Once we’ve reached out space settlements, what do we do next? What kind of jobs will be available, and what kind of economy will we have? What kinds of rights do we have as workers in space, and what will we do if our employer tries to exploit us while we’re stuck far from home?
Historian Margaret Newell rejoins us to talk about economics and labor practices in the early American colonies. Labor rights campaigner Sarah Newell provides some parallels between current labor rights abuses on Earth and potential future challenges for laborers in space.
The transcript for this episode is below.
Imagine this: You’ve done it. You sold everything you owned and moved to space. You’re broke, but you’re happy. You’ve unpacked your suitcase in your new home, introduced yourself to your new neighbors, and settled in. It’s time to get to work. After all, you’ll need to buy groceries and pay next month’s rent, and you have your eye on a new pair of space boots. So, who’s hiring? How will you make money in space? What if you lose your job and can’t afford to keep living in space, but can’t afford a ticket back to Earth? What if your employer refuses to let you go home from the asteroid you’re mining?
Welcome to Making New Worlds, a podcast about the ethical issues involved with settling space. I’m Erika Nesvold. Today I want to talk about economics and labor in space. For the rest of this episode, I’m going to be assuming that we’re talking about a capitalist system, because most of the people talking about settling space right now are working in that kind of system.
The economics of settling space is a huge question right now for the people who want to make space settlements a reality. Partly, that’s because space travel today is super expensive. So if you want to get into the space business, you have to be able to convince your investors that you’ll make enough money in space to make it worth their investment.
But the bigger question is about the long-term sustainability of a space settlement. If these new communities are going to last, they need to eventually be self-sufficient. If they’re just a constant drain on the Earth’s resources, then eventually people will go broke or they’ll get tired of paying to ship supplies up to space without getting enough value back. So the big question a lot of people are asking right now is, Where’s the value in space? What can you get in space that you can’t easily get on Earth, that you can sell back to the Earthlings?
I’m not an entrepreneur, and this podcast isn’t about how to make money in space. But the structure of the space economy is going to have a huge effect on the quality of life for the people living up there. Being poor or homeless in a space settlement could be even more dangerous and harmful than it is here on Earth. You’re not just worried about starving or freezing to death: What if you have to pay for the air you’re breathing? Or rent on your access to the pressurized habitat where everyone lives? What happens when you can’t pay your bills? Do they just kick you out an airlock?
Not to mention that profit has historically been the motivation for a lot of really horrible actions, against both people and the environment. So it’s worth talking about about how space settlements might make money.
On last week’s episode, I talked to historian Margaret Newell about how property rights worked in the early American colonies. During our conversation, I also asked her about the economics in those colonies. There have been tons of examples of colonization in Earth’s history, but I think European colonization in the Americas is an interesting parallel with space because corporations played such a big role, like they seem like they will in space.
Margaret Newell: “A number of the colonial ventures, and I’d include France and parts of New Spain as well at different times in the colonization project there were actually– the colonization itself was conducted by private companies. So the first corporations in modern history essentially developed as trading companies and many of these trading companies were, in fact, put in charge of colonization. So they would sign deals with the crowned heads of Europe, which gave these companies wide latitude to create their own ecosystems, to create their own– to have their own armies, and to direct local law enforcement. Gave them, essentially, title to territory in ways that didn’t, of course, take into account the rights of indigenous populations in these places, either. But also put them in charge of these assets, put them in charge of the project. So for-profit elements of colonization were baked in at the beginning.”
So this is a potential future in space: The corporations that found the space colonies will call the shots, and might evolve into the future governments of these colonies.
I asked Margaret how the colonies in the Americas interacted economically with Europe, and how they eventually became self-sufficient. It all came down to resources.
Margaret Newell: “When you look at the earliest descriptions of the New World, they read like commodity lists, in many ways. So what people were seeing were things that were either already proven market value, tradeable commodities, or things that were scarce. And whose scarcity gave them value. So, for the earliest explorers or promoters, people who were promoting colonization or making contact, they would really list, “Here are all the commodities that are here that we can– that are– we can do something with.” Like, so that was– they were trying to talk about wealth and utility. And it often took the form of marketable commodities. So for people in England, where– who were stripping their own forests of wood to make charcoal for early industry there, or for fuel for homes, I mean, you know, the– England was almost denuded of trees by the early 1600s. They were obsessed with the forest, for example. Typically, people also looked for precious metals and things like that, and listed them as things that they would find. But they, you know, they really thought about, really, a broad range of commodities and a broad range of raw materials in their laundry list of good stuff.”
