Space Expansion Must Support Sustainability – On Earth and in Space

Main Image Credit Courtesy of Sergey Nivens

When expanding into outer space, humanity risks magnifying past mistakes, ones that have triggered a global state of unsustainability. The international community must engage now to ensure strategies for a space era support sustainability on Earth and prepare for a sustainable future in space.

Outer space is increasingly cast as a new arena for progressive human activities, including the expansion of civilisation itself. Success in space programmes could mean humanity faces a vast new realm of opportunity, comparable to earlier revolutions. While it will take generations to become a multiplanetary civilisation, the framework to steer these developments is being laid now, based on widespread and historically ingrained ideas about progress. In particular, space is cast as a solution to or escape from sustainability concerns. However, such a framing could backfire. It misunderstands threats to sustainability on Earth and risks expanding unsustainable systems, practices and paradigms into space. The international community must engage now to preventatively reshape this framework into one that supports sustainability on Earth and a sustainable future in space.

Space as a Sustainability Solution

One primary threat to sustainability on Earth is environmental resource extraction. Extracting coal, oil and natural gas drives global climate change, related global problems like ocean acidification, and various forms of local pollution such as air quality. Extraction of materials for alternative energy paradigms can also cause environmental damage, such as metals used in batteries, the extraction of which releases toxins into local ecosystems.

Consequently, some look to space for solutions and further extractive opportunities. One such ambition is to extract space resources to ‘save Earth’, advocated by, for example, Amazon and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos. This idea appears to be a direct response to the limits to growth concept, a vision of enabling indefinite population, extraction, production and consumption growth in space by utilising space resources. Further, this will ease pressure on Earth by moving industry and populations into space. Similarly, others propose that space resources can solve resource scarcity and contribute to sustainability solutions on Earth. Mars Society founder Robert Zubrin lists learning about sustainability on Earth as one motivation for settling other planets, and enabling infinite growth via space resources as another. A third motivation is to develop other planets as backups if catastrophe hits Earth, as endorsed by Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk. This idea entails utilising space settlements to safeguard humanity, allowing civilisation to be sustained if and when Earth ultimately fails to sustain us.

On closer inspection, however, these visions fail to adequately consider established knowledge about sustainability. If the wrong framework for space expansion is set now, global civilisation risks at best wasting immense amounts of resources, and at worst failing to sustain humanity. It is therefore paramount to act now to shape the appropriate framework.

Sustainability Errors in the Current Framework

The idea that space resources can solve sustainability is problematic for sustainability both on Earth and in space. First, controversy following the limits to growth concept revealed that the problem tends not to be lack of resources, but pollution and destruction following their processing and consumption, and unjust distribution of benefits and harms. Indeed, the problem is more often too many resources than scarcity. Furthermore, the climate-environmental crisis is urgent, with solutions needed now and over the next decades. Technology needed to economically return space resources to Earth is currently not available and unlikely to become available fast enough to contribute meaningfully to urgent sustainability problems. The same applies to proposals to lift industry and populations off Earth. In theory, space industry shifts pollution away from the fragile Earth biosphere. In practice, it is no viable option, as it requires non-existent major global cooperative effort and investment, construction of space infrastructure, large-scale space resource extraction, solving manufacturing and labour issues in space, and so on. Additionally, extraction and related activities in space raise novel sustainability issues, such as potential conflicts with Indigenous and environmental perspectives on places like the Moon and Mars.

It is similarly premature to propose space settlements as an alternative to Earth. It will be a long time until a second habitat – and preferably more than one – equally as resilient and self-sustaining as Earth is established. Meanwhile, Earth must be protected. Space settlements may be a worthy idea over longer timescales, but do not substitute addressing urgent sustainability problems. For the foreseeable future, there is no Planet B.

Therefore, space resource extraction risks perpetuating rather than resolving unsustainability. It could increase pollution on Earth if space resources are brought here, divert effort from more tractable environmental actions, and violate Indigenous and environmental views on sustainability by causing environmental harm in space, thus perpetuating socio-environmental injustices. More generally, the space environment cannot be used as an excuse for environmental inaction here and now, nor to cast space as being outside principles of sustainability.

