2 Mar 2024

AC Grayling: Who owns the Moon?

From Saturday Morning, 10:05 am on 2 March 2024
Philosopher and author A.C. Grayling.

Philosopher and author A.C. Grayling. Photo: Supplied

As private corporations invest billions in the space race, tighter regulation of their off-Earth activity is urgently needed, says British philosopher AC Grayling.

"If you could put in place a set of really robust and binding and enforceable agreements which would restrain people from acting badly in outer space, our future selves would thank us," he tells Susie Ferguson.

AC Grayling is the author of Who Owns the Moon?, Democracy and Its Crisis and many other books.

Although space exploration can be a good thing, it's seriously risky that its natural resources are currently up for grabs, Grayling says.

"When it comes to exploiting resources on the moon, engineering problems and scientific problems are actually very minor. It's the money and the will which is the thing that has always been the main barrier over these last couple of decades.

"Those are now melting away as more actors get involved with very deep pockets. So the idea that we needn't worry because it's not going to happen anytime soon, is both wrong in itself and also it boots the problem down the track a little bit. Why should we be doing that to successive generations?

"Outer space is a completely virgin terrain, potentially with very valuable resources, including resources which are now in short supply on Earth and then needed for our new technologies – our smartphones and our weapons and so forth – you can see what the inducements are for pouring a huge investment into it and being therefore very determined not just to get that investment back but to make a profit out of it.

"When there is very heavy investment and when there is a desire for profitable return, the likelihood is that there will be competition. And competition, too often in history, has resulted in conflict.

"My anxiety is that this new frontier of exploration and development is a potential source of conflict which will of course rebound on Earth unless there are some very, very strong robust ways of managing that. At the moment, there aren't.

"If you could put in place a set of really robust and binding and enforceable agreements which would restrain people from acting badly in outer space, our future selves would thank us."

Earth seen from the moon

Photo: NASA

The UN's "really rather inadequate" Outer Space Treaty of 1967 – which bans the use of weapons and sovereignty claims – doesn't provide enough protection in a world of unstable international relations, Grayling says.

And while nation-states, generally speaking, will abide by agreements and treaties, private actors motivated by money, status, power and fame will be much less rational.

"When something is recognised as a potential resource for great profit, there tends to be a scramble a gold rush, when there is a gold rush, then there is a wild west.

"The competition in question will be very fierce ... It is a very, very, very expensive business and it involves the development of technologies which most probably those who develop them will want to keep to themselves."

According to what he calls Grayling's Law, "anything that can be done will be done if it brings a profit to those who can get it done".

"For example, even if the world community outlawed the genetic modification of fetuses to produce six-foot-five, blue-eyed, blond-haired Olympic athletes with an IQ of 200... people with the money and the capacity would do it. Everything will be done if it can be done if it brings a profit. That's the terrible law that seems to govern.

"We know that the the players involved are not interested in not getting a return and they're not doing it for humanitarian reasons. And therefore we should be putting something in place now, seriously, in order to manage what's going to happen. I say 'manage' but of course, I mean 'mitigate' because nothing in our world – outside of the beautiful islands of New Zealand – is perfect."