Is outer space destined for inequality?
The Earth is really tiny when you think about it. A seemingly infinite number of other rocks are floating in space, often visible only by powerful telescopes, dazzling our imaginations, waiting to be torn apart by humanity.
Hold on...torn apart? Did I use the right words?
I was surprised when I first learned of this myself, but plundering outer space is not confined to Guardians of the Galaxy or Star Wars.
Countries have been discussing the eventual extraction of resources from outer space for several decades.
As Nick Levine describes in a recent article for Jacobin, many countries wanted to establish a new template for “extraterrestrial politics” back in the 1960s and 70s.
They feared outer space would be treated like Earth: a realm for rampant free market exploitation and severe inequality, dominated by the most powerful countries.
77 less-developed nations (knowns as the Group of 77) banded together to keep more developed nations from running roughshod over the universe.
They wanted to start with a fresh slate, ensuring that all resources acquired from other planets or asteroids or whatever, would be evenly shared.
Over 90 countries ended up signing a resolution at the United Nations called “The Outer Space Treaty of 1967” that invoked the legal principle “res nullius,” which prevents a country from declaring sovereignty over a territory and also set rules for fair distribution of resources.
Case closed. A fair universe was born.
But that was almost 50 years ago and the US and other major space players never agreed. Plus, there’s always ways to get around meddling international treaties if you’re a corporation, right?
Today, a slew of companies are busy building machines and systems to exit the Earth’s atmosphere, land on a planet or asteroid and begin the process of resource extraction for profit.
Deep Space Industries wants to begin extracting resources from asteroids as soon as next year. Moon Express wants to get platinum and Helium-3 from the moon. And various other companies from Space Adventures to Virgin Galactic to ConnectX are planning projects such as Bitcoin delivery systems, commercial travel and “space computing.”
The “ASTEROIDS ACT” was introduced in the US Congress last year, essentially written by industry insiders, that would give companies free reign in their extraterrestrial expeditions.
Why should you care about this? If certain entrepreneurs are bold and capable enough to make it to space in the first place, then let them do what they want, you might be thinking.
But traveling to space with the express purpose of extracting resources for profit just continues a system that is ravaging our own planet, destroying ecosystems and causing widespread extinction. Humanity went into ecological debt on August 12th this year, the fastest time in history, and shows little signs of slowing consumption as more and more economies demand more resources.
Extraterrestrial opportunities may spur even more reckless exploitation of Earth by allowing giants in certain industries to point to other planets and asteroids as sources of potentially infinite resources--why should they take it easy on Earth if the same resources can be found elsewhere?
This discussion is existential in nature. Although it revolves around rocks uninhabitable by humans, suspended pins of light in the night sky, it presents a stage for people to describe the world they would want to live in if a brand new opportunity arose.
I’d like to live in a world where poverty of all kinds are eliminated and where resources are fairly shared among inhabitants, where someone’s lot in life isn’t dictated by birth, where people, animals and wildlife of all kinds are respected. I’d also like to live in a universe where those equalities are extended by humanity into space.
What about you?