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One of the most exciting movies of 2015 was The Martian, nominated for best picture at this year’s 88th Academy Awards. Based on the popular Andy Weir novel, The Martian is about an astronaut stranded on the Red Planet after a windstorm drives his crewmates away. The XKCD webcomic devoted an installment to The Martian in June, summing up the plot as "the scene in Apollo 13 where the guy says 'We have to figure out how to connect this thing to this thing using this table full of parts or the astronauts will all die" — but lasting for the entire movie instead of just a single scene. It’s basically an extended story about everybody “sciencing” all the problems.
It's not really a spoiler to say that a man who has every reason to believe he’ll be stranded on Mars for years by himself will need to create a food supply. The Martian shows how astronaut and botanist Mark Watney, portrayed by Matt Damon, uses limited resources to generate water from its constituent elements, create fertilizer from his own waste, and grow a new crop of potatoes from the small supply he had in storage. The protagonist is surrounded by an environment that is utterly hostile to life, yet he creates the conditions necessary for something new and life-sustaining to grow.
Back here on Earth, Sir Antony Fisher was a successful entrepreneur in England during the years following World War II. He found himself dismayed by the intellectual tide in his home country, which had begun to disparage market activity and establish central economic planning. He felt he had to use his success to help change the world for the better, but was unsure how to proceed. He originally considered a career in politics, but a conversation with future Nobel laureate economist Friedrich Hayek left Fisher convinced that he had to pursue a different strategy. Electoral victories may have a short-term impact, Hayek explained, but today’s policy success can be easily undermined or rescinded tomorrow. The only lasting way to change the world is by influencing the climate of ideas.
Fisher went on to found the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, which has spent more than 60 years transforming policy in the United Kingdom. He soon realized, however, that the world needed more than one large institution devoted to the ideas of liberty, so he founded Atlas Network, then known as the Atlas Economic Research Foundation, to provide training and support for a growing network of independent free-market think tanks across the globe. One of Hayek’s key economic insights was that knowledge is specialized, local, and individual, and can’t be centrally known or managed. Fisher’s new venture built on Hayek’s insight by empowering people to establish their own institutions in their own countries, to deal with most important problems they face. Today, Atlas Network has more than 450 independent partners in 97 countries worldwide.
These independent partner organizations are doing the crucial work necessary to plant and cultivate seeds of liberty across the globe, often in environments that are completely hostile to the ideas of freedom. This is possible — although sometimes perhaps slowly and with great caution — in even the harshest environments. Dr. Tom G. Palmer, Atlas Network’s executive vice president for international programs, explained in an essay about the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta that the building blocks necessary to create the conditions that allow liberty to grow can be found in every culture.
“Today’s challenge worldwide for advocates of liberty and the rule of law is to identify in myriad cases the local roots in each culture of constitutional restraint on power and respect for the right to freedom, and to connect those historical roots to the contemporary universal libertarianism that is spreading worldwide,” Palmer wrote. “Those roots are definitely there to be excavated, not only in the history of the English-speaking peoples, but everywhere we care to look.”
There are places in the world where those who speak out against powerful governments may face prison or even death, but not every environment is so overwhelmingly hostile to freedom. Most of us already enjoy a degree of freedom and have the challenge of creating more. Regardless of the location, however, there are always some aspects of liberty that people resist for cultural or political reasons. No matter where we live, then, it’s our responsibility to create the conditions necessary for an ideology of liberty to take root and grow — like potatoes on Mars.