Clean Energy Insights

The Ethical Qualifications of the Protection of Outer Space

10 minute read

By: Catherine Lisama


Part of what drew me to the RE-volv Solar Ambassador Fellowship Program was a desire to learn more about energy equity. The Fellowship has allowed me to learn about how nonprofits, a group that had not been traditionally served by the solar industry, can access the benefits of solar through programs like RE-volv. This turned out to be only the beginning of my interest in ethical questions related to clean energy and climate. In my previous blog, I took on the question of whether or not individuals have an obligation to reduce their personal emissions. In this post, I will discuss the features of outer space that I think give it qualification to receive the same kind of ethical examination that we apply to in Earth environments. 

An environment is defined as “the surroundings or conditions in which a person, animal, or plant lives or operates” (Lawrence 429). I do not argue that space is an environment, but that despite its categorization, there are ethical qualms we must follow in the regulation of space. I don’t think that the definition of an environment needs to be extended to include space for us to have some ethical obligation to protect it. Even if space is not to be considered an environment, from an anthropocentric, or human-centered, perspective, the parallels of space to Earth environments and the values it provides for us is enough to create an urgency for its protection. This global commons argument is also applicable to internet access, which just like space is not an environment.

My argument adheres to the following logic:

  1. Space, just like in Earth environments, is a global commons that rely on a collective effort to regulate.

  2. There are many stakeholders that rely on the integrity and health of space since it is a global common. 

  3. If (1) and (2) are true, that means space needs to be regulated and protected. Thus, space should receive a similar ethical examination that terrestrial environments receive. (pp. 1-2)

If this argument is correct, then the unrestricted development of space - to be specific between the Karman line, “~80 - 100 km above Earth’s surface,” and the geosynchronous orbit, “at ~36,000 km”-  would be considered immoral. Now we will consider whether my argument is defensible.


A Global Commons Off the Globe 

First, I will address (1) of my argument. The global commons as defined by the Oxford English Dictionary is “the earth's unowned natural resources, such as the oceans, the atmosphere, and space.” Within this definition, space is already included. However, I want to explore the implications of what it means to be a global commons: that is space is susceptible to the tragedy of the commons, a situation where a good is depleted or exploited by individuals out of their own self-interest, to the point of ruin. “Whether or not space is formally and legally seen as a global commons, the growing commercial exploitation of what may seem to be a ‘free’ resource is in fact externalizing the true costs” (Lawrence 428). Our continual placement of anthropogenic objects, like satellites, and pollution in space, especially in the low-Earth orbit (LEO) has effects both beneficial and adverse for all people. These large satellite constellations are good for collecting data and monitoring the Earth which give us the predictive capacity and understanding of the world we live in. Additionally, “Satellite constellations could greatly improve communications and ongoing monitoring of Earth phenomena [and] the potential to offer global connectivity through low-cost high-speed broadband internet” (Venkatesan 1042-3). These are services that everyone can benefit from, and can provide Space the foundation as a global good. Acknowledging space as a global commons, the alteration of which can affect other environments, aside from our own, requires a set of laws, created with an ethics based mindset and international cooperation, that offer concrete accountability metrics (Venkatesan 1046). In this aspect, the challenge of regulating Space is clearly a collective one, which parallels our environmental questions regarding Antarctica and the deep oceans. 

Aside from its parallels to established environments, the regulation of space can also be viewed from a similar perspective to that of the regulation of the internet. Although the internet is not an environment, its identity as a global commons and its ability for both benefiting and harming users and non-users alike make its supervision necessary. Space’s distinction as a global commons can be challenged due to its inaccessible nature. It requires a substantial amount of financial capital as well as expertise to even have a chance at going to Space, which undeniably limits many countries from partaking in Space exploration. On a smaller financial scale, infrastructure and money also inhibits internet access. In fact, a third of the global population still doesn’t have internet access (Pelchen), but it’s still considered a global commons. We need to decouple the idea of access to Space with traveling to the moon and exploration, since “it is not necessary to be in Space to be interacting with it” (Lawrence 429). Many people have some relation to Space, whether it be scientific, aesthetic, or spiritual, similar to how we can have connections on those levels with Earth environments, even Antarctica and the deep oceans. This leads to (2) of my argument. It is pertinent to consider the many stakeholders that rely on the integrity of Space. 


Who Owns the Night Sky?

