Let’s pretend rural Iowa is Mars

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Note: This is a cross-post from Bleeding Heartland from earlier this week.

So, I have watched the bizarre unpiloted, billion-dollar carnival ride that took Jeff Bezos into the barest edge of “space.” We are looking at spending more billions of dollars as a collective society to pursue a goal of living on the moon or Mars, for some just for the pursuit of scientific knowledge, but also because some fear that a future Earth may cease to be inhabitable. Here is a simple brain game: What if we pretended that some place on Earth with challenges to daily habitability is a viable way-station for Mars, and spend our research dollars there instead? I nominate rural southern Iowa, where storm clouds hover over the future. I’m serious.


Storm clouds loom ominously over the Lamoni, Iowa, cemetery on a Memorial Day. Photo by the author.

I’ll credit Substacker Matt Yglesias for his tickler tweet idea to start this mission in Alaska, but I think I have a better argument for Iowa. His point is that Mars is so far from being habitable on so many vectors that we would much more likely be successful in making uninhabitable parts of the Earth habitable first. (Oddly, habitable and inhabitable mean the same thing, but we usually don’t say unhabitable.) We would learn a lot in the process, as we surely would going to Mars.

My point is that a “Mars-on-Earth New City” project is far easier to do, much cheaper, and with much more immediate societal benefit if you pick a spot in America’s struggling heartland as a “halfway point.” I’m not selfish here; feel free to nominate your own rural Iowa/Nebraska/Kansas county. Let’s make a case for a different kind of “moonshot.”

I have lived in Iowa’s impoverished (the number one county on this list) and south-edge Decatur County and its oft-mispronounced town of Lamoni (long i, please) for fifteen out of the last forty years in three different tenures. Three times my family has chosen to “return to Earth” and leave Iowa because of circumstances that rendered the place, for us at least, less than habitable, leaving more hardy souls behind. We kept coming back, however, to either attempt to “re-colonize” or to briefly visit the spawn that we have left behind, jettisoned off Interstate 35’s lonely Exit 4, roughly halfway between Des Moines and Kansas City.

Our reasons for leaving friends and family each time were complicated, but they hint at much more solvable versions of the challenges that we humans would face if we were to colonize Mars. Perhaps if we seriously tackled these collective societal and technological problems at home first, we just might have a better leg up on conquering the Red Planet. Here is my list:

Economic opportunity

We took a 40% pay cut from my auto industry job way back in 1980 in order to raise our children in what we hoped would be a more idyllic community than our decaying urban industrial home (Detroit would be my second choice for a “Mars colonization test”). After five years, we were more broke than when we arrived. I learned that it can be more expensive to teach at a struggling rural college than it is to go to school there.

Mars currently has no indigenous economic activity that would support a sustainable community. Rural Iowa isn’t that bad, but it may be getting there. Over 40 years I have watched industrial agriculture push out a mixed economy in rural Iowa, where now one man, some temporary helpers, and a lot of technology can farm a 640-acre section (the cheapest land in the state in the hilly south) and survive. Your supplies such as seed and fertilizer are now “rocketed in” from outside the community in an 18-wheeler version of Amazon vans. A market-dominant Chinese-owned meat processor and an ethanol refinery (ethanol production consumes 45% of Iowa corn) have pre-purchased your entire corn crop on an option contract, and so it leaves town faster than the local school’s graduates. The local grain storage infrastructure is literally collapsing (and I mean “literally”).

This has been a long-term trend, where “Big Ag” is no longer dependent on local suppliers, nor workers, nor workers’ families, nor the schools, local stores or churches that were once much stronger backbones of their communities. How long-term? Lamoni was the headquarters of the Hy-Vee grocery store chain from its founding until 1945, so at least since then. But there is no doubt that the arrival of a Walmart 30 miles away doomed the varied retail sector in this and surrounding towns. One by one you could count other Main Street businesses failing like dominoes, a process still continuing. Rural communities will invariably choose better consumer selection and prices over local providers, to the detriment of their own Main Street. But on Mars, you can’t get Amazon Prime shipping or drive 75 miles to the mall, so maybe we need to re-think the economics of local sourcing.

In those pre-internet 1980s, I started two businesses on the side using an Atari 800 computer, a dial-up modem, and a CompuServe account. Those endeavors brought me a lucrative job offer that enticed my family away the first time, escaping the Iowa planet surface to an outside economic rescue ship like Matt Damon in The Martian. Some of my best friends have remained, much better Martians than we were, making their entire careers there.

There are still pioneering entrepreneurs in Lamoni and I have the greatest respect for them. I was, in more recent years, president of the local development corporation, and that fine group has invested their time and personal dollars to bring new businesses to town. But economic development is a rough-and-tumble game. Small towns can offer some cheap land and maybe even financing for a building. The Des Moines-area development guys can offer millions of dollars of tax incentives to put a Home Depot and a Menards hardware store a couple of blocks apart, a 70+ mile trip for us on the border (heck, it is 30 miles to a McDonald’s).

A “Mars Mission” to rural Iowa would invest a measly few hundred million dollars (pocket change for Bezos) to goose transportation, infrastructure, housing, schools, and perhaps most importantly, a match of those millions of corporate welfare dollars going to urban development incentives. Could a “new economic city” be successfully “launched” a lot closer than Mars? If not, then stop wasting our money on that space boondoggle. The rocket might get you there, but without economic viability you might was well name it the Roanoke Colony. Note that China is doing this right now in a big way in multiple locations.

