Uncommon Opportunity of the Space Commons: Why We Should Care About Space

By: Britt Duffy Adkins, Founder & Space Urban Planner

Generally, when I mention to people that I am interested in planning future cities in Outer Space, if they don’t immediately assume that I’m reading too much science fiction, they often express concern about focusing on anything other than the present state of Earth. And certainly, it is valid to question where time and money are spent when we have no shortage of atrocities and challenges to address on our home planet. Earth is and should be our first priority — at least for the foreseeable future. But it doesn’t mean that we can ignore the context in which we live. If we consider the interconnectedness of climate science and space science; innovation and exploration; equity and progress — we might even uncover new ways of working toward a more just society.

The demands and realities of the present day no longer favors those who insulate themselves. In fact, respecting the global commons, render that kind of thinking nearly impossible. Think Oceans, Antarctica, Atmosphere, and Outer Space. If you really want to take a deep dive on this topic, there are many resources — but I will warn that this concept was first formally written about in 1968 by Garrett Hardin who was a white nationalist with a disturbing past of racist, anti-immigrant, and eugenicist rhetoric. Scientific American wrote a really helpful piece on this, “The Tragedy of the Tragedy of the Commons,” that demonstrates how dangerous Hardin’s ideas could be when used to prop up Neo-Nazi ideology as well as support notions of “lifeboat ethics.”

Instead, I strongly encourage you to read Nobel Prize Winner, Elinor Ostrom’s Governing the Commons: The Evolution of Institutions for Collective Action (1990) which challenged Hardin’s views and instead supported a more optimistic picture of resource management that took a bottoms-up approach based on a set of carefully crafted design principles. Read more of her take on how individuals and communities can be empowered to self-govern common pool resources here.

Earth.org has quick 5-minute read on “The Tragedy of the Commons,” which is definitely worth checking out if you just want to get your feet wet. The post nicely summarizes the need for a more global mindset:

“Again, people were thinking logically, but not collectively, and herein lies the relevance of the Tragedy of the Commons. Individuals took advantage of opportunities that benefited themselves, but spread out the harmful effects of their consumption across society.”

However, this short read does not mention the negative consequences of Hardin’s theory or his troubling past — and mostly just speaks to the original top-down approach that Hardin suggested. So please get familiar with Ostrom’s work. Sadly, she passed in 2012 but her legacy lives on through her numerous contributions to society. Earth.org does address the common pool resources issue that has plagued much of 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which is timely and certainly worthy of further study to see how humans behaved when resources were limited or perceived to be limited. I’ll be curious to see some additional research on this topic in the future.

All of this talk about the global commons is intended to make the point that we humans are deeply interconnected and our welfare and survival depends on our ability to better manage our resources and impact on our environment — and work together. So, when it comes to Outer Space, I think we would be remiss in not also taking steps to make sure that an Earth-like scenario does not play out on the celestial stage as well. It may not be the first priority and it shouldn’t eat up the entire national budget (which by the way, NASA actually makes up only a small fraction of the defense budget) but that doesn’t mean we can de-prioritize space either.

The United States government spent approximately $4.5 trillion in fiscal year 2019 , of which just 0.5% ($22.6 billion) was provided to NASA. In this chart, shades of blue represent mandatory spending programs; shades of orange are discretionary programs that require annual appropriations by Congress. Defense costs include Overseas Contingency Operations (OCO) funds. Source: Office of Management and Budget Historical Tables 8.5 and 8.7
NASA’s annual budget since its inception, adjusted for inflation using the NASA New Start Inflation Index. The vertical axis displays NASA’s total congressional appropriation in billions of dollars. The horizontal axis is fiscal years. Detailed data including outlays, alternate inflation indicies, non-inflation adjusted numbers, and White House budget requests are available to view or download as an Excel spreadsheet. Both charts credit: Planetary Society

If after all, we are a community of humans that value science (and I hope we are) then how can we close ourselves off to the many benefits and answers that await us beyond our home planet. What are those benefits — I’m so glad you asked.

  1. Science missions that propel forward our understanding of our own planet, solar system, and unique place within the wider universe.
  2. Technology created for space exploration that improves the quality of life on Earth. Check out this article, “Inventions We Use Every Day That Were Actually Created for Space” to learn more about that.
  3. Monitoring of climate change, natural disasters, and space weather from satellites. Here is a great op-ed from Space.com, written by Dylan Taylor (Chairman & CEO of Voyager Space Holdings and Founder of Space for Humanity) that highlights how space technology can be used to address climate change, respond to humanitarian crises, and provide greater access to high-speed internet (although the latter should be carefully balanced against and not provided at the expense of astronomical research goals).
  4. Diversification of the human presence in the event of catastrophe — and I’m not just talking about those out of our control. Evidence is mounting that we are headed toward the sixth mass extinction event and we have no one but ourselves to blame.
  5. Potential for large-scale global cooperation and collective action that drives peaceful co-existence on Earth.
  6. Because space inspires us. Watch this amazing short film below by Erik Wernquist that makes use of the poignant writings of the late, great Carl Sagan.

Okay so #5 is pretty lofty — but you know what — I believe it’s possible. Yes, even in the dark days of 2020, I still believe humans are capable of what might seem unimaginable today.

If perhaps you do not share my same optimism, here is one more reason why we can’t ignore space exploration — because others are not. Cristian van Eijk, final year law student from the University of Cambridge, wrote a very well-researched article addressing Elon Musk’s claims of Mars being a free planet — in other words free to be colonized by SpaceX. There exists a bevy of private sector and governmental actors that are interested and actively trying to shape what space exploration, resource utilization, and settlement will look like for all of us. Now, the early birds (let’s call them) absolutely deserve their seat at the table (we all do), and their views should be heard and considered. In fact, they might even be on the right path! But just because they are already existing in the space (pun intended) and dominating the conversation, doesn’t mean they get to decide what humanity’s future in space looks like. Every human, no matter background, identity, expertise, or nationality deserves to be heard on this and have a say in what happens. There is a big shift already in motion, and I don’t want the activists and everyday people of Earth to miss out on the discussion just because they were focused on fighting the good fight terrestrially (fancy word for Earth).

There will be plenty of people that might still not agree with my view that space science and exploration is worth prioritizing and that’s okay — I want to hear from you! If you made it to the end of this article, I appreciate the consideration at least. There will also be a fair number of individuals that believe my passion for applying a social justice lens to future missions in space will stifle innovation — but I would argue that inequality and oppression do more to stifle human progress than anything else. If being “woke” about space is wrong — then I don’t want to be right. Side note, the article in the previous link prominently displays a female astronaut — because you know, those feisty women just can’t stay on their home planet.

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Britt Duffy Adkins

Britt Duffy Adkins

Founder at Celestial Citizen | Space Urban Planner | She/her | Planning Humanity’s Future on Earth. Moon. Mars. Beyond. www.celestialcitizen.com