Space governance is important, tractable and neglected

by Tobias_Baumann 6 min read7th Jan 202010 comments

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Summary

I argue that space governance has been overlooked as a potentially promising cause area for longtermist effective altruists. While many uncertainties remain, there is a reasonably strong case that such work is important, time-sensitive, tractable and neglected, and should therefore be part of the longtermist EA portfolio.

I also suggest criteria for what good space governance should look like, and outline possible directions for further work on the topic.

What is space governance?

It’s plausible that humans, or their successors, will eventually be able to colonise space. There are already various Mars missions, and future technological advances might make large-scale colonisation economically feasible.

Space governance encompasses the laws, rules, norms and institutions that structure interactions in space, as well as mechanisms that are used to establish and enforce those. For the purposes of this post, we’re interested in a subset of space governance that I will call long-term space governance. Long-term space governance refers to the processes of interaction and decision-making among the actors involved in the large-scale settlement of space.

Space colonization is currently not well covered by existing governance mechanisms. The most significant treaty in internal space law is the Outer Space Treaty, signed in 1967, which establishes that space shall be free for exploration and use by all nations, but that no nation may claim sovereignty of outer space or any celestial body.[1]

Subsequent efforts to establish more comprehensive rules, such as the Moon Treaty (which grants jurisdiction over celestial bodies to the international community), have largely failed to achieve widespread assent. Therefore, we currently lack a coherent global framework for space governance. As of now, space is a free-for-all.[2] This is particularly true for challenges that arise in the context of humanity expanding beyond Earth: large-scale settlements in space are currently infeasible, so much of the existing debate centers on more immediate concerns (e.g. related to satellites or exploration of space).

The work I have in mind aims to replace the current state of ambiguity with a coherent framework of (long-term) space governance that ensures good outcomes if and when large-scale space colonisation becomes feasible. In the following, I will argue that such work is important, tractable, and neglected.

Importance

The case for the importance of space governance is straightforward: it directly affects astronomical stakes. On a cosmic scale, Earth is a tiny point in a vast universe containing hundreds of billions of galaxies. Our own galaxy, the Milky Way, already contains at least 100 billion planets. So, while space governance is not fundamentally different from existing governance problems, it takes place on a scale never before seen in human history.

Also, the range of possible outcomes is huge. The right space governance regime could enable an outcome that is very good from (almost) every perspective - through positive-sum cooperation and compromise between the relevant actors, combined with the vast amount of resources that an intergalactic civilisation can access. (Cf. Eric Drexler’s Paretotopia.) On the other side of the spectrum, escalating conflicts and warfare on a cosmic level could cause actors to inflict unimaginable horrors on each other, resulting in suffering on an astronomical scale.

That said, one could object that anything we can do now will be overturned in the future, rendering our efforts irrelevant. In particular, one might expect transformative AI to happen relatively soon (which may be the trigger for large-scale space colonisation), and powerful future AI systems may not be bound by laws (or other aspects of governance) in the same way as humans. This is why we should (so the argument goes) instead focus on shaping the impacts of transformative AI.

While this is a possibility, I think it is at least plausible that laws and governance paradigms are long-lasting, or that the final outcome is path-dependent on establishing good space governance early on. Depending on what the transition to transformative AI looks like, there is at least a significant chance that existing laws or institutions remain relevant, or set a direct precedent. At first glance, this seems to apply to gradual, distributed transitions in particular.[3] (Also, a) similar objections apply to many attempts to improve the long-term future, and b) I do not make the strong claim that space governance is more important than directly shaping the impacts of transformative AI.)

A related objection is that it may not be urgent to work on space governance now, as we can delegate the question of how to govern space to (hopefully) more capable and more informed successors (whether artificial or human). This is especially true if (large-scale) space colonisation is unlikely to happen soon – i.e., if our spacefaring activities will, for the foreseeable future, be limited to exploration.

But I would, again, argue that establishing good space governance is plausibly time-sensitive. It seems at least possible that our civilisation will start settling other planets in the not-too-distant future – say, within the next centuries.

One concrete reason why space governance is time-sensitive is that enforcing positive-sum agreements may become more difficult or impossible once civilisation has already spread into space, due to massive cosmic distances. For instance, it may be the case that agreements can only be enforced if the required surveillance and enforcement mechanisms are “built into” the colonisation process and form an integral part of each colony from the outset (so that communication or interaction over vast distances is not necessary). The best option, therefore, would be to settle on a fair governance paradigm before space colonisation begins.

I would also note that the current state of ambiguity seems bad for many reasons. It could induce race dynamics, where actors rush to claim resources without regard for risks, and is likely to result in serious conflict. Therefore, improving space governance may also help reduce the risk of great power war.

Tractability

It seems fairly clear to us what levers we can pull on to improve space governance. We can do research on what governance framework we want, and then shape expert discourse, or lobby for the right laws and international conventions. (I will elaborate on this below.) Also, work on space governance does not hinge on particular assumptions about the future, other than large-scale space colonisation being sufficiently plausible.

