Ep 06: Who’s in Charge?

Who will make the decisions in future space settlements? Will they be governed remotely by nations on Earth? Will settlements develop their own local governments? How will conflicts between settlements and with nations back on Earth be resolved? Are we facing a future of war in space?

Space lawyers Laura Montgomery and Christopher Newman join us again to talk about how current and future laws might regulate behavior in space. Historian Lauren Benton describes how empires in the past governed their remote colonies. And anthropologist Brian Ferguson discusses the potential for war in space.

The transcript for this episode is below.

Imagine this: Life is pretty good in space. You just got a promotion at the mining company, and the new restaurant that opened in your section of the habitat makes kebabs that you swear are even better than the ones back on Earth. But things have gotten a little tense around the neighborhood. Everyone’s arguing about the water supply issue. The farmers have been arguing for a bigger share to keep up with demand, but the power plant engineers say they can’t cut their usage without risking outages. Somebody’s going to have to make a decision. But who?

Welcome to Making New Worlds, a podcast about the ethical issues involved with settling space. I’m Erika Nesvold. Today we’re asking, who’s going to be in charge of our space settlements? Will they be ruled from a distance by governments back on Earth? Will they have local governments? How will they be structured? How will they deal with conflict, both within the settlement and with other settlements and countries on Earth?

Let’s check in with current space law. You might remember from Episode 3 that we talked about the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which covers things like property ownership and the use of nuclear weapons in space. The relevant part of the Treaty for this episode is Article VI, which says that “The activities of non-governmental entities in outer space… require authorization and continuing supervision by the appropriate State Party to the Treaty.” Non-governmental entities means people like you and me and Elon Musk. Space lawyer Laura Montgomery, who talked to us in Episode 3, points out that no one really agrees what “authorization and continuing supervision” means.

Laura Montgomery: “And the question is, is whether that requires a heavy regulatory hand, or nothing, which is my own view, in terms of what the private sector can do under current law.”

Laura argues that interpreting Article VI to mean that Earth-based governments should regulate every possible activity that could be done in space would be unnecessarily expensive and overreaching.

Laura Montgomery: “And right now, you know, Congress is looking at whether to pass a law requiring that everything you do in space be authorized and supervised. And we have– there was a proposal from the previous administration that would have had everything you did in outer space be authorized and supervised. And, I’m being a little sarcastic here, but I do think that we should first federalize Connecticut and see how that works out before we go and federalize the entire Solar System. So I would rather see a more limited approach than one that just said, “All space activities.” I think that’s biting off more than anyone can chew, and is perhaps a waste of resources, because there’s a whole host of activities that are completely harmless and benign that do not require governmental oversight.”

It remains to be seen how the Outer Space Treaty will be interpreted by the courts as more and more activity moves into space in the future. But let’s take a moment to look towards the past. Unless this is your first episode of the podcast, you’ve probably noticed that I like to get a historical perspective on the issues we talk about to see how people handled things in previous generations. For this topic, I talked to historian Lauren Benton.

Lauren Benton: “I’m a historian and am the Nelson O. Tyrone, Jr. Professor of History and Professor of Law at Vanderbilt University… I do research on the history of empires, with a special emphasis on European empires, and then also a focus on law in European empires. How it is– was used in the formation of colonies, in interactions with indigenous peoples, and in inter-imperial relations.”

I started off by asking how empires governed their remote colonies in the past.

Lauren Benton: “It’s difficult to reach broad generalization about this. I can tell you about some of the patterns. It– There are some similarities based on their familiarity with Roman law, for example, as the basis for making claims. They also had a lot of, and relied on a lot of the routines that they used in governance at home, and constituted their settlements as extensions of the realm or in some cases, as– They were all composite polities, that is to say, they were kingdoms made up, in some cases, of many realms, and so it was not that unusual for them to imagine rule of some sort over a distant realm that had different governance. And so they innovated a lot, as they created these systems of rule… It was very interesting in the history of colonization that none of the powers engaging in colonization actually had a very clear-cut constitutional or governance model for how they were going to do this. So really, they were shifting all the time. They would kind of create a certain framework for governance in the colonies and then forces would come to light that would cause those– that framework to need to be adjusted. So, for example, as elites in the colonies got more powerful and wealthier, they would place demands to have greater autonomy and in some cases were successful in changing the very framework of governance for the colonies. And in other cases, they just took more autonomy.”