Maintaining access to the night sky is pertinent in astronomical studies as well as the star maps that indigenous peoples use for navigation. “The consequences of the current and proposed growth of satellite constellations have a direct cost from repeating or extending observations, wasting scientist’s time and even negatively affecting their careers” (Lawrence 432). Additionally, “...for many Indigenous people, the night sky is an active and vital part of culture, storytelling and inheritance from one generation to another” (Lawrence 432). However, unlike in scientific settings, “...cultural practices with the night sky are in real time and cannot utilize filters or software to remove low-Earth orbit satellite constellation trails and interference with observations” (Venkatesan 1047). In this way, the unchecked proliferation of manmade objects in Space seems to repeat the lack of consideration for indigenous people’s interests that parallel colonization of terrestrial environments. “The rush to claim near-Earth Space is leaving out the world’s most minority communities, including Indigenous peoples, who need to be involved as stakeholders in decision-making” (Venkatesan 1043). Furthermore, it is important to consider the risks involved in making Space more densely populated, which increase the likelihood of collisions between objects in Space as they become closer in range with one another. “The end point of this process might be Kessler Syndrome…, an unstoppable cascade of collisions that might render parts of the orbital environment completely unusable” (Pultarova). This endangers all the scientific values that we derive from Space, innovations that we likely don’t want to lose access to. These all exemplify the value that Space has for a diverse group of people.

 Still, some may say that without the living organisms and the relationships between biotic and abiotic, Space lacks intrinsic value and thus doesn’t qualify to have the same ethical considerations as Earth environments. However, I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I think that similar to Antarctica, Space can be seen as a sort of wilderness, pristine and untouched for the most part, due to its vastness. I think there is intrinsic value in the physical inaccessibility of Space that triggers a desire to conserve it.

Taking Collective Action

If my above defense of (1) and (2) stand, then it follows that Space requires a collective effort, one of an international scale, to properly maintain it. This collective action necessitates the same ethical lenses used in the decision making of how to address our environmental issues. For example, I would like to make a case for the narrow distinction between our atmosphere and Space. Specifically I am going to explore the environmental concerns of the ozone layer which is in the stratosphere, around 15-30 km above the earth’s surface. The ozone layer is considered an environment, but I argue that it isn’t much different from the LEO in that it isn’t habitable by most organisms. Humans and other large organisms don’t live in the ozone layer. However, like Space, the ozone layer is a global commons and provides some sort of service to humans and its destruction hinders those services. When such destruction occurs, like the appearance of holes in the ozone layer, it needs to be acknowledged as a collective issue that requires deliberation and cooperation on an international level. The only thing that separates the LEO and the ozone layer in this case would be its proximity to the Earth’s surface. 

In conclusion, despite whatever distinction we place on Space as an environment, Space does require the same ethical examination applied to terrestrial environments. I’ve defended this through an anthropocentric lens, which may be the framework required to argue for the regulation and protection of space. That is, Space’s identity as a global commons and the dependency humans have on the integrity of Space give it the value necessary to be deemed an entity that needs to be maintained. This relies on a collective, international effort to preserve its just accessibility to all, both for space exploration by countries and individuals and for people who have indirect connections with Space through astronomical observation, aesthetic enjoyment, or cultural practices. Thus, I conclude that these measures of human value give Space the qualification for the same ethical considerations that we give Earth environments.

I’m grateful to the RE-volv Solar Ambassador Fellowship Program for giving me a platform to explore these ethical questions. What do you think - what qualifications are necessary to justify whether space should be protected?

About the Author

Solar Ambassador Catherine Lisama is a senior at Stanford University studying Earth Systems: Energy, Science, and Technology and Computer Science. She is interested in learning about renewable energy and transitioning the grid. Her hobbies are playing golf, baking, and watching anime.


Works Cited

Pelchen, Lexie. (2024). “Internet Usage Statistics In 2024.” 

Pultarova, Tereza. (2023). “SpaceX Starlink satellites had to make 25,000 collision-avoidance maneuvers in just 6 months — and it will only get worse.” 

Wonderopolis. “Can Germs Live In Outer Space?”

Lawrence, Andy, et al. (2022). “The Case for Space Environmentalism.” Nature Astronomy, Vol 6, 428-435.

Venkatesan, Aparna, et al. (2020). “The impact of satellite constellations on space as an ancestral global commons.” Nature Astronomy, Vol 4, 1043-1048.

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