Sound familiar? A wealth of natural resources in a distant place, there for the taking for anyone who can go and get it (and take it from anyone who might already be living there, of course). Meanwhile, back home, the mother country is squandering its own natural resources.
Resource extraction is a big part of the corporate plans for space. Asteroid mining, for example, is a baby industry right now, but a lot of people are excited by the possibilities. So this is a model of how a space economy might start: some people extract the resources, the minerals, the water, whatever. Other people get paid to transport it, or to provide services for the human workers. The space community sells those resources to Earth, and then buys stuff in return that you can’t get easily in space: like technology, maybe, or medicine. But it’s going to take a while for that system to balance out. For a long time, people are going to be pouring money and supplies into space without a big return on their investment.
Margaret Newell: “And colonization also involves a lot of supply problems. Like, how do you supply these outputs, too, right? So they’re very dependent, in fact, on commerce and trade and constant contact with whoever’s launching them. So this was as true in the 15th and 16th centuries as it’s gonna be true, you know– The ability of these places to become self-sufficient, you know, is always unclear and if they’re ever gonna get there, it’s still gonna take a long time. And there are gonna be long periods of dependency. And that dependency either has to be on the mother country or the Earth or whoever’s launching them, and/or indigenous life. So whether it means plant life, whether it means harvesting, you know, whether it means the water, whether it means the things one needs to subsist. As well as more complicating things like, you know, machinery, you know, iron, energy, you know. All these things that– either they have to be provided locally or they have to be shipped in. And shipping in is always really, kind of, complicated. So you’ve got this notion that somehow these new worlds supply– are gonna supply rare, unusual items. They’re gonna be places where you can conduct new kinds of industrial experiments. They’re gonna be places that you extract, usually commodities from. And you’re gonna take them home and process them and create wealth that way, too.”
But what if those rare, valuable resources aren’t enough? What if the system collapses before a space settlement has time to become self-sufficient? Space is dangerous and technology is fragile. Something could go wrong, and slow down production. Or maybe markets on Earth will shift, and demand for space resources will dry up. What happens to the settlers then? When colonies fail on Earth, colonists can starve to death. The same thing can happen in space, except it’ll happen faster, and it’s even harder to rescue the colonists and bring them somewhere safe. Will people on Earth fund the transportation of broke settlers back to Earth? Or will they just say, “You’re on your own.”?
But let’s go back to economics for a second. Margaret mentioned another potential source of value in space: It’s a new place, where the laws and restrictions on Earth might not apply. This is something that motivated European corporations coming to the Americas, too.
Margaret Newell: “They also thought about doing projects in the New World that were hard to do in their home countries. Because all of these European countries, even though the capitalist transformation was beginning, people still had– there were still customary rights and practices, and legal structures that prevented entrepreneurs or landowners from using their resources any way that they wanted to. There were rights to commons and land. So the, sort of, notion of private property had not completely developed. So there’s still restraints on what landlords could do… People couldn’t, in Europe, could not always deploy their resources to maximize profit, maximize extraction. This is also true for labor arrangements. There were all different ways in which labor and access to labor and the working lives of laborers were constrained by custom, as well. Sometimes this worked in the favor of labor, sometimes it didn’t work in the favor of labor, but it generally– I think people saw these new places, the New World, and maybe space in the future, as places where all of these rules were– all the rules were off, and, you know, they were– could construct– they could engage in kinds of activities that wouldn’t be limited by custom and practice, expectations at home. And that could, you know, lead to exciting experimentation or it could lead to, you know, naked exploitation.”
So here’s where I see a potential red flag: people talk about space like it’s this big blank slate. No rules, total freedom. But a lot of rules on Earth exist for a reason, to protect people. In particular, there’s a whole set of laws designed to protect workers from the corporations who might want to exploit them to make a bigger profit. These laws were written because of the exploitation that took place in the past, like the slave trade.
