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Polynesian island
Future explorers and settlers of Mars have much to learn from the explorers and settlers of Polynesia from a social and cultural standpoint. (credit: iStockPhoto.com)

Aloha from Mars!

What should we humans do, explore space ourselves or send robots out there to do it for us? The debate rages on and, obeying the Second Law of Thermodynamics, it absorbs energy and throws off heat. Both sides make strong points, but the fact is this issue was resolved eons ago.

History doesn’t offer an infallible guide to the future. However, studying the past reveals what course we are following, how we got to where we are, and offers clues about where we might go next.

How will people interact on the long voyages and in those remote societies once they arrive? What will be their guiding principles? Fortunately, history provides a Mars-mission analogy illustrating timeless values that provide rich food for thought.

We launched onto our current trajectory many thousands of years ago. Then, our distant forebears began roaming beyond East Africa into the wider world to explore for new resources and living space. Since then, we have spread into every useable part of the planet. Along the way we have become hard-wired to explore and discover. The journey continues today, but is no longer limited to Earth: we will go into space to explore and exploit it. As Stephen Hawking put it, “To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit.”

Now, through the Vision for Space Exploration and the dreams of the new space entrepreneurs, we are contemplating permanent human presence on the Moon and Mars. Let’s leave aside the technical challenges. They are all solvable in time. Instead, it is useful to consider the nature of the settlements we are going to establish. How will people interact on the long voyages and in those remote societies once they arrive? What will be their guiding principles? Fortunately, history provides a Mars-mission analogy illustrating timeless values that provide rich food for thought.

Around 300 AD a fisherman beached his canoe on the shore of an island. He had completed one of the most incredible voyages in human history. He was a Polynesian named Hawai’iloa—the Big Island of Hawai’i bears his name. This was but one episode in the greatest of all the achievements of humanity: the Polynesian migration across the Pacific from atoll to island until 25 million square kilometers of ocean had been explored and settled—the tradition of ‘imi honua or “searching for lands.” In a time when European sailors rarely ventured out of sight of the shore, the Polynesian wayfinders learned how to read an apparently trackless, featureless ocean in minute detail and could navigate across 3,000 kilometers of open water to reach landfall in the Hawaiian archipelago: the Mars mission of its day. When Europeans entered the Pacific more than a thousand years later they were stunned to find that every island capable of supporting life was inhabited, and had been so for centuries, by people who were related in language and culture: geographically, the largest “nation” on Earth.

The consummate skill of these voyagers and their canoe technology are beyond the scope of this article. Instead, we need to study how their culture, and the values embodied in it, enabled them to survive arduous, high-risk journeys and successfully establish remote settlements. Why is this necessary? Because, at our current level of capability, a voyage to Mars is a multi-year mission during which people will have to live in close proximity, face constant peril, and work together in a genuine spirit of mutual dependency to ensure the survival of all. Rugged individualists need not apply!

The foundation of the Polynesians’ culture is the spirit of ‘ohana or “family”. It may be a long time before humans venture out to Mars in multi-generational family groups as the Polynesian voyagers did, but within the spirit of ‘ohana lie some valuable lessons for our Mars pioneers.

The family values were based on affection, warmth, love, and loyalty, and the belief in open communication between people. Caring and forgiveness were important. Members had a sense of shared involvement, mutual responsibility, and interdependence. Those who farmed depended on those who fished and vice versa. Since the nobles (ali’i) depended on both for their survival, they treated their people well in case they might leave to join another group. An old Hawaiian proverb said, “You are a chief because of your people.”

The purpose of voyaging across the ocean was to discover and settle new lands. Each successful landfall led to the establishment of a self-supporting community. Return journeys were often made to preserve family connections, but this did not imply that there was any central imperial power controlling the dispersed communities: there was no flag-planting and colonial rule from afar. This would have been unthinkable since the Polynesians believed they were merely caretakers of lands that belonged to the gods.

