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How politicians are preparing for life on Mars

Scientists are scouring the Earth's deserts for life that might thrive on Mars. But is the Red Planet a distraction?

In March, Donald Trump authorised $19.5bn of funding for Nasa in a bill that directs the space exploration agency to keep focusing on a human mission to Mars in the 2030s – although whether this means orbiting Mars or actually landing on the surface remains unclear. The bill is in line with the recommendations outlined in a Planetary Society report, which stressed that Nasa cannot afford to maintain a broad focus and “should instead limit development of new hardware and execute only the missions deemed essential to the Mars goal”.

Ever since we discovered our dusty neighbour, Mars has been an object of fascination and awe. Despite being the second smallest planet in our solar system, we named it after the Roman god of war and masculinity and, in much the same way that men desperately strive to meet those ideals, humans have dedicated large swathes of history to reaching the Red Planet.

Planet of politics

Trump is not the first US President to focus on Mars; when Barack Obama took office he requested that Nasa pivot from George W. Bush’s more modest Constellation programme to what he called "the next chapter" - safely sending humans to Mars. But this is not just an American dream. China has set a goal of reaching Mars by the end of 2020. The Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi, no stranger to building in hostile climates, has imagined the United Arab Emirates creating a human settlement there in a hundred years' time.

As this suggests, politicians are not merely engaged in prestige games, but have more imperial ambitions at stake. The maverick French presidential candidate Jacques Cheminade has openly expressed a desire to build a settlement on Mars, calling it the “promised land”.

Once relegated to the fringes of pop culture, the idea of a populated Red Planet is increasingly becoming mainstream. So convinced are we that our neighbour will be our next home that two papers on the merits and risks of adapting Mars to support human life were presented at this year’s “Planetary Science Vision 2050 Workshop”. Even Cheminade’s website extensively documents his belief that conquering a hostile environment such as the dusty wilderness of Mars would lead to innovations allowing us to make deserts on Earth habitable.

Perhaps it is unsurprising that Trump’s heart could be set on the idea that Mars will be “Earth 2.0”. We may need one, given his deprioritisation of funding for other scientific endeavours, particularly Nasa’s own Earth Sciences Division, which monitors the impact of climate on the mother-planet. We live in an age when Earth is facing a number of great threats – from accelerated anthropogenic climate change to potential nuclear war – and many suspect that the US President’s pro-fossil fuel and post-factual agenda mean that life on Earth might not be possible for much longer. 

Turning the Red Planet green

As political interest in the blood-red dot increases, so does the speculation that Mars is capable of sustaining life. Of the other seven planets in our solar system, Mars is the closest in structure to Earth – the surface of our other neighbour, Venus, is too hot for exploration, as is Mercury; and the remaining four are gas planets. If we are going to colonise anywhere close to us, Mars is the logical choice. In fact, evidence has long suggested that, before it became a desiccated wasteland, young Mars very closely resembled our humid, habitable home – including a molten iron core and magnetic field. In March a paper was published that referenced findings from the Maven space probe to explain these changes.

Mars is smaller than Earth, so its core froze long ago and is now incapable of convection, which in turn has caused its magnetic field to disappear and leaving the planet vulnerable to “sputtering” (a deceptively cute name for bombardment by a magnetically-charged “solar wind” of subatomic particles ejected from the sun). As a result, much of the gas that comprised Mars’ atmosphere has been eroded, making it too cold and thin to support liquid water, which had previously flown on the surface for long enough periods to have left residual channels.

Undeterred, Earth’s scientific community has been combing Earth’s most deserted deserts, in a hunt for algae and bacteria that have evolved to survive in bleak circumstances. There are also attempts to adapt agricultural practices to this desolate environment. The International Potato Center has managed to grow a potato plant under near-Martian conditions, with future stages of the simulator planned to more closely mirror the Red Planet’s surface. It has also experimented with the possibility of CO2-rich greenhouses. Researchers hope to eventually find the right plants to be deployed to drastically raise the output of oxygen into the Martian atmosphere, as well as provide sustenance for the Earthling Diaspora.

Draining the planet

The idea of humankind hopping from planet to planet, selfishly exhausting resources and ignoring the effects of our actions (as with Trump’s climate denial), is reminiscent of the Marvel super-villain Galactus. According to the Marvel Universe Wiki, he “initially went centuries between feedings, seeking out uninhabited worlds that could support life; but he gradually [...] began consuming inhabited worlds if he could find no others”.

Our mission to Mars may begin with humankind as interplanetary refugees, but it could evolve into something far more sinister. It’s all very well to be fascinated by the Red Planet, but when the obsession with salvation by a red dot eclipses our interest in climate change, it might be a sign that we should focus our efforts on saving our own rocky globe, rather than consuming another one.

Anjuli R. K. Shere writes about science. She was a 2016/17 Wellcome Scholar and science intern at the New Statesman.

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.