On the one hand, a flexible, adaptable, make-it-up-as-you-go-along approach to government would fit right in with the spirit of the tech culture that’s dominating currently the conversation about corporate space settlement. On the other hand, it could also result in the wealthiest people in a society taking more and more power. Will that be at the expense of the rest of the population? And where does that kind of power shift lead?

I’m an American, educated by the American school system, in which the American Revolution is kind of a big deal. Also, I watch and read a lot of science fiction. So when I think about the governments of future space settlements, my thoughts naturally turn to independence. I mean, let’s get to the good stuff, right? When will our imaginary space settlers decide to throw off the yoke of oppression and declare themselves independent from Earth?

When I asked my guests a more professional version of that question, however, they poked some holes in my image of a space revolution as inevitable. Here’s Laura Montgomery.

Laura Montgomery: “But– could I say something here? At the beginning, when someone goes to Mars, it’s going to probably be a corporation. It is going to be a corporation with its assets on Earth. And if it is doing something that violates actual laws, and, you know, I have a limited view of what the actual laws are, then its assets can be attached, it can be fined, by the government here on– by governments here on Earth. So I think it will be a long time before we see any kind of declarations of independence. But then, it was a long time between Christopher Columbus and 1776, too, so. Time does pass.”

Okay, sure, so initially, people living in space will have a lot of reasons for wanting to maintain good relations with Earth. Their assets will still be back on Earth, along with their families, their national identities, not to mention all of the supplies that they’ll need to keep shipping to space until they’re able to become completely self-sufficient, which will likely take generations.

Lauren Benton agreed.

Lauren Benton: “I’m guessing that space colonies are not going to want to go independent. They’re going to have a lot of incentive not to be independent, right? They’re going to maintain– And really in that way, they will be more similar to overseas colonies where elites really dreamt, very often, of returning home with their fortunes and sending their children back home to be educated and marrying people back home and trading back home.”

Lauren pointed out that this idea of independence as the natural and inevitable end goal of colonies is not supported by historical evidence.

Lauren Benton: “I actually think it’s a little bit of a– an odd impression that people sometimes have, that independence was the central preoccupation of people in colonies. In a lot of cases, that was not the case, right? They were— there were a lot of worries on the part of European rulers about settlements becoming not so much independent but acting independently. That is, you know, rulers doing things that had not been specifically sanctioned, making up their own foreign policy, these kinds of things. But the worry about breakaway independence was, you know, for a long period of time, I would say, not as important as we might think. Particularly Americans who are focused on the American Revolution tend to view this as the, you know, most central preoccupation of colonies. But after all, the colonies very often depended very much on trade and on– Their elites depended for advancement, for social advancement, and economic advancement, on the home country. They’d look to the monarchs for patronage and so they were referring all the time and writing all the time to the kings to proclaim that they were doing a great job and really should be rewarded for it… It was extremely rare for people to just say, “I’m no longer in the empire. I’m not longer a loyal subject of the king.” This was true even of people we tend to think of as rogue actors in the early modern period, in and around colonies, like pirates. We tend to think of pirates flying the black flag and attacking anybody in sight, but most people who were labeled pirates always were, themselves, very careful to be claiming to act on behalf of a particular sovereign. And sometimes they changed their idea or– they literally changed the flag to indicate that they were acting for one sovereign rather than another, but they very rarely put up the black flag. That was something that happened during a very short period of time. Most people were representing themselves as loyal subjects of some power at all times. That might happen in the future of space colonization. I would think it would happen— be more likely to happen than have people go rogue, because, particularly out in space, with the dependence one would have on supplies and communication and– I don’t think going rogue would be much of an option.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that there will never be conflict between space settlers and governments back on Earth. But history suggests plenty of outlets for that kind of conflict that don’t include taking up arms and designing a new flag.