Finally, and related to the notion of marginalised views on space, the current framework reproduces some of the same cultural errors underlying unsustainability on Earth. Space expansion driven by infinite production growth and consumption as metrics for wellbeing and progress ignores the role these paradigms have played in the current socio-environmental predicament and ongoing work toward replacing these metrics with ones putting people and nature first. The same goes for ideas of privatising the Moon and other celestial land to solve global poverty, or that Mars constitutes a terra nullius – therefore being free for humans to do with as they wish. Ideas of human entitlement in space environments also give legacy to the flawed idea that humans are superior to and separate from nature, and can and should exploit nature for their own ends, a view considered central to the socio-environmental crisis.

In sum, these ideas cast space as an extractive economic zone instead of somewhere to respect and approach with humility. They frame becoming multiplanetary as a predominantly technical challenge, with little attention to socio-political and moral considerations such as social diversity and justice, governance and securing physical and mental health. As the link between resource consumption and socio-environmental harm, and ideologies of infinite growth, technological solutionism, and human-nature separation have combined to accelerate the climate crisis, there is no more reason to expect such a framework to enable a sustainable presence in space, than for it to suddenly solve sustainability on Earth.

A New Sustainability Framework for Space

Against the above, five points are particularly valuable to reshape the space expansion framework to support sustainability. The first concerns timeframes and physical constraints. Contrary the technological optimism illustrated above, the space environment does not offer a solution to or escape from sustainability and immediate climate-environmental action. Rather, long-term space expansion should be cast as inherently dependent on the success of resolving sustainability on Earth. Likewise, we should consider trade-offs between resources spent on space activities currently, and further climate-environmental measures on Earth, and assess the distribution of benefits from space activities.

Second, we should further democratise space expansion by including diverse and marginalised worldviews and associated ideas of wellbeing and progress, and by regulating commercial interests. Duties to future generations inherent in sustainability should be emphasised, rather than short-term aspirations of individuals and corporations. This applies to the utilisation of space resources and in planning permanent space habitats.

Third, off-Earth settlements should be cast not as a technical challenge but as an experiment in sustainability. Initial habitats will need to imitate the Earth ecosystem and will require exceptional ecological knowledge and skills of the participants – far beyond those of engineering alone. Likewise, we should study and prepare for sustaining humans off Earth as a qualitative and interdisciplinary challenge. Humans are environmental beings, and the Earth environment is foundational to human life and wellbeing. This remains true in space and makes securing wellbeing that much harder.

Fourth, space environments should be cast as places of nature worthy of respect, not as extractive zones and land to conquer. Present humans are not able to assess all forms of value possibly inherent in extraterrestrial places, leaving open questions about what things may become critical to the qualitative life experience of humans and other Earth-life in space.

Fifth, we should ensure the framework includes the long-term potential to sustain life across deep time. In light of potential catastrophes on Earth, eventual space expansion could be relevant to the very continuation of life, evolution and civilisation. It should therefore be framed as a project on behalf of all of humanity and life on Earth, not a select few. On this scale, we should include considerations of the importance of the rest of Earthly nature for human wellbeing across space, and the potential of a space future for the rest of Earth’s life beyond its usefulness to humans. This again creates another incentive to act now to preserve the environment and biodiversity on Earth, rather than leaving it behind in a rush to space.

Including these five dimensions will contribute to a robust sustainability policy and moral compass for space expansion.

The Time to Engage is Now

While space expansion may appear a far-off issue compared to urgent challenges on Earth, its framework is being set now, directly reflecting our present environmental predicament. If policymakers, civil groups and the public wait 50 years to engage, humanity risks encouraging a false hope in what space may offer and repeating mistakes that have left Earth in perpetual crisis. Worse still, humankind may lose out on the opportunity to sustain life across deep time. Fortunately, the international community has the unique opportunity to set an appropriate framework. We must break the dangerous illusion that space is a solution to or escape from sustainability and ensure space does not become yet another extractivist frontier consumed by corporate and geopolitical rivalries, but instead becomes an arena to further public values and the amazing project of life on and from Earth.

The views expressed in this Commentary are the author’s, and do not represent those of RUSI or any other institution.

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Andrea Owe

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