’s that same sun from the surface of Mars:

And here's that same sun from the surface of Mars:

NASA

16. But that’s nothing. Again, as Carl once mused, there are more stars in space than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth:

But that's nothing. Again, as Carl once mused, there are more stars in space than there are grains of sand on every beach on Earth:

17. Which means that there are ones much, much bigger than little wimpy sun. Just look at how tiny and insignificant our sun is:

Which means that there are ones much, much bigger than little wimpy sun. Just look at how tiny and insignificant our sun is:

Our sun probably gets its lunch money stolen.

18. Here’s another look. The biggest star, VY Canis Majoris, is 1,000,000,000 times bigger than our sun:

26 Pictures Will Make You Re-Evaluate Your Entire Existence

………

19. But none of those compares to the size of a galaxy. In fact, if you shrank the sun down to the size of a white blood cell and shrunk the Milky Way galaxy down using the same scale, the Milky Way would be the size of the United States:

But none of those compares to the size of a galaxy. In fact, if you shrank the sun down to the size of a white blood cell and shrunk the Milky Way galaxy down using the same scale, the Milky Way would be the size of the United States:

20. That’s because the Milky Way galaxy is huge. This is where you live inside there:

That's because the Milky Way galaxy is huge. This is where you live inside there:

21. But this is all you ever see:

But this is all you ever see:

(That’s not a picture of the Milky Way, but you get the idea.)

22. But even our galaxy is a little runt compared with some others. Here’s the Milky Way compared to IC 1011, 350 million light years away from Earth:

But even our galaxy is a little runt compared with some others. Here's the Milky Way compared to IC 1011, 350 million light years away from Earth:

Just THINK about all that could be inside there.

23. But let’s think bigger. In JUST this picture taken by the Hubble telescope, there are thousands and thousands of galaxies, each containing millions of stars, each with their own planets.

But let's think bigger. In JUST this picture taken by the Hubble telescope, there are thousands and thousands of galaxies, each containing millions of stars, each with their own planets.

24. Here’s one of the galaxies pictured, UDF 423. This galaxy is 10 BILLION light years away. When you look at this picture, you are looking billions of years into the past.

Here's one of the galaxies pictured, UDF 423. This galaxy is 10 BILLION light years away. When you look at this picture, you are looking billions of years into the past.

Some of the other galaxies are thought to have formed only a few hundred million years AFTER the Big Bang.

25. And just keep this in mind — that’s a picture of a very small, small part of the universe. It’s just an insignificant fraction of the night sky.

And just keep this in mind — that's a picture of a very small, small part of the universe. It's just an insignificant fraction of the night sky.

26. And, you know, it’s pretty safe to assume that there are some black holes out there. Here’s the size of a black hole compared with Earth’s orbit, just to terrify you:

And, you know, it's pretty safe to assume that there are some black holes out there. Here's the size of a black hole compared with Earth's orbit, just to terrify you:

D. Benningfield/K. Gebhardt/StarDate / Via mcdonaldobservatory.org

So if you’re ever feeling upset about your favorite show being canceled or the fact that they play Christmas music way too early — just remember…

This is your home.

This is your home.

By Andrew Z. Colvin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (creativecommons.org) or GFDL (gnu.org)], via Wikimedia Commons

This is what happens when you zoom out from your home to your solar system.

This is what happens when you zoom out from your home to your solar system.

And this is what happens when you zoom out farther…

And this is what happens when you zoom out farther...

By Andrew Z. Colvin (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (creativecommons.org) or GFDL (gnu.org)], via Wikimedia Commons

And farther…

And farther...

Above image by Andrew Z. Colvin / Via Wikipedia Commons

Keep going…

Keep going...

Above image by Andrew Z. Colvin / Via Wikimedia Commons

Just a little bit farther…

Just a little bit farther...

Above image by Andrew Z. Colvin / Via Wikimedia Commons

Almost there…

Almost there...

Above image by Andrew Z. Colvin / Via Wikimedia Commons

And here it is. Here’s everything in the observable universe, and here’s your place in it. Just a tiny little ant in a giant jar.

And here it is. Here's everything in the observable universe, and here's your place in it. Just a tiny little ant in a giant jar.

Above image by Andrew Z. Colvin / Via Wikimedia Commons

Oh man.

Species Disappearing From Earth

Here’s How Fast Different Animals Are Disappearing From

From red pandas to golden-striped salamanders, Earth’s wildlife is in trouble.

Many scientists believe our planet is in the early stages of a mass extinction, an event defined by a loss of 75% of species on Earth. It will be the sixth one to occur in the planet’s 4.5 billion year history — and the first to be caused by humans.

But just how fast are species disappearing from Earth, and how much should we be worried?

Information recently compiled by the journal Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sheds some light on these questions. It’s not a pretty picture.

Drawing from the IUCN’s “Red List,” a catalogue of species considered in danger of , Nature recently published a detailed analysis of threatened animals on Earth. The report concluded that 26% of all known mammals, 13% of birds, and 41% of amphibians are in jeopardy. Scientists don’t have enough data for fish and reptiles to make an assessment for them, and insects got off comparatively easy — an estimated 0.5% of known species are thought to be facing extinction.

