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Red planet offers final frontier for dreamers

By Rong Xiaoqing (Global Times)

08:44, May 17, 2013

The world we live in may be getting worse. Scientists have just found that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has passed a new alarming level.

The Doomsday Clock, which measures how close Earth is to an apocalyptic disaster, is approaching a fateful midnight. And extreme weather and other natural calamities are more and more a part of everyday routine.

Maybe eventually, we do have to abandon our beloved Earth and escape to other planets.

Still, the plan by Mars One, a nonprofit organization in the Netherlands, to send some pioneers to Mars in 2023, chosen via a reality TV show, to establish the first human settlement there sounds like a practical joke.

But what surprised me is not that someone comes up with this incredible idea but that so many people take it seriously.

The project got nearly 80,000 applications in the first two weeks after applications opened on April 22. The US and China were the No.1 and No.2 sources of applicants.

The volunteers, who are required to post video clips and text descriptions online about why they are interested, seem to be sincere and passionate. They are fans of sci-fi movies and natural-born adventurers. And they are lured by the unknown on another planet just like Earth travelers have in the past been lured to exotic destinations far far away.

But this may only explain why they want to go to Mars, but not why they would like to stay there forever.

If we believe not all of the 80,000 people are seeking 15 minutes of fame, we may have to look at what's wrong with our Earth, as it clearly has a growing retention problem.

The dark fog in Beijing, the bombings in Boston, the skyrocketing unemployment rates in Europe, and various other crises elsewhere in the world might all deserve blame. But the problems aren't enough to drive so many people, as young as 18 years old and some with loving families and adorable newborns, to a place with neither hospitals nor Starbucks but a super slow Internet service that takes more than six minutes for a Web page to show up.

A deeper reason might come from the application of a 20-year-old Chinese part-time model named Min Keying. "I know this one way trip to Mars carries a mission for the entirety of humanity. If it succeeds, it will build a new world. If it fails, I won't mind dying after having such a splendid life," she said in her self-introduction.

We live in a time when the new lands have all been found, but the different models of society have all been experimented with and mostly failed.

The major secrets of nature from wind to thunder have all been discovered, but natural resources are stretched thinner and thinner.

The Internet was invented decades ago, but the distance between human beings is greater than ever.

In the early 20th century, German sociologist and philosopher Max Weber had predicted capitalism and modernism would make the society "become nothing more than a seamless web of rationalized structures; there would be no escape."

In his 1993 book, The McDonaldization of Society, US sociologist George Ritzer updated Weber's theories, and found that the ubiquitous fast food chains have made the entire world spin on four principals: efficiency, calculability, predictability and control.

These universal standards have largely reduced the diversity of the world. And just like a US friend in the hotel business told me once that she was disappointed by the increasing similarity between the big cities in China and in the US. "The world is becoming a giant vanilla ice cream," she said.

This might explain why anything that has a little different flavor would attract so much attention.

Last summer, The New York Times published a story about four straight men who had been living together as roommates for 18 years. The Atlantic's Jen Doll exclaimed: "The old milestones of 'adulthood' were pretty standard […] But things are different now, and [...] one thing is clear: The milestones, they are a'changing."

Whether four aging Peter Pans are enough evidence for such changes is debatable. But no matter whether on Earth or Mars, it is good to know that the human spirit of embracing change and unknowns has never died.

The author is a New York-based journalist. [email protected]

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