Why you should care
Because those who control space could control the Earth.
Space. The final frontier. A place of dark matter, black holes and galactic cannibalism. Somewhere out there among the wonders of this universe possibly are other intelligent life-forms that we are destined to connect with someday.
The sci-fi community has thoroughly explored the possibilities wrapped up in that pivotal moment. There’s the international dysfunction of Arrival that brings humanity to the brink. Or the almost-apocalyptic stories of Independence Day and War of the Worlds. Or even the more subtle tension of Contact and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial is, perhaps, one of the most iconic family friendly movies ever.
But what are we doing to really prepare — to avert a nonfiction disaster if and when we encounter life beyond our little, blue orb? I say it’s high time we plan for space governance.
It’s a whole new ecosystem, and you have to have a governance system that’s not closed.
Space government advocate Lorna Jean Edmonds
We know space is slowly becoming more accessible. NASA has a page on its website dedicated to space colonization. More than 1,700 satellites currently orbit the Earth, according to data from the Union of Concerned Scientists. And after its latest funding round in July, SpaceX was valued at $21.2 billion, making it one of the most valuable privately held companies in the world. The cosmos is becoming less and less “out of this world,” and as we continue to venture into that great unknown, as we start talking about space colonies, space mining and the like, we would do well to consider how to govern our atmosphere and beyond.
The United Nations’ Outer Space Treaty — more officially titled the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies — provides somewhat of a road map. It sets parameters that say space exploration should benefit everyone and that everyone is free to explore space, provided they follow the provisions in the treaty. States can’t claim ownership of celestial bodies and are responsible for private companies’ actions. All exploration should be in the “interest of maintaining international peace and security and promoting international cooperation and understanding.”
The treaty could provide a potential foundation for building a cosmopolitan space government, says Lorna Jean Edmonds, who has written about space government and was a speaker at the National Space Society’s 2015 and 2016 conferences. Such a government would help to prepare the world for the unknown variables of the universe, Edmonds says. “It’s a whole new ecosystem, and you have to have a governance system that’s not closed,” she says. “You don’t know what else is out there. … You have to continuously be nimble enough to evolve with an emerging new ecosystem.”
This cosmopolitan government would be similar to a galactic United Nations, acting as a body to facilitate connections and dialogue among planets and also share culture, society, technology and other aspects of life. In terms more specifically applied to governing across galaxies, it would embrace the idea of “universalization” — an idea Edmonds helped to define as a phase of human development — meaning that in a cosmic setting, creatures place cooperation above conflict when interacting with one another. It might seem like working toward this kind of model would be shooting for the stars — it is, after all, completely different from how states interact on Earth — but it’s not completely unheard of.
Sci-fi has given us vivid descriptions of what our relationship with aliens could look like if we’re unprepared. But it’s also provided us with imaginary models that take idealistic versions of Earth’s democratic institutions and scale them up. Look at the United Federation of Planets (UFP). As described by the Star Trek wiki Memory Alpha, the UFP was “composed of planetary governments that agreed to exist semi-autonomously under a single central government based on the principles of universal liberty, rights, and equality, and to share their knowledge and resources in peaceful cooperation, scientific development, space exploration and defensive purposes.”
It’s not that this kind of government would eliminate all conflicts. Obviously, there’s plenty to stir the pot in the Star Trek world. But perhaps we should take the blank slate that space presents as an opportunity to test whether we are in fact as inherently selfish and power-driven as we believe each other to be. We might just create a stronger sense of a global community that engenders more egalitarian actions right here on Earth.