TCS Daily


The NIABY Movement

By James Pinkerton - June 3, 2002 12:00 AM

You've heard of NIMBY-Not In My Back Yard? Well, here's another anti-growth acronym: NIABY-Not In Anybody's Back Yard.

Environmentalists, wracked with guilt over the progression of industrial civilization here on earth, have discovered a new cause, the prevention of progress on the moon. However, "environyms" such as NIMBY and NIABY don't translate well into Chinese; the People's Republic of China seems intent on both expanding its terrestrial economy as quickly as possible and also space-racing into the extra-terrestrial vacuum left by America's post-Apollo retreat from the moon.

Americans should be of two minds about China's space program. On the one hand, as Americans, we should regard China warily, as a potential politico-military rival, even threat. Yet on the other hand, as humans, we should be glad that some folks, somewhere on the planet, still possess genuine vision about the outward-bounded future of the species. And if the Chinese can offer us some friendly, or mostly friendly, space-racing competition, more power to them.

Because meanwhile, here at home, many Americans seem content to live a Hobbit-like existence, nuzzling into the earth, competing for nothing more ambitious than "Recycler of the Year" awards. Yet all this stifling of domestic activity accomplishes little, of course, if that activity is simply transferred overseas. Indeed, one can look ahead and see this deliberate exiling of jobs and profits writ large. That is, if America doesn't want to compete, other countries still will, space-racing ahead of us in search of power and profits. And so the United States could be left in the dirt, literally.

So who are these Not-In-Anybody's-Back-Yarders, these NIABY's? The Wall Street Journal reports on one: University of Alaska professor Rick Steiner, who wants the United Nations to include the moon in its list of 721 "World Heritage Sites," where it would keep company with Independence Hall, the Acropolis, and the Great Wall of China. OK, strictly speaking, the moon isn't part of this world, but since when has the UN missed a chance to grab more turf?

"The moon is a stunningly beautiful place, and it shouldn't be defiled," Steiner maintains. The professor's rhetoric echoes arguments that Amerigreens have been making for years about, for example, the Arctic National Wildlife Reserve. And as would-be oil drillers (and would-be beneficiaries of economic growth, and would-be energy independents) know, such talk seems to win more domestic political fights than it loses.

An argument can be made that Tranquility One, the spot where Neil Armstrong first touched down on July 20, 1969, could use a little historic preservation. In 1999, two New Mexico State University graduate students undertook an effort to have what's known now as Tranquility Base added to the World Heritage List. They were reacting in part to highly hypothetical plans by LunaCorp, a Fairfax, Virginia, company, to send a pay-per-navigation "lunar rover" to Tranquility. In addition, LunaCorp was offering to bury cremated remains on the site. Thought should be given to that historic place, to be sure, but in any case, LunaCorp has moved on to other missions; it's the company that hopes to help *NSYNC-er Lance Bass get the necessary sponsorship for a space-tourist trip to the International Space Station.

But now, just as so often happens on earth, the limited impulse toward historic preservation has segued into an unlimited push toward what might be called the "Alaskafication" of the moon. Alaskafication, of course, is defined as the willful and defiantly non-cost/beneficial effort to keep a vast resource fallow-which, of course, has been the fate of Steiner's Alaska. And while all this legalistic posturing might seem irrelevant now, at a time when no human has been to the moon in three decades, Steiner is in fact putting another brick in a green wall against future growth. Unfortunately, the foundation of that wall was put in place long ago, at the instigation of the United States government. A naïve and short-sighted America was eager to sign and ratify the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which states in Article II that "outer space, including the moon and other celestial bodies, is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means."

Yet at the same time, China seems to have other ideas, which run more toward imperialism than environmentalism. The BBC reported last week that the Chinese are training 12 astronauts for space flight; the goal is to launch the country's first piloted mission by 2005. Moreover, space program scientist Ouyang Ziyuan declares that China will have a base on the moon by 2010, from which it could base operations to "mine its riches for the benefit of humanity." But wait a second-what about the Space Treaty, which China ratified in 1983? That document, interestingly enough, makes no mention of private, as opposed to public, exploitation of resources, and now that the Chinese are semi-capitalist, they could easily disguise-to their own satisfaction, at least-any effort in the appropriate legal framework.

Of course, some might say that private-sector-oriented economic arguments for occupying the moon are secondary to the national-security/national-strategy rationale for going to the moon. Talk about the High Frontier. If that's the case, one shouldn't be surprised if the Chinese do exactly what they wish to do, Space Treaty or not. The People's Republic, after all, displays a "China First" attitude that American sovereigntists could only wish for in their own United States; China, for example, has nothing to do with the International Criminal Court. And while it did sign the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty, it did so knowing full well that all its growth-constricting sanctions would fall on Western competitors. What's not to like?

Besides, if the Space Treaty ever started crimping China's style, the PRC could always simply withdraw; a signatory country simply writes a letter to the UN stating its intention to withdraw, and a year later, that country is out. One might wonder whether the Rick Steiners of the world would complain much about Chinese, as opposed to American, "unilateralism"; one need not wonder whether Beijing would spend much time worrying about such complaints. That's when we'll probably learn for sure that NIABY doesn't compute in Chinese.

Interestingly, as the Chinese, across the Pacific, move ahead with their plans, the Europeans, across the Atlantic, are moving ahead with theirs, too, leaving the United States increasingly flanked on both oceans. The European Space Agency, which announced in March that it will be putting up Galileo, a Global Positioning System to rival the GPS already put into orbit by the United States, now says it will launch by 2008 its Eddington satellite, which will scour the galaxy for planets similar to Earth; the French plan to get a jump on the same hunt by putting its COROT satellite in orbit in 2004.

But it's China, not the European Union, that has all the makings of a future space superpower. Recognizing that they made a huge mistake in the 15th century, when they abandoned their world-exploring plans, allowing the uppity Europeans to gain centuries' worth of imperial-commercial advantage, they now seem poised to turn the world order upside down in the third millennium by winning the next colonial competition. So while in the eyes of some, the Chinese are perhaps international law-benders, even law-breakers, in the eyes of the far-sighted, they are a much-needed space wake-up call.

So thank heaven, as it were, for China's space visionaries. As Oscar Wilde observed, we are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars. And the race for space is the ultimate equal-opportunity exercise; the most nervy and deserving people will get there. But of course, the nation that occupies the moon and reaps all the benefits-be they animal, vegetable, mineral, or industrial-will have a lot to say about the nature of equality in the third millennium. And it's a good bet that in a multi-world-platform environment where some countries have the keys to the universal kingdom and others don't, some countries will be a lot more equal than others.
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