Margaret Newell: “So, there’s a lot of new research that talks about how labor is one of these areas which– that this new– this lack of constraint and custom in these places outside of the– outside of Europe was attractive. And, you know, people, companies– these trading companies that were also involved in India or involved in Africa, these are global companies and global interests are really consciously, you know, adapting new labor practices aimed at extracting more labor with less payment. And they’re limited in their ability– they try to apply those things at home, too, and they’re just– can’t quite do it to quite the same extent.”
So what are the potential labor rights issues lurking in space, waiting for someone to bring workers up there and start to exploit them for profit? I went to an expert for ideas.
Sarah Newell: “So, my name is Sarah Newell. I work at the International Labor Rights Forum, where I’m a campaigner. And we do solidarity work with labor rights organizations in global supply chains.”
There’s no direct relation, by the way, between Sarah Newell and Margaret Newell. Here’s a related fun fact, though: If you ask a historian if they’re related to someone, you get a delightful rundown of the history of their last name in Europe and North America.
Anyway, I wanted to know if there were any parallels between the modern-day labor rights battles going on and the future potential labor rights issues in space.
Sarah Newell: “So the best parallel I can think of is that space is a little like the ocean, on Earth. Where no one owns it, but it’s governed by series of treaties. And the real challenge is not getting good laws on the books, but enforcing them, because it’s so vast. So, for example, even if there’s great laws and all of the international labor organization treaties and the UN Guiding Principles are applied throughout the universe, say, in a dream scenario, they’re only as enforceable as it is easy and possible to get inspectors up there to verify labor concerns. And then of course, to be able to actually remediate those. And the distance just makes is more difficult.”
I asked Sarah for a specific example of the kind of exploitation you can get with workers in a remote, isolated workplace like the sea.
Sarah Newell: “So a situation at ILRF, the campaign we work on that I think is the closest is with migrant workers from Myanmar who work in the fishing industry of Thailand. So, what happens is, workers are trafficked over to Thailand, basically, a lot of times a recruiter will have them pay a fee, have them give their passport to the recruiter and they’ll say, “You’ll come to Thailand. You’ll work for two years, and then we’ll, you know, we’ll give you a bonus if you make it. And you’ll be allowed to go.” And workers come over there, and of course they don’t have their passport, but when they get there they’re told, “Oh, you owe us the money that we paid to bring you over here, and you have to work off your debt before you can have money.” And the real problem with the sea is that they can take these folks out on boats and keep them. I mean, you know, our partner on the ground, the Migrant Worker Rights Network, has introduced us to folks that have been stuck at sea for years. And the boat simply does not come back to port, and there’s no way to escape. Which makes me think of space, you know, if you can’t get a seat on the one shuttle or rocket that’s going back, you’re stuck with whatever situation– whatever your situation is. So, there’s a lot of rampant labor abuse on these boats, because if you have someone who you consider disposable, who, you know, you’re not paying anyway, and someone who doesn’t have any ability to report you, what’s your incentive not to work them as hard as you can to get the most money?”
And I guess that’s what I’m worried about. I’m not saying that the people who run corporations are inherently evil, but if the people in power are more motivated by profit than human life, what’s their incentive not to exploit their workers?
Like the sea, space is far away, hard to get to, and hard to monitor and police. And the workers will be living and working there, so they’ll be really dependent on their employers for transportation and, potentially, for life support. You can imagine the same scenario Sarah just described in Thailand playing out in space: You get a job as an asteroid miner, maybe a fixed contract for two years, and they take you up there, but then they just refuse to bring you back. And then you’re completely at their mercy. Sarah agreed that there are a lot of potential dangers for workers in space.
Sarah Newell: “So, I find the idea of space labor absolutely terrifying and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I read your email… So, the biggest issue we’re gonna face is if it’s going to be a corporate town, basically, or a corporate settlement as opposed to a government settlement, it’s gonna be difficult to impose, really, any laws, the same way it’s very difficult to impose laws on corporations down on Earth with all the freedoms and exceptions they’re given. So, I think we need to be really concerned about what labor frameworks will be in place by the time corporations take people up there.”
But it’s not just about having the laws in place. Laws don’t mean anything if they’re not enforced. And to enforce a law, you have to actually notice the crime, which will be hard if the abuse of workers is taking place so far away from governing agencies on Earth.
