Nobody needs to go to Mars. At least, not in the future we currently are foreseeing. Someone on Twitter—and Twitter being Twitter, I’ve lost all track of who it originally was—perfectly described the situation: People are more interested in making Mars habitable for human beings than they are in making Earth habitable for human beings.
The accuracy of it has haunted me ever since, as headlines about the carbon dioxide poisoning of our own planet are occasionally interrupted by headlines about billionaires’ schemes to start colonizing other worlds. Elon Musk is going to terraform the Martian atmosphere! Meanwhile we keep moving ever faster toward Venusaforming our own.
It’s maddening that the science-fiction fanboys who rule our economy are more interested in cosplaying midcentury space-travel fantasies than in facing the planetary apocalypse going all around them. But our planetary apocalypse looks like a cleanup job, and cleanup jobs are boring responsibilities. Who gets hailed as a genius for slowly and diligently making things less bad? The future belongs to the bold!
Repairing that attitude is a grueling project all of its own, which will probably take generations and generations. But the planet is cooking faster than that. Somehow, we need to make the tech geniuses more useful before everything melts.
What if we go ahead and use their backwards priorities to everyone’s advantage? If we can’t convince our technologists that Earth is more important than Mars, embrace its unimportance. Convince them it’s the necessary pre-release testing environment for Mars-tech. It’s not even untrue: whatever technology it takes to stabilize the Martian atmosphere and climate, say, would have to by definition subsume the ability to stabilize Earth’s atmosphere and climate.
Make the list! Until the Martian colonies are established enough to start extracting resources from the planet, they will need to survive with what they’ve brought from Earth. That means zero-waste materials and renewable energy. Food supplies will have to be sustainable and self-replicating. Fixing carbon and producing oxygen will have to be done at scale. Water will need to be cleaned and recycled indefinitely. These problems will have to be solved before we can even think about going off-world. We owe it to Mars—to our interplanetary destiny—to get to work on them at once, right here and now. The future depends on it.