Saturday, June 19, 2010

We Almost Lost the Solar System

I've written before about the necessity for politicians to take the future into greater consideration if we're ever to improve our lot beyond simply "muddling through." One of the big problems with this is that humans in general just aren't wired to consider the future - for many of us, the further we look beyond tomorrow, the more difficult it becomes to see anything. While it's perfectly understandable given our origins - our distant ancestors couldn't afford to dwell on what the next sunrise would bring when they still hadn't brought back fresh meat for that night's meal - today it conspires against us. Now, more than ever, we need to live with one foot in the future.

Now and again, governments are capable of making the forward-looking leaps that make tomorrow a bit brighter. Nevertheless, our governments are still made up of people, and "capacity to consider the future" isn't a quality that necessarily accompanies leadership. As a result, even when they're trying to take the future into account, many times they don't. Exhibit A: the Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies, more compactly known as the Moon Treaty. This treaty would, in essence, have taken the current regulatory regime that applies to the sea and expanded it to cover the entire solar system.

And for what? Well-meaning but utterly shortsighted notions of "common heritage of mankind" provisions spreading out into space. I'm sorry, but like the level of gravity to which we've become accustomed, there are some things that just don't apply off Earth. I cannot see how those provisions should apply to celestial bodies that are, as far as current science knows, absolutely dead.

I still haven't been able to find a concrete reason as to why this treaty was pushed through the United Nations, aside from the typical UN bafflegab about "international cooperation" and "peaceful uses of outer space" and so on. Despite the almost science-fictional nature of the treaty, I really don't think that the people behind it were sparing much thought for the future. Except for offplanet versions of the science stations in Antarctica, the Moon Treaty would have confined the efforts of humanity to Earth orbit. No resource extraction, no possibility of property rights, and everything subject to inspection by any of the States Parties to the treaty. While it'd be difficult at the best of times for anyone live in space, the Moon Treaty would go one step further and make it intolerable, if not impossible.

Perhaps, though, that was part of the motivation. I've been reading more works from the 1970s recently, a time that in North America was deeply characterized by the 1973 energy crisis and was also the first great eruption of environmental sentiment. The origins of that damned mantra, "solve Earth's problems before we go to space," can probably be traced back to that decade. Perhaps the idea *was* to confine humanity to Earth - to prevent the idea of an escape valve from distracting people from the issues at hand.

But that's pretty conspiratorial. The simpler explanation is that they just thought they were doing a good turn for the future, without stopping to consider what it actually might do to the future.

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