The idea to write this post was sparked after reading 80 000 hours’ page about space governance [1]. I realised that, as often is the case for any community, the discussion seemed to assume a significant solidarity and amount of similarities in moral framework to exist globally too. I disagree; global governance is likely to go against most people’s intuitions and direct values in very different ways. This text suggests an approach for global governance that treats disagreement as an important factor rather than an obstacle to cross before executing the ‘truly’ wise politics.

Ideas in this article

  • Since the cold war, humanity has developed a need for ‘evolving as a species’. This includes both management of weaponry and the new territory of space. Such governance requires never-before-seen global cooperation.
  • Historically, monumental endeavours has leaned on one of three arguments:
  1. It has divine or otherworldly importance.
  2. It promises huge financial returns.
  3. The alternative is death.
  • I claim that three important regulators of societies through history has been:
  1. State regulation, including laws and incentives.
  2. Personal reputation.
  3. Self-image.
  • Flexible social circles and views together with a still inhomogeneous population only renders one combination of these arguments and regulators left. Thus, I conclude that state regulation where all actors (which need not be all voters) have a mutual fear of extinction is the only probable way to succeed with a global governance in the near-term future. 
  • Consequently, two fields of study become particularly important:
  1. Existential risk.
  2. The importance of culture and how to weigh it against safety.
  • Some caveats are that:
  1. Sudden changes in the balance of power from e.g. monopolisation of, through technology developed, new markets could render all but one actor insignificant, creating a global dictator.
  2. Sudden changes in the values of people, again, from e.g. new inventions could re-establish the importance of personal reputation or self-image or - perhaps - create an entirely new regulator.
  3. Finally, I study physics, not history or sociology, so I’m more than happy to receive comments about where my knowledge or reasoning fails me. I am especially unsure about my logic in method 2: personal reputation.

Introduction

At 7:28 (UTC) on the fourth of October 1957 the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, humanity’s first ever artificial satellite. It sent radio waves carrying information of its temperature for 22 days before its batteries died [2]. Nevertheless, this marked the beginning of the space race of the cold war. Ten years later, when over 150 satellites were launched per year globally, the Outer Space Treaty [3] entered into force ensuring peaceful space exploration, free from terrestrial claims. Only the United States of America, the Soviet Union and the United Kingdom were invited to, and did in fact, sign the agreement. However space missions did not decline. On the 20th of July 1969, the U.S. landed the first man on the moon with the Apollo 11 mission. With new actors, such as China and private companies, the past decade has seen an explosion in space missions [4].

There are many reasons to look to space - curiosity and prestige are two of them - but only a few reasons can motivate such extreme expenses that the space race of the 1960’s saw. In the final years of the 20th century Neil deGrasse Tyson set out to write a book about “how cultures have justified spending large portions of their state wealth” [5], but since he only managed to find three arguments, this attempt ended up as the chapter titled ‘Paths to Discovery’ in The Columbia History of the 20th Century [6]. The first motivator, justifying e.g. world wonders such as the pyramids and Angkor Wat, was religion. The second motivator he mentions is the promise of economic return, financing many of the worldwide journeys in the age of exploration. Thirdly, explaining much of the cold war space race, war or existential threat can also motivate great spendings. Space governance is such a great project that for it to work, it probably needs to account for these drivers.

Space governance is nothing else than the administration and control of our local region of the solar system to avoid catastrophes within it. In this article I argue that there are only three major ways in which large-scale governance has been done historically: laws, personal reputation, and religion or self-acceptance. I explain why I think that all of these ways will be difficult to implement for the near-term governance of space, and conclude that allocating security but not culture to a global Leviathan is the best way forward.

Method 1: Incentives and regulations

For western civilisations, democratically produced laws are arguably the most obvious way to maintain order in a society. In principle, a democratic polity produces regulations that reflect the will of the people. Since every citizen is, under assumption, equally capable of experiencing the good or bad of that society, they each get one vote to voice their opinions. In reality, some people - activists and politicians included - are more eager to do this than others and are, due to freedom of speech, allowed to spend more of their time on this. However values and opinions can only set the goal of politics. To achieve that goal, science and reason is needed, which is why children are considered incapable of voting wisely. All countries struggle to some extent with balancing the right of their citizens to have their values considered and the effectiveness of the government to act on this. A majority of votes is often enough to validate a direction but not if the minority is an acknowledged group.