Lauren Benton: “There was a famous phrase in the Spanish empire. In Spanish it is, “Obedezco pero no cumplo.” And that means, “I obey but do not comply.” So there was an interesting game that very often governing elites would play, where they would receive instructions from the home government, the metropolitan government, and they would sort of do what was asked of them, or pretend to do what was being asked of them, but not very effectively, not very quickly. And in some cases they had delaying tactics. And this is something you might see in the future of space colonization. They were very far away, so they could always ask for clarification. So, they would write back and say, “We’re not really sure what you meant by that. Could you give a little more specificity there?” And they knew that it would be months for this message to travel back to Spain or to England or France and then months more for the answer to come back. So just by that very delay, they were gaining a lot of time during which they could do what they wanted.”

For the record, now that Lauren has brought it up, I 100% believe that space settlers of the future will pull this trick. It seems like the perfect use of the communications delay that people living beyond the Earth’s orbit will have to deal with.

Lauren also discussed another potential source of conflict, aside from disagreements between a settlement and their parent government on Earth.

Lauren Benton: “I would put that to one side, and if I could, I would mention another element of strife, which I think might play itself out in the future in space colonization and was very present in the history of colonization. And that is conflict among and between empires for claims to colonies and settlements. That kind of conflict— about which power had the right to settle areas, which power had the right to control trade in and out of particular ports— that kind of conflict was very, very present. And European used certain kinds of conventions for attempting to deal with that conflict, not always successfully. But that was the main focus, I would say, of colonial governance right up until the end of the 18th century.”

Given that humanity’s big initial push into space was driven by the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, it seems like a safe bet to predict that in the future, conflict will arise between nations on Earth about resources and territory in space. Just because corporations are currently dominating the conversation about space settlement doesn’t mean that governments won’t get back into the game. If the U.S. and China both put colonies on Mars, will tensions between the two countries on Earth extend to space? What about vice versa?

War in space is scary to think about, mostly because it’s even easier to kill large groups of people in a fragile environment like a space habitat than it is on Earth. Just cut off their supplies, contaminate their water, poke a big hole in the dome or space station or underground habitat and let all the air out. And the people back on Earth won’t be much safer if war moves into space. Before you even start worrying about nukes or giant lasers, remember that a space rock wiped out the dinosaurs. Someone in space who wanted to attack a city on Earth could literally just drop a rock on it.

So is this our future? Is war in space inevitable?

Brian Ferguson: “People tend to think that we’re always going to have war, even war in outer space. And one of the reasons they think that is they think that war is inevitable, it’s in our nature. And they think it’s in our nature in part because they think that humans have always made war.”

This is Brian Ferguson, professor of anthropology of Rutgers University Newark, who studies the anthropology of war.

Brian Ferguson: “This has been a lot of my research over recent years. And although you will find many people who argue that the archaeological record suggests that we find war everywhere we look in the past, I can tell you quite definitely that that is not the case. People who seem to find everywhere they look are looking at cases where war is present… What’s very interesting, I think, is that you see some places where all the preconditions would seem to indicate war is going to be present, and yet war is not present in the archaeological record. For instance, I have written about an area called the Southern Levant, which is the Mediterranean, the eastern Mediterranean coast area that’s wracked by war now. And the incredible thing, I believe, is that from 13,000 BC to 3,200 BC, there is not one single place where you can say that war was present. There’s a couple of suspected places, but nothing that’s definite. And in other parts of the world, definite evidence is abundant. And what I think you can discern there is that those people, the people who domesticated plants and animals, also found ways to domesticate conflict. Conflict always exists. It will always exist. But there are violent and nonviolent ways of dealing with conflict. And for about ten thousand years, those people were able to deal with conflict, which certainly existed, without going to war. So if you get rid of the idea that war has always been there, and if you get rid of the even worse, and I think less sustainable, idea that war is somehow programmed in our genes– Not that we don’t have an ability to go to war, obviously we do under a number of different conditions. But what I don’t think you can argue, if you look at the scientific evidence, is that we have some internal disposition to prefer solving problems by killing members of other groups. And if you don’t have that, then you can imagine a future without war. Not something that we’re going to see in our lifetime, probably, but something that we can see in our children’s or grandchildren’s lifetime.”

