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Adopting a Space Ethic

This article was written by Alex Steffen in August 2006. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

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)

Environmental Law in Space is a part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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