Final Frontiers: space

The universe is a big place, and the temptation will be to shape it in our image. t.abroudj/Flickr

With the global population now well over seven billion people there are few remaining parts of the world relatively untouched by human activity. We assess the current state and future prospects of five final frontiers: rainforests, Antarctica, the Arctic, the deep sea and space.

For many advocates of space exploration, the Solar System is the answer to human woes. As we exhaust our terrestrial resources, face overpopulation and stare down the barrel of rising sea levels, moving off-planet holds as many promises as it does challenges.

Already we have left our cultural footprint in the Solar System, from the teeming satellites in Earth orbit and landing sites on the Moon, Mars and Venus, to the Voyager spacecraft at the edge of the Solar System. And access to space is slowly moving out of the hands of national governments with the rise of commercial spaceflight development, and the growth of the space tourism market.

Why is space different?

In general, we don’t think of the space environment in the same way as Earth’s. There are several reasons for this. One is the common perception of space as a black, empty vacuum. Second, unlike Earth, space is practically infinite — beyond our sun there are billions of others just like it, even in our “unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy”.

Then there is the absence of life, as far as we know — although there is always hope that this might change with further exploration. Until that happens, there is nothing living to suffer from any human activities in space. Effectively, there is no need to consider human impacts on the space environment seriously.

Historically, space has been seen as the very last frontier, ripe for colonial conquest. Just as on Earth, the motivations for colonisation are not just about curiosity, or an “urge to explore”, but about finding new resources to exploit for terrestrial markets. The unstated rationale behind this draws heavily on Western anthropocentric ideas of the mastery of creation — the assumption that the non-human world is there for our use. This instrumental view is still very prevalent in the way the space industry justifies its activities.

It’s also a matter of “out of sight; out of mind”. When we look outwards from the surface of our planet at night the things that arrest our attention tend to be the stars of deep space. Unless you know what you’re looking for you might not even identify the other planets in our solar system, let alone the human-made satellites and space stations.

Of course it doesn’t help that so few people have actually experienced space itself. And for many of them, the revelation of space was actually one of Earth. The vision of the “whole Earth” was first seen by the lunar-orbiting Apollo 8 mission in 1968. The image of the blue-and-white planet, a marble-sized splash of colour in the inky blackness, emphasised the fragility of life on Earth, and was responsible for the growth of a global ecological awareness.

In all of this, the intrinsic values of the space environment, in and of itself, have been frequently overlooked. While the need for an environmental ethics of space has long been recognised, there is little evidence that space industry has moved beyond a purely anthropocentric perspective.

The rights of rocks

On Earth, the concept of “nature” having value in its own right, independent of human use, is no longer problematic. Australian philosopher Val Plumwood has been at the forefront of a movement to break down moral distinctions between humans and nature. Plumwood argues that nature has its own agency or autonomy, and should be reconceived as a co-participant in human endeavour rather than something on which we are dependent.

Whatever we do to nature is a reflection of ourselves - whether here or on other planets. watsonsinelgin/Flickr

In her view, we pay attention to the resources offered by the environment, and the limits they impose on our activities, “only after disaster has occurred” and then only to “fix things up”. Dependency appears as a source of anxiety or threat, or as a further technological problem to be overcome“.

Never has this statement been more applicable than to the problem of orbital debris or space junk.

Our use of Earth orbit to place the satellites on which we now depend for telecommunications, weather, and navigation has created a seemingly irreversible environmental crisis — space so filled with junk that we are at risk of losing our access to it. Even so, the problem is still framed from an anthropocentric and geocentric perspective: in other words, how it will affect the Earth? The value of this apparently empty space is conceived entirely in terms of human use. Could we argue that it has intrinsic value — and as such is a place towards which we have a moral obligation?

The issue is perhaps clearer when we consider other planets. The view that inanimate celestial bodies have a right to exist undisturbed has been called ”cosmic preservationism“. One of the arguments is that the uniqueness of these planetary landscapes creates intrinsic value. There is no doubt — as human space exploration has repeatedly proven — that each object in space has its own story to tell. And indeed, we really know so little of the solar system that it is hard to tell what is unique and what is common. However, critics of cosmic preservationism claim it leads to the absurd position of rocks on Mars having rights.

Citizens of the solar system

In order to continue as a space-faring species, and even perhaps to continue to live on Earth, we have to find sustainable ways to use the resources of space to survive. This means water, oxygen and minerals, all of which exist in various quantities spread across planets and asteroids. Already, the technologies and structures we may need to mine the moon and asteroids are being considered.

Our very presence on other celestial bodies, whether in human form or through robot avatars, changes them. They are altered physically, and also conceptually, becoming part of a human cultural landscape in a new way. We cannot land, sample, build colonies or mines and whisk away as if nothing happened — our chemical and mechanical traces are now part of the planet. At this stage of human space exploration such impacts are minimal, and no doubt acceptable. But this won’t always be the case.

Already, the international geological community is heralding the arrival of a new epoch - the Anthropocene. Human impacts on the Earth have reached the scale where they are defining a distinct geological layer. Will we have the same level of impact on the rest of the solar system too?

Perhaps the answer is to take up Plumwood’s challenge and abandon the opposition of nature and culture. This allows an acknowledgement of intrinsic value in the space environment that need not take priority over human interests, but can be managed by a critical assessment of competing interests. An ethic of respect for the wonders of the Solar System of which we are an integral part should not be that hard to achieve.

You can read the rest of the series here.