Sometimes the news reads like a cross between a corporate promotional campaign gone haywire and a rejected science-fiction B-movie script. The announcement this week of an asteroid mining venture -- backed by Google executives, the Perot Group, and James Cameron, among others -- is precisely the sort of item that conjures both absurdity and horror in its full implications. Like rubberneckers passing a highway pileup, let's take a closer look, because we just can't help doing so...
The company, called Planetary Resources, Inc. intends to mine 100 or more near-Earth asteroids for resources including water and various precious metals. Space resources are "just so valuable" and "really are the low-hanging fruit of the solar system," co-founder and co-chairman Eric Anderson told SPACE.com. The idea is to generate resources in space sufficient to impel additional colonization efforts, creating a network of veritable "in-space gas stations" to fuel ongoing and expanding operations.
The initial impetus of the project will include a prospecting phase. "Before you decide where to put the gas stations," said Anderson, "you've got to understand where the trucks are going to be driving by." (Fans of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series can shed light on how the notion of an "interstellar superhighway" can go horribly awry.) Part of the initiative also includes potential plans to "snag and drag" a massive asteroid into the moon's orbit in order to facilitate lunar settlement.
In their ideal form, such activities are seen as ushering in an era focused on the increasing exploration of deep space. But in the shorter term, much more mundane concerns are evident. The language of "healthy profits," "resource extraction," and "swarms" of robotic spacecraft used to mine the asteroids peppers the materials released by the company and the ensuing news reports. By securing new sources of precious metals, according to a company statement, "the cost will reduce on everything including defibrillators, hand-held devices, TV and computer monitors, catalysts. And with the abundance of these metals, we'll be able to use them in mass production...."
There's more in this vein, but you get the idea. This all seems like something out of the first reel of a low-budget apocalyptic straight-to-video film. "Hey, let's drag and drop a bunch of massive asteroids close to the Earth in order to make a buck. What could possibly go wrong?" By the second act, tidal patterns have dramatically shifted, ocean waters are rapidly rising, and the moon hangs in the sky with a sickly pink glow. In the finale, the moon moves closer to Earth, and its altered gravitational pull yields rampant volcanic eruptions and a thoroughgoing decimation of numerous major cities. As asteroids plummet to Earth, a scrappy band of survivors holds out hope in a deep cavern -- and two tattered souls fall in love in the face of, and as a rebuke to, their impending doom.
OK, so, putting aside the worst-case scenario in which everything goes wrong, it needs to be noted that the whole concept of this project is simply wrong at the outset, although not so much the logic of near-Earth exploration as a precursor to human expansion into the heavens (I'm as much into Star Trek as anyone) but more so the entire premise of doing this primarily for purposes of profit, under the auspices of continued "resource extraction," which has already pushed this planet to the brink of its capacities to support human life. The basis of this operation seems to be the notion that if we simply had more resources to support our wasteful, consumptive ways, everything will be fine.
On the other hand, one could read between the lines and spot an implicit recognition on the part of some wealthy and powerful forces that the Earth is getting close to being used up, and that a viable escape plan could be realized (by the uber-elite) in a few years' time if orbital resources were to be harnessed and utilized for sustaining small human settlements in space. We might get cheaper cell phones and computers in the process, but all the myriad problems of waste, war, toxicity, climate change, and more will remain firmly in the face of those left to cope with an Earthbound future.
Indeed, this gets precisely at the perversity of the asteroid-mining plan: it merely continues the same paradigm of extraction and profiteering that has led us to the precipice in the first place. By virtue of their preexisting wealth, certain actors will be able to parlay that into laying claim to space resources that should be the property of no one, or perhaps everyone. This is merely an updated version of the doctrine of "prior appropriation," which plies the misbegotten logic of "first in time, first in right" to privatize and control resources (like water and minerals) at the expense of common holdings, indigenous peoples, and environmental sustainability all at once.
With all due respect to the folks at Planetary Resources, Inc., they can kiss our asteroids! They don't own these rocks, or the moon, or any of the other heavenly bodies that occupy the skies above. It's bad enough that their modus operandi has essentially turned the Earth itself into a globally privatized system (at least as far as profits go; losses are still sought to be collectively placed on all the rest of us to bear). Now they want to file title deeds and mining claims to the heavens, and by promising us cheaper toys in the process we're not supposed to notice or care. Is that how it works?
These issues were recently discussed in one of my college courses. I asked the students what could be done differently to make this a sustainable and just project rather than the one that's on the drawing board right now. The responses were rational and visionary: the fruits of space exploration could be declared up front as the shared wealth of all peoples and nations; any profits or gains yielded could be directed toward the alleviation of poverty and inequality; any input of additional resources could include a moratorium on Earth-based extractive industries and a prohibition on wars presently fought for such resources; an expansion of the "closed system" in which we live could also include an equivalent expansion of creatively reusing waste products as is done on space stations.
These were just some of the suggestions brought forth by these sharp young minds (including the apropos title to this piece, "Occupy Asteroids," as well). Questions of values and ethics were discussed, and whether humankind was morally ready to cast our net outward while we still have so much to do right here and now to set things right again. The proposed space mining plan is akin to buying a new house to avoid cleaning up the old one. If the monies readily exist to mine asteroids for platinum, etc., why can't we use them to stop genocide, cure diseases, and promote free education and health care instead? Why should the rich get richer while the poor get sicker? The very idea of "gas stations" in space seemed especially repugnant, given the current geopolitical landscape.
I'll cast my lot with the vision of these nascent adults over the B-movie illogic of the corporatists any day. The question now is how much we'll tolerate in the name of so-called "progress" before we find ourselves awash in a toxic soup with no way out of the pot. As the students' insights suggest, we don't have to crawl back into caves in order to avert a looming cataclysm; rather, we simply need to reformulate our conceptions of who profits from (and how we utilize) the essential resources in our midst. If there was ever a moment to rejuvenate the notions of common holdings and collective wealth, this is it. As humankind prepares to launch its first major off-world resource operations, let's bring the discussion back down to Earth and boldly go forward into the heavens together.