In this Slate article, “Can You Own an Asteroid,” Paul Marks explores the Commons in outer space! Not directly, of course. But in his story about Seattle-based Planetary Resources’ plans to mine an asteroid, Marks hits on all the aspects of exploitation of a Commons. “Should asteroids rich in precious metals be regarded, in legal terms, like the fish in the sea?” Marks asks. It’s a good question, and one that deserves further development, along with the United Nations’ treaties and agreements that govern these space-exploration issues. (By the way, how promising were the 1960’s that the UN’s Outer Space Treaty was agreed to in 1967? Think we’ve lost some mojo?).
My initial reaction is this: I would not grant rights to the asteroid, but I definitely would grant property rights to the company that manages to extract minerals and return them to Earth. We should celebrate the company that develops the technologies, funds the innovation, and takes the risks involved in such a truly impressive example of the progressive nature of capitalism. The minerals returned to Earth will be used for the good of society; it’s not like these minerals are something to be hoarded. Should, or rather, as asteroid mining and similar space resource exploitation efforts come on line, then shall we need to develop the appropriate property regimes to govern this activity. Look, the first explorers, trappers, and settlers barely impacted the ecology of the American west. It wasn’t until after these hardy few paved the way for the countless others who followed that the destruction of the Commons began. We have learned from our mistakes – this does not mean that we will respond accordingly! – but I am optimistic that we will demonstrate the wisdom to preserve those aspects of space that need to be preserved, while wisely using where possible those resources that may prove a bounty for all Mankind.