Mars government – a further discussion

In this article we consider what might happen to a Martian government in the event of a critical resupply not happening or a major disaster occurring or the discovery of life.

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A couple of weeks ago we had a look at the way government might develop on Mars from when humans first land until the settlement is more well established (the featured image is how SpaceX depict an early settlement). We thought we would put a bit more thinking into how a government might develop based on a number of scenarios resulting from shocks that the settlement could receive, both positive and negative. In each scenario we look at the shock, how it might happen and the immediate effect on the settlement. Then we look at the dependencies that may change as a result of the shock and how this may influence any government that is developing. The final aspect we look at for each scenario is how the settlement would, if at all, return to normal.

We considered three scenarios based around resources, disaster and a major scientific discovery. All of the scenarios are looked at from how they will impact the government structure and approaches to control of the settlement, as well as the relationship with Earth. In the resources scenario we looked at the effect on the settlement of what would happen if a major resupply was missed forcing the settlement leadership into a situation where they have to make choices on the distribution of resources. The second scenario looks at the aftermath of a significant disaster that destroys a proportion of infrastructure and places some of the population in a position where they are no longer contributing to the settlement. The final scenario looks at something a little more positive with the discovery of life on the planet and this may impact the relationship with Earth and the pressures that any fledgling government may face.


If we consider a situation where the settlement on Mars has been around for about 20 years and has developed into a sizeable town with a population around 4000-5000 people, then the settlement still relies on routine resupply from Earth for some essential items required for the production of food and facility repair. If, for some reason, the resupply from Earth does not take place then it would be assumed the settlement would have enough reserves to manage for a period time without a top up. But what would happen if a second or third resupply didn’t happen, what considerations would the government of the settlement face and how would they cope with the sudden precarious nature of supply of some items.

We assumed that any controlling body of a town about 4000-5000 would have evolved some form of representative style of government, kind of like a council. The first challenge the council would find is that they would be faced with a situation that would disrupt the supply and demand relationship of the fledgling settlement. The natural tendency would be to horde supplies when it appears there will be a shortage. It is likely then, that domestic supplies and other items would be secured by sections of the society. This would create a challenge for the government in ensuring that there is a fair distribution. This would be particularly important in the case where food supplies were becoming limited. The government would need to ensure all food was rationed and distributed in a equitable manner. If they didn’t there would be the conditions created for conflict between those with plenty of food and those feeling that they were missing out.

The settlement would need to think about how it would enact emergency measures to distribute limited goods and how it would secure sought after items. The interesting question then arises about whether the government would find it necessary to employ some of the people in the town to act as some sort of a security force. The interesting issue that this then raises is, would the government feel it needs to protect itself from the general population and how would it preserve the loyalty of those settlers who elect to assist with maintaining security of the settlement. Eventually the supplies may return, the government may then decide that it needs to maintain some sort of security presence, it would be interesting to think about how this may develop and what the reaction the rest of the settlement has. Would they accept it, or would they be outraged. One thing is likely, though, and that is the settlement would ensure it improves its self sufficiency.


In this scenario we consider what would happen if the settlement was faced with a large calamity, like an explosion or fire. We assumed, for this scenario, that the town is partially destroyed with mass casualties and a large number of key facilities destroyed (not likely to be a storm like the one pictured below from NASA, because they are too weak). The first role of any government is to get the town back to a safe condition to ensure survival continues. Once that is done the next activity is to repair and rebuild critical infrastructure, hopefully there would have already been a prioritisation schedule worked out in some sort of contingency plan in the event of a disaster. From the social side there would be a number of people killed and injured and this would place a significant burden on the remaining population.

The scenario would create a situation where people who were once dependent on other people for certain roles, may find themselves having to do those roles themselves. This would mean people would have to adapt quite quickly to new tasks. Engineers might have to do medical roles or food production specialists may have to do engineering tasks. Interdependencies would change and the whole social structure of the population would shift to match the new roles. In some ways the population would become more resilient overall. There would be a sudden increase in the dependency on Earth as new supplies would be required and injured people may have to be returned.

One issue to explore a little more would be how would the government deal with a suddenly large number of people who are either incapable of working or unable to because their work areas have been destroyed. If a work for reward system has developed then how might the government deal with the sudden requirement to manage a bunch of people who, through no choice of their own, find themselves non-productive members of the settlement. Some of the them would be used for reconstruction roles. How would the settlement deal with the casualties and those who face long term medical care. The government may be forced to carry out measures to redistribute resources. The government would be faced with some stark choices on the distribution of resources which could have the potential to disrupt the form of government that has been established.


On a more positive note, what happens if life is discovered? How will the new settlement cope with the sudden rekindled interest from Earth. If we assume the settlement has been going for around 20 years then there would have been a certain amount of lethargy built up on Earth about what was happening on Mars. Interest would have moved from excitement to normalacy. The settlement on Mars might not welcome this renewed interest in their activities and entities on Earth might prefer to have the situation managed from Earth rather than on Mars. There is the possibility that this would cause a bit of tension between Earth and the settlement on Mars.

During a period of post initial setup the settlement would be settling into a routine of resupply and limited communication with Earth, in many ways they would almost be transactional in interactions. The Mars town would be less dependent on Earth for entertainment, news and direction. Earth would have lost interest in the happenings on Mars in the popular media. The discovery of life would certainly be a game changer and would rapidly increase the attention that the Mars settlement would receive. There would be an, almost, total focus on every aspect of life on Mars, both the discovery and the settlement. This would bring a level of scrutiny that the Mars settlers would not have had for probably 15 years or so and they would perceive a loss of autonomy.

Practically the interest in Mars would give the settlement government the challenge of managing a significant change in their focus. This would likely be driven externally with the government now having to met direction from Earth as well as manage the town. On the plus side the new interest would also likely bring resources. It would, of course, be in the interests of the Mars government to be prepared for what would happen to the settlement in the event of the discovery of life, before it happened so its worth thinking about these eventualities now.

What’s next

So why think about the above scenarios? The reason is simple, if we consider the full range of possibilities for the future now then at least we will be in a better prepared position when/if they happen. The reality is, that the effort of planning is often more important than the plan itself. All three of the scenarios we’ve considered here would be game changes for any Mars settlement, but we should make sure that we are prepared. If we want to convince people to go to Mars in reasonable numbers then we need to be able to convince them its safe and will be a great place to live, not run by some despot with delusions of grandeur. The biggest takeaway, is that there are many unresolved questions about how a society on Mars might be run such as, what instruments will any government have to help them govern? The good thing is that, we can have these discussions now.