Tuesday, August 10, 2021

The "dark" side of the Moon (and space), between jurisprudence, politics and ecology

by Silvia Peppoloni*

This article was published in ReWriters Magazine, in Italian:

* Istituto Nazionale di Geofisica e Vulcanologia, Rome (Italy); Secretary General of the IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics; Councillor of the IUGS - International Union of Geological Sciences; Member of the Ethical Board of ICOS - Intergrated Carbon Observation System; Coordinator of IAPG-Italy; Member of the Board of Directors of the Italian Geological Society. Email: silvia.peppoloni@ingv.it

Silvia Peppoloni
The Outer Space Treaty promoted by the United Nations and entered into force in 1967 established the principles governing the activities of States on the exploration and utilization of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies. With this document, the nations agreed that the space "is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty" and that "exploration and use of outer space shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries and shall be the province of all mankind." Therefore, the exploitation of space resources, including those of the Moon, should be allowed only if it is preparatory to scientific explorations and research aimed at the good of all humanity, and any appropriation by individual countries should be prohibited.
Unfortunately, developments and events following the approval of this treaty have shown that space exploration is actually fuelled by geopolitical ambitions and ideological battles between nations to prove their technological might and make ownership claims on extraterrestrial bodies.
This difficult and tense international context is outlined in a recent article published by the EOS magazine of the American Geophysical Union, with references to ongoing legal and ethical disputes, to the most definite stands and to the proposals that suggest a way out.
In 1979, the United States refused to sign the Moon Agreement, another United Nations treaty that specifically declared that lunar resources were the "common heritage of mankind" and committed signatories to establishing an international regime of oversight when resource extraction was "about to become feasible." But the matter was far from over.
In 2015, the U.S. Congress and President Barack Obama passed legislation that unilaterally gave American companies the right to own and sell natural resources they mine from celestial bodies, including the Moon. And in 2020, President Donald Trump issued an executive order proclaiming that "Americans should have the right to engage in commercial exploration, recovery, and use of resources in outer space [...] and the United States does not view it as a global commons."
In addition, Trump established the US Space Force, the first step towards a military presence in the space.
But other countries have also shown their interest in exploring the Moon. Among them, China that in 2019 landed a probe on the far side of our satellite, and Russia, which is re-proposing its lunar program, with a series of missions to starting in 2021 to drill the surface of the lunar south pole in search of water ice, helium-3, carbon, nitrogen and precious metals.
Some US companies, including SpaceX and Blue Origin, are already planning ways to claim resources on the Moon, while the company Japanese Ispace aims to extract lunar water and thus become the world leader of an economy based on space resources. It does not seem so far a future in which commercial spaceships will sail the sidereal spaces to bring precious rocks and metals back to Earth, and perhaps not only those, as frighteningly hypothesized by the science fiction movie "Alien".
Divergent positions on this race for extra-planetary exploitation are then found among experts from different sectors. American Scott Pace, a professor of international affairs at George Washington University and director of the U.S. Space Policy Institute, says that legally speaking, space is not a global commons, since commons implies common ownership and common responsibility, and this in its opinion is inadmissible, since it would allow other countries to have a say in what people do. United States in space. On the other hand, the Nigerian Gbenga Oduntan, a reader in international commercial law at the University of Kent in the United Kingdom, argues instead that all countries should have a say in what happens in space and on the Moon, even countries that are not yet capable of or interested in going there, and adds that "commercialization of outer space in a Wild West mode is going to lead faster to disputes."
It is clear that the lack of regulation in this area is extremely dangerous for the future of space exploration.
Recently, US President Joe Biden promoted NASA's Artemis program, which includes non-binding bilateral agreements with other countries that want to collaborate with the United States in upcoming lunar missions (the agreement with Italy was signed in September 2020). These agreements are inspired by the disregarded treaty of 1967 and aim to set norms of behavior for activity on the Moon: they advocate a shared vision of principles to create a safe and transparent environment that facilitates the exploration, science and commercial activities of which all humanity can enjoy. But what appears to be an excellent omen for the future, is instead considered by some to be a way for the United States to legitimize the exploitation of space resources.
Having outlined the international context in which the prospects for the economic exploitation of space, and of the Moon in particular, move, however, we must consider that the development of a mining activity on the Moon seems increasingly probable, as growing numbers of countries and corporations hope to exploit its minerals to enable further exploration and commercial gain. Any extraction will require extraction machinery, processing facilities, transportation infrastructure, storage, and power sources, which will inevitably have a considerable environmental impact.
Furthermore, the discovery of water on the lunar surface (that can be split into hydrogen and oxygen and used to make space vehicles fuel) has made more realistic the possibility of establishing permanent human settlements, and exploiting the Moon as a potential stopping point on the journey to reach Mars.

But what effects could these activities have on our natural satellite? Is there a risk that humans could cause environmental damage to the Moon? What ethical rules could guide its exploitation? And finally, is this a real problem that we need to consider for the near future?

For a group of mainly Australian academics, made up of lawyers, space archaeologists and also interested citizens, a Declaration of the Rights of the Moon could be the right tool to preserve our satellite from future (and inevitable) anthropogenic impacts.
In order to foster debate and outline an ethics to exploit the lunar landscape for profit, the proponents of the declaration affirm that the Moon is "a sovereign natural entity in its own right and [...] possesses fundamental rights, which arise from its existence in the Universe." These rights include "the right to exist, persist and continue its vital cycles unaltered, unharmed and unpolluted by human beings; the right to maintain ecological integrity [...] and the right to remain a forever peaceful celestial entity, unmarred by human conflict or warfare."
Furthermore, they highlight the urgency of discussing such a legal instrument, as lunar mission planning is increasingly accelerating, while there is yet a worrying legal uncertainty about what private companies are allowed to do in space. And in any case, the Moon would not be the first natural entity to be granted legal rights for its protection: on Earth, for example, the Whanganui River and the Urewera Forest in New Zealand, the Ganges River in India and the Atrato River in Colombia already have been granted legal rights.
However, the declaration is raising great contrasts: in fact, for some, attributing fundamental rights to an inanimate object such as the Moon has no legal basis and is politically meaningless, also in consideration of the fact that the Moon is beyond the sovereignty of any nation, and therefore there is no sovereign power that can legally guarantee its rights.
But the discussion is very broad and concerns the whole future of space travel. In this regard, in a recent book on geoethics published by the Geological Society of London, the bioethicist Margaret McLean, proposes six principles and virtues to be applied outside the terrestrial space: stewardship, scientific integrity, prevention, prudent vigilance, intergenerational justice, and the last resort, that is the recognition of the intrinsic value of the Universe.

We are still very far from a clear and shared vision on space policies, but perhaps the Declaration of the Rights of the Moon could be an important beginning of discussion to arrive at a concrete solution of protection, a discussion in which everyone should be able to take part, like Erin O Donnell says, a water law expert and Rights for Nature activist at the University of Melbourne.

After all, the Moon is part of the life and imagination of every human being: it is present in all cultures, in myths, in literature, in popular legends. Its formation has made possible the development of life on Earth and continues to influence some fundamental dynamics, and this should be enough to consider it much more than a wasteland, barren and inanimate, to be fought over by nations.
Just as we must never forget, when we talk about the Moon, Mars and space travel, what the astrophysicist Stephen Hawking said "... Maybe in a few hundred years, we will have established human colonies among the stars, but for now we have only one planet, and we must work together to protect it."


Other articles published in the IAPG Blog:

IAPG - International Association for Promoting Geoethics

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