History has seen the growth of larger governments and institutions with less homogenous voters. As inventions made communication over greater distances more available, sites that once were governed by the village of a few hundred became controlled by larger regions, countries and eventually also international institutions. Conveniently, one set of politics could operate on more disparate regions, effectively creating larger cultures. However, this put greater demand on the unity of the people to depend less on geographical features of the local land. In recent years, another challenge in the form of selective information, from social media among others, has increased potential disagreement between inhabitants of a country or union. Unification is becoming less a matter of tradition and more a matter of visions for the future.

At first glance, an increase in exploitation of space is just a step in this same direction, with better communication and less attributes to unite around, but the picture is more complex than that. Radio signals take between 5 and 20 minutes to travel from Earth to Mars - longer than current communication on Earth but much quicker than the fastest emissaries could travel in ancient civilisations - but in the concept of communication I include all media and technologies that enable contact between citizens. Moreover, this long-distance communication will likely be very sparse in the coming decades, since colonisation or large-scale human movement into space would require solutions to the physiological problems of i.a. food, less gravity, and radiation. During the time no, or very few, people leave Earth, the platform of space only affects people’s feeling of connection through the technology that is placed there. If the space mission is inspiring enough, unification can actually be strengthened.

Less complex is the principle that space exploitation would increase the power of its actors and risk for weapons, even if the missions are not explicitly for military purposes. In geopolitics there is a principle saying that the more weapons that are available for actors, the more regulations are needed to prohibit reckless usage. For instance, it was only necessary to legislate for seat belts after cars were introduced and even though vehicles are not designated killer machines. Space is already a site for intercontinental ballistic missiles and if they, or any other potentially harmful technology, would expand it could be necessary to force the actors of space - that is countries and companies - to follow a set of laws for safety. 

The questions come naturally: who would decide on these rules, and why would actors follow them? If most, but not all actors agree to the terms and conditions, would we risk creating an exclusion that sparks aspirations for revenge or liberation much like in Germany after the first world war? Answering these dilemmas is beyond the scope of this article, but I think that among deGrasse Tyson’s recipes for unanimity (religion, money, war), only a version of the final point could be applied to all of humanity. If all voters see themselves and humanity as a whole, at risk of extinction we could probably unite, despite our different cultural preferences. Of course, for this reason, falsely believing in existential danger, collectively, risks creating unmotivated, global authoritarianism.

Method 2: Personal reputation

Even if there were no laws, people would still follow norms. That is because while our societies have evolved to a state where law books and courts determine most of our (at least judicial) culpability, our brains still have functions adapted for societies where lynch mobs or direct personal interactions stood for this function. Since humans have their cooperative skills to thank for most of their prosperity, being ostracised from a Palaeolithic group of humans actually threatened your chances to survive. It therefore made sense to feel physical pain from loneliness and care deeply about what others thought about you. To paraphrase Glaucon in Plato’s The Republic: people care more about seeming good than actually being good. Paul-Michel Foucault uses the idea of a panopticon - a prison where all cells have insight from a single observation tower - to parallel our society with the idea that we are being observed by others almost constantly and therefore behave normally.

But in western countries the ideal that you should not care about what others think about you has become a cliché. If I am allowed to speculate, this idea could be a response to the many shallow opinions one encounters today, in combination with the freedom to ignore this, by i.a. moving, changing social circles and disabling comments on social media. If so, personal reputation will continue to be largely customisable and therefore not stable enough to base norms on. However it should be added that some non-western powers, including China, do not carry this ideal. Due to my lack of understanding of foreign cultures, I will not discuss it here, but I can add that it is possible that alternative cultures could develop in a more distant future in western countries too. Unpredictable societal changes from e.g. technological breakthroughs in areas such as artificial intelligence is a general argument not to focus this discussion on a future more than 50 years away.

