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How Stuff Works founder imagines utopian, anti-capitalist society on Mars

Imagine being part of a new colony, on a planet previously thought to be uninhabitable. This is what Marshall Brain, founder of How Stuff Works, wants the global population to think about: sending a million people to Mars.

Brain spoke Wednesday night at Northeastern University as part of the school’s “Theorizing the Global Future” speaker series. His lecture, “Considerations for the Economy and Governance of a One-Million Person Mars Colony,” focused on capitalism and economic inequality — and the possibility of organizing a human society on Mars.

Brain spoke about ideas detailed in his newest book “Imagining Elon Musk’s Million-Person Mars Colony – The greatest thought experiment of all time!” Brain said his inspiration to write the book came in September 2016, when Elon Musk first announced his plans to colonize Mars.

Musk’s idea was to establish a self-sustaining colony on Mars, consisting of at least one million people who are sent to the planet, which he expected to happen in a decade. To Brain, the idea of life on Mars is less of a concrete reality and more of a thought provoking social theory.

“I don’t know if anyone actually thinks this is possible,” he said. “But if you ignore all the real-life technicalities, it creates a blank sheet of paper to think about society.”

The idea of a new colony of humans energizes people to think critically about humans’ role on Earth, Brain said, but the most important question is what new economic system would be built on Mars.

“How would we make sure we wouldn’t end up with the same problems we have on Earth?” Brain asked the audience. “If we have the freedom to do anything, why don’t we make it so that all one million people are happy, prosperous and living great lives?”

Brain said he believes that capitalism has ruined Earth and created immense human suffering. He cited various statistics on inequality and wealth concentration, adding that with half the world’s population living in poverty “[bringing] capitalism to Mars would be a tragedy.”

According to Brain’s plan, everyone in the Mars colony would have access to high quality, healthy food, clean water and sanitation, safe housing, healthcare, education and internet.

“And everyone has these things in a way that is sustainable,” he said.

To achieve this, he offered “a task assignment system.” All one million people would be assigned a post, such as farming, cooking or teaching, and would be responsible for sustaining the colony in different ways. In return, he said, everyone would get to live equal and happy lives.

Brain said he believes the system would work well here on Earth, but what he learned throughout his research is that many people think of capitalism as a religion.

“People are very attached and sensitive to the economic system,” he said. “Not everyone likes what I am suggesting.”

Disagreements aside, Brain sees the Mars theory as one of the most engaging mediums for conversation.

“You can pick any part of my book, and you could sit down with a group of 10 people — and the most enjoyable part is that those 10 people could have a great conversation about society,” he said.

José Buscaglia, co-chair of the Center for International Affairs and World Cultures, and Harley Songin, administrative coordinator for the center, organized Brain’s talk. Buscaglia said he came across Brain’s work while researching books written on theories of the future and invited him to Northeastern.

“A university is the place to have critical conversations about the future,” Buscaglia said. “And I am generally surprised by the questions students pose. It lets you look into their minds, and you realize that they are worried about the future of humanity.”

Although Songin isn’t sure the Mars colony could ever become a reality, she said Brain’s lecture was important because it got students thinking about sustainability.

“We want students to walk away from these lectures with more questions than answers. And we want them to take those questions out into their classes and friend groups,” Songin said.

While capitalism is the only economic system he’s ever known, Buscaglia said, he does believe the system needs to change and will change.

“Most people can’t imagine a change from capitalism … but if you look at the past, it’s inevitable that we will come up with better ways of organizing ourselves,” he said. “The hyper consumerist mentality that we have now is destroying the planet.”

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  1. There would be a break away colony of people that feel they derserve more. Say the robot designers feel they deserve more than the robot maintainers. There society would consume more, grow faster, and react to changes more dynamically. Eventually they would become superior in many ways and absorb or destroy the communists. This is what happened on earth. Communism only lasts if it doesn’t have to compete with capitalists because they become much stronger much faster.