Sarah Newell: “And I think most people really believe in the terms of a contract. People believe, “If I sign a contract, or I have an agreement, you know, I can always leave, and always change my mind.” And when you have, you know, oppressed populations, that’s not always the case. There’s not a way to make them put you on a ship and take you home, like. Especially in the early days, you know, at what point is a police force or security force or any sort of enforcers going to be installed in sp– wherever in space you’re settling?”
Maybe the solution is just to not have human workers in space. A lot of people argue for purely robotic space missions because they’re cheaper and less risky, but maybe robot workers could solve the worker exploitation problem, too. Historian Margaret Newell says, maybe not.
Margaret Newell: “Well, I mean, and in space you have, you know, AI and robots, and it’s, you know, they think it’s gonna be without the human element, but I think the more we’re learning about AI, the more we’re realizing that there are ethical dimensions to AI and the use of robots as laborers, as well. Not to mention the fact that you’re always gonna need human beings to, you know, to direct, to supervise, to site, to do, you know, the human component is going to end up being essential, I think. And no matter what happens.”
So what can we do? How can we prepare now to build a system that protects our grandchildren from being exploited and mistreated if they choose to live and work in space? Sarah Newell has some great suggestions for us.
Sarah Newell: “So, I think in the immediate term, the most useful thing we can do is fight for better, stronger, standards, and better, stronger, enforcement mechanisms on Earth. Because, whatever systems companies adopt here, they’re gonna bring up there. And whatever, you know, solutions or international agreements we’re able to form here, it makes it that much easier to say, “Well, we’ve agreed to this standard for here. We should apply that in space.” So a good– one example, we’re working on a campaign around the International Labour Organization, where they’re considering adding an additional binding convention. They have 190 labor conventions. But they don’t have one that addresses violence against women yet. So we’re working on getting companies to adopt this convention. And ideally, I mean, I would hope that the International Labour Organization conventions would be applied in space in the same way, you know, they’re required for governments to comply with on Earth.
Sarah Newell: “So I think advocating for stronger standards here, and supporting workers as they organize here and supporting unions so that they can continue to organize. Because unions are going to be the protection in space. Especially when you are so far away from your government and so far away from your state and your family and you connections, you are gonna need a union that is prepared to fight for you and that keeps track of you being up in space, and keeps track of your contract and, you know, all of these different things.
Sarah Newell: “And then the second thing, the more long-term thing, I think people can do is, when they’re considering going up to space, don’t go up without a union. And understand your rights and what you deserve. A lot of time, labor abuse continues to be perpetrated because people think it’s legal. They don’t know that they’re allowed– they’re not allowed to be treated like this. You know, that you should never surrender your passport to an employer and that as soon as they ask for your passport, you should know they don’t intend to give it back. So, yeah, I think having folks go up with a little bit of knowledge and not relying on the assumption that everything is going to work out there in the same way it works on Earth, because it– like the sea, it’s a little like the wild, wild West.”
So what do you think? How can we protect space workers who will be at the mercy of their employers for their survival and transportation? What happens if there’s a downturn in the economy, or a bad year for crops, and the people in a settlement can’t afford to eat? Should we stick with the capitalist system that’s getting us back into space, or should we think about other options? Join the conversation on Facebook at facebook.com/makingnewworlds. Or hit us up on Twitter @makingnewworlds. You can also visit our website at makingnewworlds.com. And please don’t forget to rate and review this podcast on iTunes!
If you’re interested in early colonial history, economics, and labor, historian Margaret Newell has two books for you, From Dependency to Independence: Economic Revolution in Colonial New England, and more recently, one called Brethren by Nature: New England Indians, Colonists, and the Origins of American Slavery. You can find out more about the International Labor Rights Forum at laborrights.org or on Twitter @ilrf. Sarah Newell encourages you to get more involved, if you’re interested.
Sarah Newell: “And we always want to connect with folks and get involved, so if they’re interested in these issues, they should learn more about our sea program.”
Next week, we’ll be talking about crime in space. Will we have space police to enforce the laws? What will we do with people who break the law? Will we build space prisons? Ship them back to Earth? Withdraw TV-watching privileges? Or do we need to change the way we think about crime in our new societies? Join us next week.
This has been Making New Worlds, a podcast by me, Erika Nesvold. Our intro and outtro music is by Herr Doktor.