Method 3: Religion or self-acceptance

Even if there were neither laws nor other people present, people would still follow moral ideals. To prove this, an experiment where a group of people solved calculations was structured in a way that enabled cheating to a varying degree. The study showed that the amount of cheating was proportional to an expected performance and independent of the total payoff and risk of getting caught [7]. Adding to this, in The Righteous Mind [8] Jonathan Haidt suggests that our “hive instincts”, or longing to be part of a bigger picture, could be a consequence of group selection where societies with more functional collaboration conquered the others. Indeed, it seems like every civilisation in existence was founded on religion, mythology or deism, for this very reason.

That our view of ourselves to some extent governs our actions can be used to manipulate people by changing their moral standards of themselves. Music, movies, work, sport, tourism, and more, could make basic values converge globally. I would argue that the problem with this, however, is that people cannot actively design their own moral standards. Instead, they follow from the beliefs of parents and friends and what is convenient in the life of the individual. Since the world seems to change at an increasing pace, these moral standards change quicker too. Furthermore, the freedom to decide on what to read and what to engage in (or follow a personally adjusted algorithm) make central values diverge for people. Therefore, it seems unlikely that all space powers will agree on what is the most virtuous action.

Nevertheless, laws and norms depend on personal values. I should therefore address what I deem the most difficult question of all in regards to large-scale governance: what happens when cultural preferences clash with the safety and health concerns of the global government I have hypothesised? At first, the answer that safety of course should prevail, seem obvious, but since safety and health could motivate deeds in almost every situation this would leave no space for culture. Therefore, I urge not to centralise any power where there is significant disagreement between groups, unless it is necessary to satisfy an already mutually agreed upon common goal. I conclude that space governance should prevent severe risks for global war or extinction and nothing else.

Conclusion and outlook

In this article I have reviewed three historically important ways of governance and applied them to the global-, and eventually space-, governance that space future technologies and space expansion could necessitate. The methods - laws, reputation and personal values - are connected in that norms and values form the basis of laws. Historically, decreasingly homogenous populations have forced people to rely more on the first method. The near-term perspective of the article is motivated by an increasingly complex and changing world and makes the term space governance nearly synonymous with global governance here. I propose a global Leviathan to avoid the worst possible scenarios. An accurate understanding of these risks (if they truly are significant) could be the only thing that is globally shared and powerful enough to ethically motivate such a project.

This means that two questions are especially imperative for the future of politics. The first question was recently raised: how should we weigh impartial and global values against culture, tradition and personal values? I quickly suggested a minimalistic principle, where the only motivation is evasion of scenarios that could permanently annihilate the futures of humanity that we feel are worth striving for. But even this is problematic since it raises the infamous question of how to handle small probabilities with potentially huge consequences. This leads to the second question: how can we estimate existential risks and our impact on it? Progress in these fields need not be mathematical equations, but any indication of the chances to satisfy the values of the future variety of powerful actors.

References

[1] 80 000 hours, “Space governance”, published 2022-02-14, https://80000hours.org/problem-profiles/space-governance/?source=email&uni_id=561&utm_source=80%2C000+Hours+mailing+list&utm_campaign=5cb1f669bf-RESEARCHNEWSLETTER_DEC_2021_COPY_01&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_43bc1ae55c-5cb1f669bf-352524106

[2] Wikipedia, “Sputnik 1”,  retrieved 2022-03-05, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sputnik_1

[3] United Nations Office For Outer Space Affairs, “Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies”, retrieved 2022-03-05, https://www.unoosa.org/oosa/en/ourwork/spacelaw/treaties/introouterspacetreaty.html

[4] Our World In Data, “Yearly number of objects launched into outer space”, retrieved 2022-03-05, https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/yearly-number-of-objects-launched-into-outer-space?country=OWID_WRL~USA~RUS~CHN~GBR~JPN~FRA~IND~DEU~European+Space+Agency

[5] Rationally Speaking Podcast, “ #5 - Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Need for a Space Program”, 2010-03-28, https://podcastaddict.com/episode/105496869

[6] Chapter: “Paths to Discovery”, In The Columbia History of the 20th Century, p. 461, Edited by Richard Buillet, Columbia Press (New York), 1998

[7] Ariely, D., “The (honest) truth about dishonesty”, Harper Collins, p. 15, 2013

[8] Haidt, J., “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion”, 2013


 

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