TCS Daily

A Lunar Klondike?

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - July 9, 2003 12:00 AM

It's happening again. With commercial interest in space exploration beginning to pick up steam, scientists are complaining that someone is stepping on their turf, as an article (sadly, not available on the Web) from last week's Financial Times makes clear:

But one man's science fantasy looks considerably less attractive to others. Richard Steiner, a professor and conservation specialist at the University of Alaska, is deeply concerned at the prospect of any country granting licenses for lunar exploitation without proper international consultation.

"The moon is owned by everyone," he says. "A farmer in Zimbabwe should also have a say. This has huge historic importance." While this first commercial launch seemed "relatively innocuous", Mr Steiner says it sets a dangerous precedent for more intrusive projects, such as strip-mining.

Calling for clearer international rules, he is also campaigning for the moon to be named a World Heritage Site. When asked about the prospect, to some incredulity, the UN said that was legally impossible.

Yes. You see, the Moon is a different, er, World. And, as earlier critics also failed to note, the grant of licenses to private companies to commercially exploit the Moon isn't lawless. Instead, it's governed by the Commercial Space Launch Act and specifically involves the regulators ensuring that international obligations are complied with. The 1979 Moon Treaty represented an effort to enact Steiner's views into law, but it failed miserably and was not joined by any space power.

But the complaints of people like Steiner -- like those of so many critics of U.S. action -- don't really have much to do with law, as the U.N.'s incredulous reaction makes clear. (It's revealing, too, that Steiner, like most such critics, seems to regard international law as a potent wish-fulfillment tool without bothering to see what it actually requires.) Rather they seem to stem from a fear of change, and a visceral opposition to doing something. (Forget the Zimbabwean farmer -- nobody's offering him a veto on the European Union's restrictive policies regarding genetically modified foods, after all, despite its far more significant impact on his life. He's just there to provide a bit of multi-culti camouflage. And what's wrong with "strip mining" on the Moon? The complaint about strip mining on Earth is that it leaves the landscape "looking like the Moon." The Moon already looks like the Moon.)

I think that this sort of opposition -- like the anti-American sentiment with which it is often, though not always, coupled -- stems from a visceral dislike of human progress, and the notion that humans are some sort of cancer on the Universe, that that the Universe would be better off without. As I wrote here a while back:

It is always a surprise to me that people who view humanity as a cancer somehow continue to live, and even to raise children, rather than committing the honorable suicide that self-diagnosis as a cancer cell would seem to call for, but the human mind is entirely capable of holding contradictory views as it operates. And this view does describe a certain part of the environmental movement: the part that seems to be motivated more by a view of human works as evil than by a desire to preserve nature.

I believe that it is this aspect of the environmental movement that will play the biggest role in opposing terraforming efforts, and that -- by speaking out against the terraforming of a dead Mars, or even a Mars inhabited by bacteria and lichens -- those people will be forced to show their true colors. After all, one may be motivated to protect a sequoia forest either by hatred of loggers or by love of trees. But when one opposes development of rocks and sand, it is pretty obviously not action in the cause of life. So pay attention to who denounces proposals for Martian terraforming as they begin to appear more frequently in mainstream discourse. It will not only be of interest in itself, but will tell you something about how you ought to view the denouncers' other positions.

I don't regard human works as evil. I rather doubt that farmers in Zimbabwe do, either. Those views seem to be held largely by pampered Westerners more interested in striking moral poses than in helping humanity. The good news is that their influence is steadily declining. The bad news is that their complaints are growing steadily more tiresome. At least, I'm certainly tired of hearing them.

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