Friday, February 05, 2010

Feedback on "The Men Who've Sold the Moon."

Daniel Faber is an ex-president of the Canadian Space Society, an ex-employee of one of the finest small suppliers of hardware, software, training and expertise to the spacecraft community (Canadian based Sinclair Interplanetary) and, as near as I can tell, also an ex-Canadian since he recently returned to his Australian home to work on their changing space program (some of those changes are discussed in the ASICC Newletter #1 for December 2009, published by the Australian Space Industry Chamber of Commerce).

So now that we've made a list of his "exes" we should perhaps also note what he is one of the most knowledgeable and thoughtful upcoming amateur experts on the potential economics likely to surround our new space age.

He also sometimes reads my blog and at this specific time has quite a bit of feedback on my post "The Men Who've Sold the Moon." This is what he thinks:
Everyone wants to own the moon...

Even Alexander the Great, on learning that there are countless orbs in the universe, wept saying "Do you not think it a matter worthy of lamentation that when there is such a vast multitude of them [worlds], we have not yet conquered one?" (Pultarchus, c. 46-120, IV).

Dennis Hope is only the most recent/successful in a long and growing list of people purporting to own and/or sell the moon.

An excellent review of the legal aspects of this practice is given by Virgiliu Pop ("Who Owns the Moon? Extraterrestrial Aspects of Land and Mineral Resources Ownership", Space Regulations Library, Volume 4). His list of claimants to the moon and other celestial bodies includes A.D. Lindsay (USA, 1936), J.T. Mangan (USA, 1948), the "Elves', Gnomes' and Little Men's Science Fiction, Chowder and Marching Society" (USA, 1952), J.G. Vera (Chile, 1953), Planet Mars Development Corp. (USA, 1954), R.R. Coles (USA, 1955), Japan Astronomical Society (Japan, 1956), Oklahoma City Council (USA, 1965), Deer Park City Council (USA, 1965), 35 citizens of Geneva (USA, 1966), and Dennis Hope (1980).

Today I , Daniel Faber will also claim the Moon. Therefore, as per my decree, on this date in the year 2010, it is mine!

But of course, my claim changes nothing, just as most of the previous claims to the Moon have also changed nothing. Anyone of us can claim anything we want but a simple claim all by itself doesn't necessarily make it so.

For example, I could claim the television in your living room. Unfortunately for me, your own claim to that television can be backed up by the courts and the police, and you can exclude me from using it. This is what Dennis Hope and other would-be owners of celestial bodies are lacking - a court with jurisdiction over the territory, backed by executive powers (ie. police) to enforce those decisions. The 1966 United Nations Outer Space Treaty, by prohibiting national appropriation by any means, effectively prohibits the courts of any country from having the jurisdiction to hear the case.

As outlined in Virgiliu Pop's book, the treaty defines the Moon as belonging to "everyone and no-one" with the UN possessing the legitimacy and soft power through the Outer Space Treaty (and it's signatories) to allow for any nation to defend it's "rights" as defined in the treaty in UN sanctioned international courts.

So everyone, and not just Dennis Hope, can use the Moon, and can change it in any way, but they can not restrict others from using it. Importantly, anything extracted from the moon, such as rocks or minerals, can be treated like fish from the sea and become the property of whoever extracts them. You can mine the moon. You can operate a business. You can own your equipment and the things you extract - just not the real estate itself.

This community ownership has a definite appeal. We all own it and we can all use it! However the world is never quite so simple, and our well being is not so easily served. A lot of effort is needed before things returned from the moon start improving people's lives.

For example, at present, if you wish to raise a couple of hundred million dollars to characterize an ore body on the moon and prepare a mine plan (not an unusual price for such activities on the earth, before starting to construct a mine), you have no guarantee that someone will not jump in and build a mine on that spot while you are still trying to raise the necessary billion dollars or so to build your own mine. You can't hide something on that scale - everyone will know where the riches are. The usurper's business plan will look much better than yours, having saved those hundreds of millions of exploration costs. If I were an investor I know where I would put my money, and no court in the world could help you.

The result is that you will never get the hundreds of millions for the initial exploration.

So as presently structured, the only funding that will go into mineral exploration on the moon under this regime will be from governments and philanthropists. Progress will be painfully slow. Contrast this with most countries on Earth where the government grants exclusive mining rights to get investment happening, thus creating jobs, collecting taxes and keeping the price of metals low around the world. Thankfully history has a number of examples that show how the implementation of appropriate ownership rights over a communally owned environment can effect this process.

For example, the "Inclosure Acts" in the UK in 18th and early 19th centuries gave exclusive farming rights to individuals in what had previously been a communally owned environment. This meant that the traditional rights that all people once held to graze animals on these areas were denied. However, the incentive to the remaining farmers to improve their lands through drainage, cropping and management resulted in an explosion in agricultural productivity, reducing hunger and associated illness and allowing the population of Britain to increase 5 fold in 100 years.

Similarly in 1975 in Sichuan, China, the assigning of production contracts to individual households (which disband the previous existing commune system) led to a 25% increase in agricultural output within three years and an abatement of the famines that had devastated China in the preceding two decades. All the data supports Benjamin Franklin's assertion that "Mine is better than ours".

This is the economic reality produced by the legal reality. Every country in the world now subscribes to the capitalist system as the most efficient method of improving the economic well being of its citizens. This system requires the creation of "mini monopolies" to justify using up the resources (ie. cash) needed to make those improvements. The size and duration of the mini-monopoly needed to "incentivize" investment is commensurate with the risk and the size of the investment; typically twenty years for technology (patents), greater than a generation for farming, an indefinite period for land/ buildings and "until you stop exploring/mining" for minerals.

These are the legal and economic mechanisms, the organs and the "warts" that make the system work. We are comfortable with them in our own countries and our own backyards. Expanding our economy to the higher orb, warts and all, will bring benefits we have not started to imagine.

1 comment:

  1. Wonderful article. The future exploration of space and eventual mining of the moon have been a topic of interest for me for some time, do you believe were looking at some real conflict in regards to the moon when it becomes fesiable to travel there?


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