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Environmental Law in Space
Alex Steffen, 22 Aug 06

We already have the Outer Space Treaty (more formally, the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies), which is a non-armament treaty: that is, it is primarily concerned with preventing weapons of mass destruction from being placed into orbit, and placing the ownership of space resources into a common holding, thus preventing a colonial scramble by nations intent on seizing space assets. In this way, it is very like the Antarctic Treaty or the Law of the Sea. (A proposed Space Preservation Treaty would ban all weapons from space.)

But is that enough? We already know that the Earth's orbit is littered with space junk. Though space seems unimaginably vast, the parts of it that are the greatest use to us are a small fraction of the total, and (as our orbital irresponsibility shows), at least over the long term, vulnerable to our actions.

We know as well that if it turns out there is extraterrestrial life, its genetics will be extremely valuable, at the same time as its environment may be extremely vulnerable to biological pollution.

And the likelihood of space exploitation is growing, thanks to efforts like the X-Prize, progress on new innovations like the space elevator, and, from what I read, increasingly sophisticated satellite, launch and robot reconnaissance technologies.

Perhaps it is time to start planning the field of Space Environmental Law? It might lay down basic responsibilities for space junk (from "polluter pays" to "launcher pays"?), but it might go much farther, both protecting interstellar life from ruthless biopirates and setting out ways to preserve habitat on other celestial bodies, as has been proposed with deep sea resources.

Early in the last century, Aldo Leopold brought to our attention the need for a "land ethic." Perhaps now we must adopt a "space ethic" as well.

(image: NASA, artist's rendering of a landscape on Titan)

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Perhaps it is time to start planning the field of Space Environmental Law? It might lay down basic responsibilities for space junk (from "polluter pays" to "launcher pays"?), but it might go much farther, both protecting interstellar life from ruthless biopirates and setting out ways to preserve habitat on other celestial bodies, as has been proposed with deep sea resources.

I'm all for that. If there is intersellar life, and it's close it would be a shame to exterminate it.

But it should not be structured in such a way (see the UN Treaty) that it hinders development of infrastructure in space. Space is ours to have, hold and develop. Keeping it a pristine garden is folly.

Posted by: Brian Dunbar on 22 Aug 06

I agree. It would be wrong to keep space "pristine" while pillaging the only known habitable planet in the universe. Development of space, coupled with wise behavior at home, will provide us with the technical nutrients we will need for humanity to flourish.

There are asteroids out there with metallic compositions that will meet our needs. It would be insane to prevent extraction of materials from asteroids while continuing to strip mine Earth. No matter how efficient and effective we are (efficiency and effectiveness being generally orthogonal) at reducing, reusing and recycling, we will still need raw materials. It is very unlikely that we will ever achieve closed-cycle technical nutrient flows. We will still need a source of new material.

Posted by: Mike Tierney on 23 Aug 06

Further reading:

The first article links you to an entire symposium by the Chicago Journal of International Law regarding emerging issues in space.

Steven A. Mirmina & David J. Den Herder, NUCLEAR POWER SOURCES AND FUTURE SPACE EXPLORATION 6 Chi. J. Int'l L. 149 (2005)



Posted by: Brian Dietz on 23 Aug 06

Thanks for the links. I skimmed the last article. Space is actually an excellent example of the need for sustainable development. Within just a few decades after first entering orbit, we have run into trouble with the orbital debris problem - a pretty short feedback loop for learning.

Regarding the province of all mankind and intergenerational equality in preserving the space environment, there appears to be considerable room in construing these terms. I would propose to construe 'province of all mankind' as being met by the following. A government or private entity, if it safely exploits space resources (e.g., all-solar powered systems, preventing debris, etc.), and thereby renders Earth-bound mines obsolete, will certainly succeed in benefitting all mankind.

Posted by: Mike Tierney on 23 Aug 06

"(efficiency and effectiveness being generally orthogonal)"

I don't agree with that statement. If something is not very effective how on Earth can it be called efficient? Perhaps I read the wrong engineers but I always functioned under the delusion that efficiency improved effectiveness.

I mean, basically, isn't lack of efficiency really at the root of many of our energy and pollution problems?

Posted by: Pace Arko on 27 Aug 06

It depends on what is being made efficient. I believe that we have become good at optimizing certain parameters for efficiency, but we have neglected the question of effectiveness. For example, an energy efficient office building is a windowless bunker turned into a cube farm (your basic suburban office building). It is basically a prison, but it is energy efficient. In the end, it is not an effective place for people to work. Having an extremely fuel efficient car is great, but it is not an effective solution when you have to drive to do everything. The effective solution is one where you don't need the car.

For rockets, liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen make the most efficient fuel in terms of thrust per pound. But, it is dangerous to transport, difficult to handle, needs a standing army of people to work with it, and it requires extensive insulation. It is an efficient fuel, but it is a less effective solution. Opting for a less efficient fuel may lead to sacrificing payload capacity, but it may make the overall system much more robust.

I think it boils down to this: efficiency asks "are we doing the thing right?" whereas effectiveness asks "are we doing the right thing?" Pardon the grammar.

Nature (our greatest engineering instructor) provides many examples of systems that are extremely effective, yet inefficient. Each system (e.g., a tree, an elephant, etc.) produces alot of waste, but the waste is food for other systems. A good discussion of this can be found in "Cradle to Cradle" by Wllliam McDonough and Michael Braungart.

Posted by: Mike Tierney on 28 Aug 06



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