I do not yet have a good sense of how tractable it is to implement space governance improvements. One potential problem is that space governance is mainly shaped by large space-faring nations (US, China, Russia, EU, India). Since they often seem to have competing interests in this domain, an agreement might be very hard to reach, especially if relationships are strained for reasons unrelated to space governance. (Perhaps this is why there has not been much progress for a long time.)

Fortunately, when it comes to long-term space governance, we may be able to pull the rope sideways since competing state interests mostly relate to short-term issues. In addition, nonstate interests (mainly civil society and commercial actors) in space seem quite small at this point, which makes it more plausible that targeted work could have an outsized impact. It is easier to have a significant influence while there aren’t yet strong vested interests. (The flipside of this argument is that there may not be much interest in discussing long-term issues in the various governments.)

Neglectedness

There is some work on space law and space governance (e.g. by the Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space), but our impression is that this is mostly focused on short-term issues. I am not aware of any actors doing systematic work or advocacy regarding the long-term concerns outlined in this post, although the need for a coherent space governance framework has been pointed out (e.g. 1, 2).

What is good space governance?

So far, I bracketed the question of what kind of space governance regime I would like to see. This is because the long-term effects of governance regimes are hard to predict, and further research is needed to be confident in any particular idea. Even abstracting away from practical and political constraints, it’s not clear what the ideal governance paradigm would be. Nevertheless, I would like to offer some preliminary thoughts.

A top priority is to reduce the risk of major conflict. Space warfare is not only a massive waste of resources, but might also result in moral atrocities, similar to past wars - but on an astronomical scale. In other words, it is a potential s-risk. It is clear that we would much prefer a governance regime that promotes positive-sum cooperation and compromise.

More specifically, we would like to ensure cosmic rule of law. This entails an adequate level of external control - through enforcement of certain laws, norms, and agreements - over what actors in space are (and are not) allowed to do. It should be possible to stop bad actors from causing a lot of harm: we should prevent cosmic anarchy.

This is challenging because vast distances in space will likely be an obstacle to effective enforcement. Space is, in a nutshell, an endless desert with oases that are extremely far apart from each other. The closest star to Earth is 4.3 light years away, resulting in a round-trip latency of 8.6 years even if light-speed communication and transport are possible. The closest galaxy is approximately 2.5 million light years away, rendering conventional enforcement impossible.

I think it is also important to avoid a laissez-faire space governance paradigm, where each actor owns a certain fraction of space and can do what they want within their territory. Such property rights would arguably work for commercial and selfish interests, and may well be the arrangement that would emerge by default. However, this scenario is problematic (especially from an s-risk perspective) because it would be impossible to stop moral catastrophes.

What would be a good space governance paradigm? Here are some first-pass ideas (assuming a sufficient degree of enforceability):

  • Property rights could be combined with a veto mechanism to stop uses of space that are considered malicious by sufficiently many actors.
  • Rather than allocating territory, we could only allow rights to use certain resources in certain ways. This could require authorisation by a central authority (similar to e.g. planning permission for new developments).
  • Rather than dividing space up, it could be considered a commons with shared (democratic) control by many stakeholders.

In any case, it would arguably be good to settle on a clear paradigm before large-scale space colonisation becomes feasible. Ideally, humanity would first settle on a fair compromise between everyone’s values and interests, and then colonise space according to this compromise. (But this would require a massive improvement in the (general) governance situation of our civilisation, which is arguably not realistic in the foreseeable future.)

How to work on this?

As there hasn’t been much work on long-term space governance, a top priority is further research. I suggest the following directions:

  • Compiling an overview of possible governance paradigms and how desirable they are, both from an s-risk perspective and other perspectives.

  • Consider how realistic each solution is, given the interests of different stakeholders.

  • Connecting these long-term concerns with the existing discourse on space law, which is largely focused on more concrete, immediately relevant issues.

  • Exploring whether and how enforcement is possible in a technologically advanced, intergalactic civilisation.

In addition, I recommend that more people build up expertise or even consider a career in space governance. Political science, international relations, and law with a focus on space governance are particularly relevant. I have not considered career options in detail, but plausible paths include academic careers in these fields, careers in relevant governments, think-tanks, or international organisations, as well as careers at NewSpace companies. I don’t think many people in the community should pursue this path, but it could be a very promising option for those who are passionate about the topic.

Acknowledgements

Stefan Torges contributed significantly to this post through extensive comments, inputs and suggestions.

I’d also like to thank Lukas Gloor and Jesse Clifton for comments on an earlier draft of this text.


  1. Following the above definition, space law is an important aspect of space governance, but the latter is broader in scope. ↩︎

  2. The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 explicitly allows US citizens and industries to "engage in the commercial exploration and exploitation of space resources". It is debated whether this constitutes a claim of sovereignty (in violation of the Outer Space Treaty). ↩︎

  3. An in-depth discussion of the plausibility of different AI scenarios and how they affect space colonization is beyond the scope of this text. ↩︎

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