So, maybe revolution isn’t inevitable. Maybe war isn’t inevitable. Maybe our future in space is a peaceful one? I have to admit, this episode turned out to be a lot more optimistic than I expected. But it’s not just a matter of imagining a peaceful future. The majority of us grew up in cultures built on violent conflict. It will take a lot of hard work to move beyond that, and constant vigilance. I talked to Brian about what to look out for.

Brian Ferguson: “There’s not one single cause of war. But what I see in looking across all these different cases– What I look for are commonalities that you can generalize beyond the particulars of any par– any single case. And one generality, I think, is that there is a very common intervening variable. It’s not what generates the conflicts in the first place, but it can make the difference between war and peace. And that is the political self-interests of those who make the decisions to fight or not to fight, those who are advocating going to war. And what I see, going from the Yanomami Indians of the Venezuelan rainforest to modern nation-states, is that you very often have leaders who see war– or maybe they’re not even anticipating actual war but the steps up to war– as something that benefits their internal, their domestic position within a political system. And they are advocating more bellicose strategies but– and this is another generalization– they never, ever speak of it in terms of their own self-interest, they always talk about it in terms of what is right, what is wrong, according to the values and understandings and current perceptions of their own society.”

Brian echoed Lauren Benton’s prediction that conflicts between nations on Earth could have an impact on settlements in space.

Brian Ferguson: “And I would bet that if you have divisions on Earth that have outposts in space, those outposts in space will be very charged symbols for those back on Earth. They will be– Like you very often will find in ethnic kind of conflicts today, people will talk about “the motherland” or “the fatherland” or “the blood that saturates our soil.” And in the future it may be, “the danger to our brave pioneers in space.””

So what can we do to leave war behind on Earth as we move our civilization into space?

Brian Ferguson: “If we want to keep war from space, we have to defeat war on Earth. And while we can’t see that happening now, that has to be the objective of people in the decades and centuries to come.”

Brian suggested a few different concrete steps we can take to decrease the likelihood of war both in space and in the future on Earth.

Brian Ferguson: “Formats of ritual integration– And ritual integration doesn’t necessarily have to be religious, but participating in joint endeavors where common humanity is recognized. I tell my students that they don’t remember this at the beginning of the United States’ thaw with China began with a ping-pong match… We have to foster legitimate authority. The U.N. is a great step to this, there’s a lot of problems with the U.N., international criminal courts. But these have to develop more over time. We have to work on developing legitimate– what are recognized as legitimate means of conflict resolution when there are disagreements, that these can be brought to a place that both sides can agree will treat them fairly.”

Historian Lauren Benton also pointed to international law as an advantage we have in the modern age compared to the past.

Lauren Benton: “We have international law now. We did not have something recognized as international law in the early modern world. We had certain conventions, we had certain examples in Roman law and canon law for transpolity legal arrangements. And there was a practice of people trading across lines of culture and religion. But we didn’t have anything recognized formally as international law. We do now. So, I would think that it will become very important for people to develop the international law of space… Questions about nationality and citizenship are also ones that are going to continue to be important. So you’ll have this, inevitably, I think, combined operation of international and domestic law and unfortunately, that means that there are going to be problems and conflicts, and that, too, is probably inevitable in the future of space.”

