Jessy Kate Schingler – Civilization on the Moon and what it means for Life on Earth

Right now, there's a lot happening with the Moon. China has announced plans for an inhabited South Pole station by the 2030s, and the United States has an official road map seeking an increasing number of people living and working in space.

This will start with NASA's Artemis program, an international program to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon this decade. Billionaires and the private sector are getting involved in unprecedented ways.

There are over a hundred launch companies around the world and roughly a dozen private lunar transportation companies readying robotic missions to the lunar surface. We have reusable rockets for the first time in human history.

This will enable the development of infrastructure and utilization of resources. While estimates vary, scientists think there could be up to a billion metric tons of water ice on the Moon. That's greater than the size of Lake Erie, and enough water to support perhaps hundreds of thousands of people living and working on the Moon.

So although official plans are always evolving, there's real reason to think that we could see people starting to live and work on the Moon in the next decade. However, the Moon is roughly the size of the continent of Africa, and we're starting to see that the key resources may be concentrated in small areas near the poles.

This raises important questions about coordinating access to scarce resources. And there are also legitimate questions about going to the Moon: colonialism, cultural heritage and reproducing the systemic inequalities of today's capitalism.

And more to the point: Don't we have enough big challenges here on Earth? Internet governance, pandemics, terrorism and, perhaps most importantly, climate crisis and biodiversity loss. In some senses, the idea of the Moon as just a destination embodies these problematic qualities.

It conjures a frontier attitude of conquest, big rockets and expensive projects, competition and winning. But what's most interesting about the Moon isn't the billionaires with their rockets or the same old power struggle between states.

In fact, it's not the hardware at all. It's the software. It's the norms, customs and laws. It's our social technologies. And it's the opportunity to update our democratic institutions and the rule of law to respond to a new era of planetary-scale challenges.

I'm going to tell you about how the Moon can be a canvas for solving some of our biggest challenges here on Earth. I've been kind of obsessed with this topic since I was a teenager. I've spent the last two decades working on international space policy, but also on small community projects with bottom-up governance design.

When I was 17, I went to a UN conference on the peaceful uses of outer space in Vienna. Over two weeks, 160 young people from over 60 countries were crammed into a big hotel next to the UN building. We were invited to make recommendations to Member States about the role of space in humanity's future.

After the conference, some of us were so inspired that we actually decided to keep living together. Now, living with 20 people might sound kind of crazy, but over the years, it enabled us to create a high-trust group that allowed us to experiment with these social technologies.

We designed governance systems ranging from assigning a CEO to using a jury process. And as we grew into our careers, and we moved from DC think tanks to working for NASA to starting our own companies, these experiments enabled us to see how even small groups could be a petri dish for important societal questions such as representation, sustainability or opportunity.

People often talk about the Moon as a petri dish or even a blank slate. But because of the legal agreements that govern the Moon, it actually has something very important in common with our global challenges here on Earth.

They both involve issues that require us to think beyond territory and borders, meaning the Moon is actually more of a template than a blank slate. Signed in 1967, the Outer Space Treaty is the defining treaty governing activities in outer space, including the Moon.

And it has two key ingredients that radically alter the basis on which laws can be constructed. The first is a requirement for free access to all areas of a celestial body. And the second is that the Moon and other celestial bodies are not subject to national appropriation.

Now, this is crazy, because the entire earthly international system — the United Nations, the system of treaties and international agreements — is built on the idea of state sovereignty, on the appropriation of land and resources within borders and the autonomy to control free access within those borders.

By doing away with both of these, we create the conditions for what are called the "commons." Based on the work of Nobel Prize-winning economist Elinor Ostrom, global commons are those resources that we all share that require us to work together to manage and protect important aspects of our survival and well-being, like climate or the oceans.

Commons-based approaches offer a greenfield for institution design that's only beginning to be explored at the global and interplanetary level. What do property rights look like? And how do we manage resources when the traditional tools of external authority and private property don't apply? Though we don't have all the answers, climate, internet governance, authoritarianism — these are all deeply existential threats that we have failed to address with our current ways of thinking.

Successful paths forward will require us to develop new tools. So how do we incorporate commons-based logic into our global and space institutions? Well, here's one attempt that came from an unlikely source.

As a young activist in World War II, Arvid Pardo was arrested for anti-fascist organizing and held under death sentence by the Gestapo. After the war, he worked his way into the diplomatic corps, eventually becoming the first permanent representative of Malta to the United Nations.

Pardo saw that international law did not have the tools to address management of shared global resources, such as the high seas. He also saw an opportunity to advocate for equitable sharing between nations.

In 1967, Pardo gave a famous speech to the United Nations, introducing the idea that the oceans and their resources were the "common heritage of mankind." The phrase was eventually adopted as part of the Law of the Sea Treaty, probably the most sophisticated commons-management regime on the planet today.

It was seen as a watershed moment, a constitution for the seas. But the language proved so controversial that it took over 12 years to gain enough signatures for the treaty to enter into force, and some states still refuse to sign it.

The objection was not so much about sharing per se, but the obligation to share. States felt that the principle of equality undermined their autonomy and state sovereignty, the same autonomy and state sovereignty that underpins international law.

So in many ways, the story of the common heritage principle is a tragedy. But it's powerful because it makes plain the ways in which the current world order will put up antibodies and defenses and resist attempts at structural reform.

But here's the thing: the Outer Space Treaty has already made these structural reforms. At the height of the Cold War, terrified that each would get to the Moon first, the United States and the USSR made the Westphalian equivalent of a deal with the devil.

By requiring free access and preventing territorial appropriation, we are required to redesign our most basic institutions, and perhaps in doing so, learn something new we can apply here on Earth. So although the Moon might seem a little far away sometimes, how we answer basic questions now will set precedent for who has a seat at the table and what consent looks like.

And these are questions of social technology, not rockets and hardware. In fact, these conversations are starting to happen right now. The space community is discussing basic shared agreements, such as how do we designate lunar areas as heritage sites, and how do we get permission for where to land when traditional external authority doesn’t apply?

How do we enforce requirements for coordination when it’s against the rules to tell people where to go? And how do we manage access to scarce resources such as water, minerals or even the peaks of eternal light — craters that sit at just the right latitude to receive near-constant exposure to sunlight — and therefore, power? Now, some people think that the lack of rules on the Moon is terrifying.

And there are legitimately some terrifying elements of it. If there are no rules on the Moon, then won't we end up in a first-come, first-served situation? And we might, if we dismiss this moment.

But not if we’re willing to be bold and to engage the challenge. As we learned in our communities of self-governance, it’s easier to create something new than trying to dismantle the old. And where else but the Moon can we prototype new institutions at global scale in a self-contained environment with the exact design constraints needed for our biggest challenges here on Earth?

Back in 1999, the United Nations taught a group of young space geeks that we could think bigger, that we could impact nations if we chose to.

Today, the stage is set for the next step: to envision what comes after territory and borders.

Becoming Smart!

It is said that with age comes wisdom. As a "senior" I would candidly say that were I able to live my life over again but retain all of the lessons that I have learned in my life, then the new, young me would enjoy a very different life than that which I have enjoyed. Experiences (good and bad) teach us life's lessons if you apply them. My intention with this blog is to provide a constant source of wisdom to you, gentle reader, in the hope that you can avoid some or more of life's mistakes and thus enjoy a better quality of life. My sources are global because applied wisdom is what counts.

Recent Posts