Monday, September 13, 2010

How to really save the moon

Science writer Alan Burdick wants to "Save the Moon." Excerpt:
The moon, already busy with probes and satellites, will surely get busier. At least five countries aim to send astronauts there in the next 10 to 20 years. Valuable minerals, including helium-3 and perhaps uranium, await exploitation. Lately when the moon hits my eye, it looks the way Antarctica looked not so long ago: like both a natural marvel and a tantalizing morsel, rich with subsurface resources -- if only we could easily extract them. So I'm thinking: what the moon needs is its own Antarctic Treaty. Make it off-limits to everyone but scientists. Let's save the moon, before it's too late.
In other words, "save the moon" so it can be the exclusive province of a tiny handful of scientists. This is grossly inequitable (what about the rest of humanity and the moon's many possible uses?) and also ultimately self-defeating. It would leave the moon subject to the Tragedy of the Commons where the lack of ownership provides incentives to misuse and abuse assets. In fact, such problems have been manifest in Antarctica, as well as in the oceans, in the atmosphere and in debris-cluttered low-Earth orbit.

A better approach: allow property rights on the moon (as I discuss here and here). Yes, there should be nature reserves, parks and heritage sites (and a thriving ecotourism industry to support them). But there should also be areas open for mining helium-3, digging up material for solar arrays -- make the moon part of an extraterrestrial clean-energy industry -- and more. Save the moon by regulating its uses and by making it economically valuable.

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