Space lawyer Christopher Newman, who talked to us about crime and justice in the last episode, also says that codifying your values into law is a vital step when setting up a new society.

Christopher Newman: “From a legal point of view, my suggestions would be: you need an enduring constitutional approach. You need a constitution and a basis of laws that has buy-in and acceptance from a broad amount of the population. Not everyone’s going to agree on everything, that’s the nature of humanity. But essentially, you need a system, a fundamental system of governance that’s accepted from, you know, from Day 1… Building a colony where people arriving into that colony or people being born into the colony will be inculcated with this– the values, and be infused with the values that the basic constitutional documents hold. I mean, I think, you know, you’re speaking to an English lawyer. We don’t have a written constitution. So, you know, but I can’t see a colony emerging like that, I think there will need to be some form of written constitution… Do we want to start afresh? Do we want to actually sit down and think, what are our fundamental values? I think that that’s probably the area– the way to go. Because then you will get the– it will become almost as I said, like an infusion. You’ll get a constitution infused with national values and diverse values, but you’ll also get a constitution that’s fresh and a constitution that’s able to deal with the specific environment that they find themselves in.”

And this was the last step in anthropologist Brian Ferguson’s suggestions for reducing the likelihood of war in our society: Focus on your values. Decide what kind of world you want to live in.

Brian Ferguson: “And another is value systems. You know, I am not, myself, a pacifist. But I do think that war, generally, is– produces bad results. I think sometimes war is necessary, but it is to be avoided if at all possible. And the value system that we have is one right now that I think is fairly militaristic, that the idea of just blasting ‘em out of the sky is something that appeals to lots of people. And there’s no surprise in that. We get a nonstop diet of it in media, in video games, and– The alternative of finding that something that, “I just don’t like and I don’t want to see those movies, and I don’t want to play those games,” and “No, I don’t think it’s cool to bomb the hell out of somebody, I’m not gonna cheer that tagline.” This is something that happens at the level of individuals and the only place that we’re going to be able to– No one’s gonna wave a magic wand. The struggle is something that has to be waged over the long term by lots of people and lots of small-scale interactions who can visualize the possibility– which right now, a lot of people can’t– of a future without war. We had a past without war. It’s not in our genes to make war. So we can envision a future– And how we could get there, you know, don’t know how and don’t know when. But the possibility exists. And that, I think, is something that we need to encourage people to recognize.”

What do you think? Who will make the decisions in space settlements in the future? How will we resolve conflicts between settlements, or with nations back on Earth? Will our legacy in space be a peaceful one, or a violent one?

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!

Laura Montgomery can be found on Twitter @lauramontgome18. Christopher Newman is on Twitter @ChrisNewman1972. Lauren Benton has written many books, including one called A Search for Sovereignty: Law and Geography in European Empires, 1400-1900, which she recommends as an interesting read for anybody interested in space and colonization. And Brian Ferguson is looking for prospective students interested in learning more about the anthropology of war:

Brian Ferguson: “I’m the director of a graduate program in Peace and Conflict Studies here at Rutgers in Newark. And we’re not against conflict, we understand that conflict is the way change happens. But what we try to do here is, we try to study and learn about how different kinds of social processes lead to different patterns of conflict and cooperation. And ways that can steer away from violent confrontation, either before it happens or after it happens, towards a nonviolent way of dealing with social conflict. So it’s something that we’re working on in our courses here, we’re trying to develop the ideas better and trying to pass them along to students. Just on the idea that conflict’s not bad but violent conflict is very destructive and we can learn to handle it better.”

This is our last episode of the year. We’ll pick back up on January 3rd, when we’ll be talking about the challenges of reproduction and raising children in space.

This has been Making New Worlds, a podcast by me, Erika Nesvold. Our intro and outtro music is by Herr Doktor.