Sunday, 1 July 2012

Space, The Final Frontier?

As I am about to begin a Masters course at Sussex University my mind turned to possible topics for my next dissertation. I (along with the help of some friends!) began to get incredibly interested in the concept of Martian colonisation. I began to do a little research and found a startling thing - not only was there barely any research on the political impact of extraterrestrial colonisation there were no definitive answers to anything! With projects estimating that Mars could be colonised by as early as the 2030s this is an issue that has actually urgency to it. We cannot allow our first steps as a space-faring race to be marred by fighting over land and law and other petty Earthly squabbles. There are perhaps two major areas that warrant consideration before all others:

So, accepting the premise that Mars has the ability to colonised in the near future, we have the problem of ownership of land and resources. Anyone who won the race to put permanent settlements on another planet enters a huge grey area of having access to, and control over an entire planet. Obviously, one party cannot control Mars (or the Moon which is the other option). Such a ludicrous path would lead to conflict and even violence with future settlement bids by other parties. So who then decides the limits of ownership? To answer such a question we turn to the United Nations. It is in fact reasonably clear in at least the basics of ownership law. Under the terms of the 1966 'Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies,' any object, person or structure placed on a celestial body remains the property of the state from which it was sent, however:

"The placement of personnel, space vehicles, equipment, facilities, stations and installations on or below the surface of the Moon [or other bodies], including structures connected with its surface or subsurface, shall not
create a right of ownership over the surface or the subsurface of the Moon or any areas thereof."

Under international law no one can hold ownership of any part of a planet and may only claim it of the objects placed upon it. Under the same law private companies (who are more likely to be the first colonisers) are the responsibility of the states from which they are registered and are therefore subject to the same conditions. However, this poses huge issues when it is considered that many of the plans for colonising the Red Planet require the excavation, use and even exportation of local resources such as heavy metals, ores and rock. If such material is dug up to be used solely by the colony for the construction of everything from cement to intricate technology is it then part of the facilities mentioned in the above text or not? If Mars cannot be owned then what about large-scale resource exportation to Earth? While I personally have problems with strip mining and shipping off the first planet we ever colonise it is an issue as it may affect the economic feasibility of colonisation. While the law provides for scientific samples to be taken (as long as the results are shared) it is hard to see that stretching to full-scale economic exploitation. The problem is only intensified when considering what happens when more than one colonisation effort happens on the same planet. Who decides limits and boundaries? 

As we have seen, the laws both of the UN and the state involved are used in deciding policy but whose policy are we referring too? When a large-scale group of humans have set up a community on another world, who runs it? People often link these problems to previous frontier advances (the New World of North America and European colonialism spring to mind) but this is, in fact, many magnitudes more complicated than that. At present, communication from the Earth to Mars would be governed by time, distance and relativity making it hard to make fast or accurate decisions from some sort of home base. There are several extremes of option that would probably form the scale for the choice of government form:

1) Direct Rule - the company or state that is the major head of this project (or a group of the above) actively control the colony and run it as an extension of their own state in the same way as previous colonial efforts. This would most likely involve a direct representative of that party enforcing the decisions of the majority back on Earth. This process has multiple floors, the least of which is inter-planetary communication. There will never just be one colony for long and if they are governed by one party the spread of colonies under different masters could result in huge political and social strain on both planets possible leading to conflict. It is also difficult to see how things such as human rights law, working practices and other safeguards would be enforced if the state or company decided to ignore them to gain, for example, an economic advantage in resource exploitation.

2) Colonial Sovereignty - on the opposite end of the spectrum from direct party rule from Earth is the idea of colonies ruling themselves. This would most likely be done by direct democracy (everyone votes on everything) or a small council especially when colonies remain small. An alternative would be to run it in a military way with control given to one commander and other ranks being positioned below. The advantages of such a method are better and faster control of situations, and politics carried out by people intimately involved in the colony and its needs. The disadvantages are the difficulty of enforcing international law after removing the responsibility of the state from which the colony originated, the colony having little political or economic experience to use when running its own affairs and the issue of defining what the colony is (is it a state? how is it represented on the UN etc?).

I feel that the solution probably lies somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum but, along with the question of ownership, represent huge grey areas in our understanding of what Mars colonisation could mean politically. These represent a few of the questions and ideas I have encountered so far when investigating this area and hopefully they will become more developed as greater progression is made and maybe even a solution will be found!

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