If you are a hardheaded engineer and have read this far, you may be getting a little uncomfortable with the emotional aspects of this. Nevertheless, they cannot be ignored.

As well as the spirit of ‘ohana, Hawaiians live with the sense of Aloha—translated as “to share the breath of life.” They view westerners as “breath-less” people who are rootless and alone, searching for connections they may never find. Again, the theme of shared endeavor and destiny is vital in producing patterns of social behavior and developing specific attitudes towards relationships among individuals. Isolated as they were from the rest of the world, the Polynesians learned how to be collectively self-sufficient and resourceful. We will need nothing less if we are to venture beyond Earth, for it must be better to share the breath of life than to try and strangle the living breath out of each other because we haven’t learned how to co-exist.

If you are a hardheaded engineer and have read this far, you may be getting a little uncomfortable with the emotional aspects of this. Nevertheless, they cannot be ignored. Long voyages into space and establishing distant settlements will depend on everything that modern science and technology can provide. But state-of-the-art hardware and software are not the whole picture because you and I will be there—“wetware”, as computer geeks sometimes call us. How we develop our social behavior is going to be the key factor that determines success. The Polynesians understood that and have given us an invaluable Mars-mission parallel. Of course, they were not infallible. Some voyages would have ended in disaster and some settlements failed. However, living in harmony with their surroundings, they learned how to survive.

When the time comes for us to plan the first mission there will need to be a rigorous process for choosing the crew. Technical skills and physical fitness are expected, but how will we select for Polynesian-quality social skills? Western-style psychometric tests and profiling are sure to be part of the process; however, we need to be clear about what we are looking for. Perhaps a field trip to Hawaii is necessary—a tough assignment! Spending time there with people who both live and study the culture will reveal many more lessons than I have described. One way to achieve this might be to discuss the needs of a Mars mission with the people at the Polynesian Voyaging Society. Founded in 1973, the PVS has been constructing traditional double-hulled voyaging canoes and undertaking many journeys throughout the Pacific using ancient non-instrument navigation techniques. Some of these voyages are educational events for young people. Perhaps the PVS has a role to play (and a business opportunity) in taking prospective space settlers on voyages to teach the values outlined above. We westerners may not be able to duplicate that culture exactly, but at least we can identify some fundamental principles that we should strive to emulate.

If you are still unsure about this, consider how some business leaders have transformed their companies. Rather than studying how their competitors in the same industry do things, they look for analogies in radically different fields. For example, the CEO of a Danish company, who had experience working with the Boy Scouts of America movement, was deeply impressed by the way Scouts cooperated effectively to achieve common goals without the need for hierarchy to direct their efforts. He took this lesson into his company to build a system that encouraged volunteerism and self-motivation and dramatically improved profitability. There is a rule of thumb: the more counterintuitive something seems, the more likely you are to make an amazing discovery!

When the time comes for us to plan the first mission there will need to be a rigorous process for choosing the crew. Technical skills and physical fitness are expected, but how will we select for Polynesian-quality social skills?

Let’s leave where we came in: humans versus robots. Despite our intense practicality, we are often illogical and emotional animals—ask Mr. Spock! There is no practical purpose in scaling Mount Everest yet we do it all the time. Each person who stands on the summit has scored a personal triumph by overcoming great danger and extreme physical hardship. People climb Everest “because it’s there.” Today, Mars is the new Everest. There is sure to be vast wealth created from exploiting the planet, but, in the beginning, we will go because it’s there. We’ll settle on the Moon as well, but that is only a foothill on the way to the summit.

If we humans ignore these new challenges, then what is our space policy—“To boldly stay at home?” Our exploring ancestors will be massively disappointed because they had the courage depicted by French novelist, André Gide, when he wrote, “One doesn’t discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.” That’s exactly what we’re going to do, but let’s learn from the Polynesian masters of exploration and do it their way. Then one day we may earn the right to send a greeting to Earth: “Aloha from Mars!”


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