Privatizing the moon may seem like a crazy idea, but the sky has no limit for greed | Arwa Mahdawi
EEver heard of the overview effect? It was coined by a space writer called Frank White to describe how looking down on our little blue planet from above can create a shift in the way astronauts think of Earth: all of a sudden you realize how Earth is fragile and how important it is that we all work together to protect it. “Looking at the Earth from afar, you realize that it is too small for conflict and just big enough for cooperation,” said astronaut Yuri Gagarin.
Alas, it seems we have to replace the overview effect with the greed effect, as attitudes towards space seem to have changed. Rather than inspiring people to imagine a better world, modern space exploration seems to be about money, money, money. Elon Musk’s SpaceX has worked with a Canadian startup on plans to launch satellites with billboards in space so ads can light up the night sky. No doubt some of these advertisements will be aimed at space tourism: on Wednesday, Virgin Galactic opened ticket sales to the public for the first time. And by “public” I mean the small slice of the public who can afford $450,000 for a ride 300,000 feet above the Earth.
The real money, of course, isn’t 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 have their eyes set on space mining would balk at the idea that they are suffering from the greed effect: they would say that it is all for the good of humanity. Take, for example, the forward-thinking folks at the Adam Smith Institute (ASI), an influential think tank that champions free markets. To achieve peace and prosperity on Earth, we must sell off chunks of space, “with particular emphasis on lunar land parcels,” ASI said in a recent post.
What is the logic behind this? Well, they argue that, as long as you aren’t too bothered that global inequality contributes to the death of one person every four seconds, according to Oxfam, unbridled capitalism has done the world a lot of good. “Property rights play a key role in improving living standards, innovation and human dignity here on Earth,” said Daniel Pryor, director of research at the Adam Smith Institute. “The same would be true if we applied this logic to space, which presents a unique opportunity to start fresh when designing effective property rules.”
This ASI report, titled Space Invaders: Property Rights on the Moon, may sound a bit off-center, but it’s very much on the mark of the UK-based think tank. “We do things that people consider borderline insane,” boasted its chairman, Dr. Madsen Pirie. “The next thing you know, they’re on the verge of politics.” This is not hyperbole: the think tank helped propel a series of UK privatization efforts in the 1980s and 1990s. Alan Rusbridger, the former editor of the Guardian, described the institute as “an organization that has amassed a surprising track record of floating ideas that find their way into law books”. In short: don’t confuse this article with the ramblings of a bunch of space cadets.
That said, don’t expect a McDonald’s on the moon anytime soon. There are a few obstacles that stand in the way of ASI’s fantasies of fearless capitalists plundering the cosmos. The most important of these is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which is the foundation of international space law. The treaty establishes that space belongs to all and that no nation has the right to appropriate a celestial body.
The Outer Space Treaty was drafted at the very beginning of space exploration. It was easy for world leaders to be magnanimous not to monetize space at the time, as the idea was still largely theoretical. Now that moon mining is becoming a practical possibility, the treaty is rapidly falling out of favor 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 US companies the right to own and sell anything they get from space. The United States argued that this was not a breach of the Outer Space Treaty (which is not particularly detailed) as there is no sovereignty claim involved.
Donald Trump has advanced the commercialization of space during his tenure. 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 said.
Regular commercialization of space has not exceeded ASI. “With more countries and companies competing in the space race than ever before, it is vital for us to move beyond outdated 1960s thinking and address the issue of extraterrestrial property rights as soon as possible. “, says the report of the think tank.
They are absolutely right on this point: the Outer Space Treaty is obsolete and is already being ignored. We desperately need to establish a property rights framework before self-serving billionaires, corporations and world leaders start auctioning off the universe. As the outraged reaction online to the ASI report shows, not everyone is convinced that giving corporations the free rein to mine the moon is going to make the world a better place. It is already well established that the trickle down economy does not work. Do they really expect us to believe that wealth will flow out of space?