But these are just the species that we know of. There are about 1.7 million species of animals, plants, and fungi that humans are aware of, but scientists estimate there are millions more yet to be discovered, and we have no idea what kind of shape their populations will be in if we ever do discover them before they die off.

Andean FlamingoWikimedia Commons

The Andean flamingo is threatened by habitat destruction.

And there’s more bad news where that came from.

Scientists aren’t completely sure how fast all these species are disappearing from the planet, but the fastest estimates — which suggest 690 extinctions take place every week — indicate that the mass extinction could be complete in the next 200 years. (Slower estimates give us several more hundred years before 75% of life on Earth is gone, and the most conservative guesses allow us thousands.)

In fact, research from the World Wildlife Fund suggests that the number of vertebrates on Earth (excluding humans) is only half what it was 40 years ago.

The Living Planet Index, an assessment of vertebrate populations, shows that between 1970 and 2010, terrestrial and marine vertebrate populations both declined by 39%, and freshwater vertebrates declined by a whopping 76%. Altogether, the total rate of decline for vertebrates was 52%, meaning their populations have been cut in half since 1970.

Brazil RainforestAP Photo/Andre Penner

Deforestation in Brazil. Habitat destruction is a major threat to animals on Earth.

So what’s causing all the trouble, anyway?

The report says that the biggest current threat to animals, accounting for 37% of all threats, is exploitation — hunting, fishing, and other similar activities. Habitat degradation is a close second at 31%, and habitat loss comes in third at 13%.

Other threats include climate change, invasive species, pollution, and disease, although scientists expect climate change to become a much bigger threat as temperatures continue to rise around the globe.

Extinctions are bad news for more than just the species facing them. Ecosystems are inextricably tangled up in the organisms that compose them, meaning if one species die off, others will feel its loss. That means humans, too. For instance, ecologists are gravely concerned over declining honey bees, because they pollinate many of the plants humans rely on for food.

It’s a scary future we’re looking at, given the stats — and, if the sixth extinction really does occur, a lonely one, too.

 

 

Species Are Disappearing From Earth

Here’s How Fast Different Animals Are Disappearing From

From red pandas to golden-striped salamanders, Earth’s wildlife is in trouble.

Many scientists believe our planet is in the early stages of a mass extinction, an event defined by a loss of 75% of species on Earth. It will be the sixth one to occur in the planet’s 4.5 billion year history — and the first to be caused by humans.

But just how fast are species disappearing from Earth, and how much should we be worried?

Information recently compiled by the journal Nature, the World Wildlife Fund, and the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) sheds some light on these questions. It’s not a pretty picture.

Drawing from the IUCN’s “Red List,” a catalogue of species considered in danger of , Nature recently published a detailed analysis of threatened animals on Earth. The report concluded that 26% of all known mammals, 13% of birds, and 41% of amphibians are in jeopardy. Scientists don’t have enough data for fish and reptiles to make an assessment for them, and insects got off comparatively easy — an estimated 0.5% of known species are thought to be facing extinction.

But these are just the species that we know of. There are about 1.7 million species of animals, plants, and fungi that humans are aware of, but scientists estimate there are millions more yet to be discovered, and we have no idea what kind of shape their populations will be in if we ever do discover them before they die off.

Andean FlamingoWikimedia Commons

The Andean flamingo is threatened by habitat destruction.

And there’s more bad news where that came from.

Scientists aren’t completely sure how fast all these species are disappearing from the planet, but the fastest estimates — which suggest 690 extinctions take place every week — indicate that the mass extinction could be complete in the next 200 years. (Slower estimates give us several more hundred years before 75% of life on Earth is gone, and the most conservative guesses allow us thousands.)

In fact, research from the World Wildlife Fund suggests that the number of vertebrates on Earth (excluding humans) is only half what it was 40 years ago.

The Living Planet Index, an assessment of vertebrate populations, shows that between 1970 and 2010, terrestrial and marine vertebrate populations both declined by 39%, and freshwater vertebrates declined by a whopping 76%. Altogether, the total rate of decline for vertebrates was 52%, meaning their populations have been cut in half since 1970.

Brazil RainforestAP Photo/Andre Penner

Deforestation in Brazil. Habitat destruction is a major threat to animals on Earth.

So what’s causing all the trouble, anyway?

The report says that the biggest current threat to animals, accounting for 37% of all threats, is exploitation — hunting, fishing, and other similar activities. Habitat degradation is a close second at 31%, and habitat loss comes in third at 13%.

Other threats include climate change, invasive species, pollution, and disease, although scientists expect climate change to become a much bigger threat as temperatures continue to rise around the globe.

Extinctions are bad news for more than just the species facing them. Ecosystems are inextricably tangled up in the organisms that compose them, meaning if one species die off, others will feel its loss. That means humans, too. For instance, ecologists are gravely concerned over declining honey bees, because they pollinate many of the plants humans rely on for food.

It’s a scary future we’re looking at, given the stats — and, if the sixth extinction really does occur, a lonely one, too.