Monday, April 13, 2020

Is Earth's core a global commons and what does this mean for outer space?

On April 6, 2020, US President Trump issued an Executive Order rejecting the 1979 Moon Agreement and the idea that outer space is a global commons. 

What is space if it is not a global commons? Other such commons include Antarctica, the deep sea, the atmosphere, and cyberspace. We plebs cannot be denied use and access to these places - no-one is going to be selling us oxygen to breathe, on Earth at least, and for the foreseeable future. But as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increases, I don't think anything can be ruled out. (Note that the atmosphere on Mars might also be a global commons, but as it's not suited to human use, manufactured breathable air may be a commodity there). 

I think Trump's rejection of space as a global commons is really insidious, and the precursor to carving up space between commercial interests. It got me to thinking about a place that mirrors outer space, only you couldn't get any more inner, or deeper into the gravity well. I'm talking about Earth's core.

Journey to the Centre of the Earth

Image by Roen Kelly

The core has two layers. The outer core is a fluid iron-nickel layer about 2400 km thick wrapped around the inner core, a solid iron-nickel sphere, about 1220 km in diameter.  They're both rotating, but in different directions. The temperature of the outer core ranges from 4000 to 6000 degrees celsius. One of the key effects of the core is to generate Earth's magnetic field, which protects us from the solar wind. Without it life on Earth would be very different.

Sure, it's a big ball of molten metal that we can't get to, but I don't see why this prevents us from thinking about it's status. Space was once inaccessible too, and Jules Verne imagined journeys to both. In 1864, he published Journey to the Centre of the Earth, where his heroes attempt to descend to the core through lava tubes. They don't achieve their goal and there is, sadly, no hidden path straight to the centre. At this stage the nature of the core was unknown but one theory was that it was molten. It was also thought that there were large cavities inside Earth which might sustain ecosystems of different kinds (some containing prehistoric fauna). About 200 km down, Verne's intrepid explorers find a vast underground lake and caverns with their own weather systems.

Source: Wikimedia
The existence of the core was proven by Richard Oldham in 1906, and by the early 1930s, the analysis of seismic waves passing through Earth showed that it was indeed liquid. The solid inner core was discovered by Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann in 1936 from analysis of a New Zealand earthquake. 

These days we think of Earth as solid, like a boring Easter egg. There are some very deep caves both on land and under the sea, but they're only about 2 km. 

Technology may help where we can't find natural routes to the underworld. The problem is the increasing temperature and pressure as you go down through the mantle, which crushes and melts the equipment. The deepest humans have ever drilled is 12 km. That's just 0.4% of the 2900 km you'd need to go to get to the core.

All the same, the mysteries of the interior of Earth continue to influence our desires and imagination. Only in recent years have scientists started to explore the dark biosphere, microbial and wormy life which thrives in the dark fissures and seams of the deep rock. Perhaps there aren't plesiosaurs in subterranean lakes, but it seems the deep Earth is not sterile, either. And perhaps we need Planetary Protection policies for the deep layers of this, and other planets.

A global uncommons?

The next question is whether there are any resources in Earth's core that could be used by humans.  We may run out of easily accessible iron ore near the surface, for example. This is one of the reasons asteroid mining is being pursued. We might not quite be equipped to deal with extracting it in liquid form, though. 

Heat from the core is already used in geothermal energy, but the extraction happens close to the surface. Geothermal energy is a renewable energy source, and is regulated at a national level. 

How much can be owned below the surface of Earth is also a matter for national regulation. In Australia before 1891, land titles extended to the core in the common law principle of usque adcoelom et usque ad inferos.  The complete sentence is 'whoever's is the soil, it is theirs all the way to Heaven and all the way to Hell'. After 1891, states placed limits on the depths below the surface. In Victoria, for example, the Crown owns the land below 15 m to the centre of Earth. 

And what about treaties or conventions setting out the ground rules for interacting with the core, like there are for outer space? If they exist, I couldn't find them. There seems to be nothing to prevent me claiming ownership of the core, apart from the tiny annoyances of being unable to access it or enforce my ownership. (In 2010, a woman claimed legal ownership of the Sun).

Perhaps we could call Earth's core - and by analogy all planetary cores, and unbreathable atmospheres, a global uncommons or perhaps even dyscommons. Everyone has rights to them and the benefits that derive from them (for example, the protection of magnetic fields), but they have limited or zero commercial use for the people who think of Earth in that way (which I'd prefer not to). The uncommons may underlie the commons that are the subject of competing claims and conflicts.  The commons then only comes into being when it has something of value to offer. For example, geostationary orbit is very valuable real estate, but only became so when it was possible to elevate satellites to this region. We may see something similar with cislunar space in the future.

But uncommons don't have to be metrically defined regions of Earth or space at all. As Judith Farquhar, Lili Lai and Marshall Kramer say,
The uncommons is not, in other words, an exterior to the one-world world; rather, it is a possible world that can make itself partly known in a mottled and ever-changing light and shade. (2017)

The one-world world (Law 2011, 2015) is a single vision of what Earth or the cosmos is. Pretty much all of our legal and scientific approaches to space are based on a one-world world. Law argues that the dominance of this one-world world by northern hemisphere thinking (ie industrial capitalist nations) makes the raising of multiple, but simultaneous, ways of experiencing the world seem eccentric and self-indulgent. Think about this and tell me it has not sometimes been your reaction when hearing about, for example, Indigenous worldviews about space. It's not easy to train yourself out of this, to see a fractiverse, as Law puts it, rather than a universe. For me, at least, it's an ongoing project.

My final question is both about how this furthers our thinking about outer space as a global commons, and what this means for defining commons or uncommons on regions of other planets. I don't have any answers just now but I feel I'm on a path of thought that might be productive.


Farquhar, Judith, Lili Lai and Marshall Kramer 2017 A Place at the End of a Road: A Yin-Yang Geography. Anthropologica 59(2): 216-227

Law, John 2011 What’s Wrong with a One-World World? Paper presented to the Center for the Humanities, Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut on 19th September, 2011 d.pdf

Law, John 2015 What's Wrong with a One-World World? Distinktion: Scandinavian Journal of Social Theory 16(1): 126–139

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