Where will the workers come from, you ask? Touchy subject, this, but if you want continued economic growth AND to rescue our depleting Social Security system, you will need new “space travelers” from other countries, of which there is no shortage of volunteer “astronauts” from around the world. My own grandfather made the ocean voyage as a teenager in 1900 to settle in a remote part of America for economic opportunity. Although he had a hard and too-short life, he did have an advantage that most of today’s economic migrants do not have, if you get my drift. You don’t need to study Critical Race Theory to understand why immigration remains such an obstacle today.


When I first arrived in Iowa in the 1980s, some of Iowa’s smaller town public schools, including Lamoni’s, were among the best in the state. A dozen small towns in Iowa host, as does Lamoni, small independent private colleges, some now even calling themselves “universities.” These are mostly the legacy of long-diluted ethnic or religious denomination settlers from before the turn of the 20th century (1895 for the “original Graceland” in Lamoni), with most peaking during my own 1970s “baby boomer in college” years. Some of these legacy colleges are now dead, others now close to it. Lamoni hangs on to its elementary, middle, and high schools, but just barely, although similar-sized towns have seen them fall into disuse. Property taxes to support the schools are high, and Lamoni must share programs and a superintendent with county seat Leon to remain viable.

Good public schools are at the heart of “the commonweal,” the public good. If they are crumbling, then we, too, as a community, are crumbling. Good teachers across the country deserve better and more secure economic support from the collective us. Our kids deserve this more than do mega-corporations who build billions of dollars of taxpayer-financed armaments, only to blow them up and start all over again. We desperately need really good education, not to mention abundant children and fecund parents, on “Mars.” It is a mystery of evolution why humans like me far outlive our own fertility, so I won’t be leaving anymore behind. I’d rather someone in power spend some collective money to make this a better planet (Chuck Grassley, I’m talking to you!).


Terry Branstad and the vaunted Des Moines insurance giants intentionally hobbled the ACA “Obamacare” private healthcare coverage market in its first years. That was a final straw in our third retreat from small-town Iowa (I have a hard time remembering retreat #2). For family health reasons, we were trying to “snowbird” in Florida, but each year brought a failing insurer and a new, more expensive policy with poorer coverage for my spouse. Being a risk-averse guy and running the numbers for an uncovered healthcare crisis if out-of-state, we finally opted for a more stable healthcare market. It is said that the alligators in Florida wear Izod knit shirts with pictures of little old people on them. There is an abundance of “food” for the healthcare alligators on the Gulf Coast, and we have kept them busy.

Many rural counties across the country have lost their primary care hospitals in recent years. Decatur County bucked the trend to build a new facility in recent years, but it survives financially primarily by acting as a contracted and externally-managed feeder to one of the large Des Moines healthcare systems, 70+ miles away. Labor and delivery services are gone, of course, a huge obstacle to young families. If you are going to have healthcare on Mars, you cannot rely on this “financial feeder” system. Primary care and emergency services are part of the “common good,” but we do not finance them like that.

A bright spot on the Iowa-Missouri border has been the growth of the non-profit and federally-qualified Community Health Centers of Southern Iowa. Created to stem the loss of local medical care, CHCSI has expanded its footprint well beyond its Decatur County base. This is especially the case for its behavioral health services, an often-neglected part of the healthcare conversation. (Disclaimer, I was a long-time volunteer board member for this organization.) A good model for quality, not-for-profit, primary healthcare delivery to rural communities (and other places) can be found in the community health centers.

Will Elon Musk insist on for-profit healthcare delivery on his Mars base, or will he make that part of the government’s responsibility? We need to test out some better financial models on Earth before we go there. And every space movie I can think of illustrates the need for professional behavioral health services. Bruce Dern in Silent Running (1972) is my favorite example.

Can America pull this off?

My faith in the American people to understand basic science, let alone a visionary economic future, has been sorely tried in recent years. And we haven’t even touched future environmental challenges. Rural towns are often their own worst enemies. One obstacle I found to rural economic development is that some businesses locate in remote places because they want to pay poorly and act irresponsibly in terms of the environment and other regulations, aided by anti-regulation cronies in state government.

The community-oriented ethnic religious denominations of my youth have often been replaced by nationalistic end-times religious believers who appear to have little stake in healthy, inclusive and diverse future communities, let alone something as simple as community health in the face of the coronavirus pandemic (read Iowan Lyz Lenz’s excellent God Land).

Perhaps this has been an advantage of China’s “New City” endeavors. Don’t ask the rural community what they want and just start digging. But I do know that in Lamoni and other small Iowa towns there are still the optimistic, if perhaps not literal, descendants of Lamoni’s 1870’s founders, who purchased 3000 acres for a new remote Mars Iowa settlement venture with a collectivist bent, a community that produced one of the largest employee-owned companies the country out of a co-op grocery store. There is only so much that Elon or Jeff can do alone, even with their rocket-loads of money. You need a community in order to thrive on Mars. For that matter, we need “community” and “commonweal” right here on Earth, right now.

1 thought on “Let’s pretend rural Iowa is Mars

  1. Peter Robinson

    “might was well”

    was –> as

    Your Mars-Iowa juxtaposition works well as a literary device.


    This talk about people actually living on Mars is just foolishness. It will never happen. We may have a human-occupied research station some day. Like Anarctica, except much more hostile.

    We don’t even know how we would get humans to Mars without serious damage from cosmic rays or solar emissions in transit.

    The future for humans in space is space habitats: Oneill or McKendree cylinders. Earth-normal gravity, standard atmosphere, and ten-feet of shielding.


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