06/21/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Earth Day - A Modest Proposal (with apologies to Jonathan Swift)

It's time to think about moving to Mars

On this 40th Anniversary of Earth Day, there is good reason to celebrate the efforts of individuals, communities, and businesses to repair this broken planet. We deserve a day to mark our achievements.

But there is bad news. Despite all the paper we've recycled, all the CFL bulbs we've installed, all the thermostats we've adjusted, we haven't done nearly enough. It's not just our ecosystem that's in trouble. The degradation of our planet directly threatens our prosperity, health, and our very existence.

Things are so grave, say green advocates, that we need the equivalent of an Apollo "moon shot" to mobilize our people. But this is no time for analogies and, frankly, going to the moon is yesterday's news.

Just a week before Earth Day, President Obama affirmed his commitment to space exploration, including sending humans to Mars within a few decades. "I expect to be around to see it," the president said. While I applaud this aspiration, the president has the scale and timing all wrong.

If we're really serious about saving humanity, we need a "Mars shot" now - and I mean that literally. We need to consider evacuating Earth and relocating the human population to Mars.

Some may think this proposal too extreme. But as we all know, Earth's climate is changing in ways that could have dire consequences. We have a limited supply of clean water, food, and energy, and our global population is growing every day. Yet despite these facts, our governments have yet to develop a coordinated approach to solving what are truly global problems.

To be sure, inventors are working on some fantastical solutions. Like modern-day alchemists, they hope to transform the greenhouse gases that pollute our atmosphere into something less harmful, or perhaps even something precious. Maybe they can tinker with the atmosphere and set off more volcanic eruptions, spewing sulfur particles into the air to deflect sunlight and cool our planet temporarily.

My own proposal is much more sensible. Conditions on Mars, we increasingly are learning, are surprisingly similar to our own. A terrestrial planet with an atmosphere and water, NASA tells us that Mars has many features we would recognize - including plains, canyons, valleys, and even polar ice caps that could one day remind us of those we melted on Earth.

Some scientists believe Mars could be hospitable to life, and I'm convinced that the perilous state of our polluted, used-up planet gives us ample reason to test their views.

If we don't pursue this plan, in 40 years our planet will be home to 9 billion people and will require the natural resources of four Earths. That is three more than we currently have and ours is already a mess.

We must therefore begin our planning in earnest given the urgent and complicated nature of the task. Realistically, we will celebrate many more Earth Days before our entire population can celebrate the first Mars Day together.

The value of planetary relocation should be obvious to naturalists, who would get a chance to start over in an untainted ecosystem, and to the businesses that could finance and organize the necessary transport and development.

So the real question is not "Should we abandon Earth?" -- the advantages of trading a sick planet for a healthy one are clear - but rather, if we get to start from scratch, how do we want to live? We have an opportunity to reset, rethink, and reinvent. Can we do really things differently and more sustainably?

We should start with the education system of this new world, which must teach us to understand natural resources and systems and their true economics - not the false accounting which has hidden the price of ecological harms for so long. Armed with this knowledge, people can participate in what have to date been arcane debates among "experts":

Will we do what it takes to generate our energy from the sun, wind, and water on our new planet, or are we going to mine finite resources at great cost to human life, transport them halfway around our new home, and burn them up in power plants and vehicles at great cost to our health?

Will we develop ways to shelter, feed, clothe, and entertain ourselves that are clean and enduring, supporting both human life and the ecosystems we depend on?

Will we safeguard the substance that is most elemental to our survival - water - or will we pollute the sources from which we need to drink?

Resolving these and similar questions will be difficult, but I am confident that a project as significant as switching planets will force us to rise to the occasion, inspire our best thinking, and overcome petty differences. We can get to the right answers if only we think big enough.

Mars, here we come!