Ever heard of the overview effect? It was coined by a space writer called Frank White to describe how looking down at our little blue planet from above can create a shift in how astronauts think about Earth: all of a sudden you realise how fragile the Earth is and how important it is that we all work together to protect it. “Looking at the Earth from afar you realise it is too small for conflict and just big enough for cooperation,” the astronaut Yuri Gagarin said.
Alas, it looks like we needed to replace the overview effect with the avarice effect, because attitudes towards space seem to have shifted. Rather than making people imagine a better world, modern space exploration seems to be all about money, money, money. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has been working with a Canadian startup on plans to launch satellites with billboards on them into space so that adverts can light up the night sky. No doubt some of those ads will be for space tourism: on Wednesday Virgin Galactic opened ticket sales to the public for the first time. And by the “public” I mean that the small sliver of the public that can afford $450,000 for a joyride 300,000 feet above Earth.Advertisement
The real money, of course, is not in intergalactic billboards or short space trips: it’s in plundering space for resources. Apparently, the race to privatize the moon is on. Of course, many people who are starry-eyed about space mining would balk at the idea that they’re suffering from the avariceeffect: they’d argue that it’s all for the good of mankind. Take, for example, the forward-thinking folk at the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), an influential thinktank that champions free markets. To achieve peace and prosperity on Earth, we need to sell off pieces of space, “with a particular focus on plots of moon land”, the ASI recently declared in a paper.
What’s the logic behind this? Well, they reckon that, as long as you’re not too bothered by the fact that global inequality contributes to the death of one person every four seconds, per Oxfam, untrammeled capitalism has done the world a lot of good. “Property rights play a key role in boosting living standards, innovation and human dignity here on Earth,” Daniel Pryor, head of research at the Adam Smith Institute, says. “The same would be true if we applied this logic to space, which presents a unique opportunity to start afresh when designing effective rules of ownership.”
This ASI report, titled Space Invaders: Property Rights on the Moon, may seem a little out there but it is very on-brand for the UK-based thinktank. “We propose things which people regard as being on the edge of lunacy,” its president, Dr Madsen Pirie once boasted. “The next thing you know, they’re on the edge of policy.” That’s not hyperbole: the thinktank helped propel a range of privatization efforts in the UK during the 80s and 90s. Alan Rusbridger, the Guardian’s former editor, has described the institute as “a body which has built up a startling track record for floating ideas which end up on the statute books”. In short: don’t dismiss this paper as the ramblings of a bunch of space cadets.
That said, don’t expect a McDonald’s on the moon imminently. There are a few obstacles that stand in the way of the ASI’s fantasies of intrepid capitalists plundering the cosmos. Chief among these is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is the foundation for international space law. The treaty establishes that space belongs to everyone and no nation has the right to appropriate a celestial body.
The Outer Space Treaty was drawn up in the early days of space exploration. It was easy for world leaders to be magnanimous about not monetizing space back then because the idea was still largely theoretical. Now that mining the moon is becoming more of a practical possibility, however, the treaty is swiftly falling out of favour and there have been a series of attempts to undermine it. In 2015, for example, the US Congress and President Barack Obama passed legislation giving American companies the right to own and sell anything they obtain from space. The US argued that this wasn’t a contravention under the Outer Space Treaty (which is not particularly detailed) because there is no claim of sovereignty involved.
Donald Trump advanced the commercialization of space further during his time in office. In 2020 he signed an executive order encouraging the commercial development of space. “Outer space is a legally and physically unique domain of human activity, and the United States does not view it as a global commons,” the executive order stated.
The steady commercialization of space has not passed the ASI by. “With more countries and companies competing in the space race than ever before it’s vital for us to move past the outdated thinking of the 1960s and tackle the question of extraterrestrial property rights sooner rather than later,’’ the thinktank’s report says.
They are absolutely right about that: the Outer Space Treaty is outdated and is already being ignored. We desperately need to establish a framework regarding property rights before billionaires, private corporations and self-interested world leaders start auctioning off the universe. As the outraged online reaction to the ASI’s report demonstrates, not everyone is sold on the idea that giving corporations free rein to mine the moon is going to make the world a better place. It’s already well established that trickle-down economics doesn’t work. Do they really expect us to believe that wealth is going to trickle all the way down from space?