Tuesday, April 02, 2024

How we manage the values of off-Earth environments

Before I was an academic, I was a professional heritage consultant working with Aboriginal communities in Australia. I worked on all stages of mining projects from exploratory drilling, through pre-feasibility to operation and rehabilitation, for a range of minerals including coal, copper, gold, uranium, iron, and heavy mineral sands. This was usually as part of an environmental impact process, where I would be in the field at the same time as the flora, fauna, dust, noise etc teams, and looking at ways to mitigate the harm from these kinds of impacts on Aboriginal heritage. 

As imperfect as this process is, it doesn’t yet exist in space. One reasons for this is because there’s a problem with how environments are conceptualised. It’s really common for people to assume that because there are no living ecologies in orbit, on the Moon, and on asteroids, that there are no environments either. The COSPAR Planetary Protection Policy privileges potential life; it's not actually about abiotic planetary environments. 

So we assume there are no environmental values worth managing on lifeless rocks, and yet these are the places that are going to tell us things like where Earth’s water came from, and how the solar system evolved. Each celestial body also has its own unique history and qualities. How we assess and manage these is an area that is in its infancy. 

Thinking of space as the province of all humanity, as the Outer Space Treaty says, is an imperative to share the benefits of space. But it also frames space as something we can use and own. And why should something be assessed only for its benefits for us? This is such a narrow way to look at the richness of off-Earth environments, and one I’m deeply uncomfortable with.

This post is taken from my notes for a Doha Debate podcast recorded in March 2024. 

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