- At 7 July 2000
- medium Opinion
After-Dinner Speech to the Biennial Conference of the International
Society for Ecological Economics
7th July 2000, Parliament House, Canberra
Let me begin by welcoming our international visitors to Australia. I hope
you are not having too much difficulty with the language. Australian
English − sometimes called Strine − takes a bit of getting used to. A few
weeks ago, I spent a couple of days in Nadgee Nature Reserve on the far
south coast camping with some ecologists from the National Parks and
Wildlife Service. They were conducting a small mammal survey. The
group included a visiting ecologist from England, and one day as he
headed to the pit toilet, one of the laconic Aussies called after him:
“There’s no date role in the long dropper, mate”.
As you have probably by now discovered, Australians have a peculiar
penchant for abbreviation. An exhibition becomes an ‘ecka’; a costume a
‘cozzie’; spaghetti bolognaise is ‘spag bol’, and so forth.
So if an Australian says to you: “Feel like slipping over to the Bot Gards
for a lammo this arvo?” this translates as: “Would you like to visit the
Botanical Gardens for a cake covered in desiccated coconut this
afternoon?” The correct answer is: ‘No wuz’.
Of course, Australian slang is not the only specialised language that
verges on the incomprehensible. Take this gem from a recent issue of our
“… based on an epistemological systemic coevolutionary world
view as an analytical perspective device, recent work from Brown,
Naem et al., and Holdgate backs the general systemic point that the
more positive externalities are produced by the elements of a
system, the more energy reserves are left for potential
I am reminded of a study some years’ ago that estimated the average
number of people who read each article in scientific journals. The answer
is approximately 1.3 people. While many articles are read by several
people, and a few by hundreds, a large number are read by nobody but
their authors. That’s excluding the editors. A large number of lone
authors in this room, including myself, owe a great debt to Robert
I’m sure Ecological Economics scores much better than most journals.
Many of us are here after years of struggle trying to stay focussed while
reading some of the heavy-duty economics journals. As someone said:
Mathematics gave economics not just rigour, but mortis as well.
Tonight I would like to talk about something completely different, an
issue that may turn out to be the last frontier for environmentalists. We
are now accustomed to thinking of the environment on a global scale –
ozone depletion, climate change, and so on − but perhaps it is time to
begin thinking beyond the Earth.
I have been doing some research into the human use of outer space. I was
moved to do so by a comment made by Vigdis Finnbogattodir, the former
President of Iceland, at a seminar in Copenhagen last year. After
speaking about the problems of space, she posed what struck me as a
simple but profound question: “Who will take responsibility for outer
When we turn our attention to what is happening in space, we find the
same old attitudes that are the bane of environmentalism − space is
viewed as an infinite exploitable resource and a limitless junk yard. Even
more disquieting, space is seen by some as providing a refuge for humans
should Earth become uninhabitable as a result of ecological catastrophe.
We are now seeing the gamut of human exploitative activity played out in
space, and I prophesy that we will see the phases of the environmental
struggle on Earth rerun in space, as if everything we have learned on
Earth has no bearing on the big ecosystem in the sky.
Space is being used as a rubbish tip and is increasingly talked of as the
scene of a new Eldorado for rare metals. We can expect to see a boom in
space tourism, and all of the evils that go with it. And when the problems
become so bad that one person’s activity is impinging on the profitability
of another, we can be sure that economists will enter the fray to provide
Let me comment first on our solar system as an unregulated dumping
ground. For decades space agencies have been using the cosmos as a
junk yard. NASA now has a sophisticated monitoring program just to
keep track of space debris. There are around 400,000 pieces of space
debris that NASA can see and more than a million smaller pieces, the
detritus from dead satellites and discarded rocket stages, from large
lumps of metal down to flecks of paint.
An object as small as one centimetre across, travelling at an orbital
velocity of 28,000 km/h, has enough kinetic energy to knock out an
average-sized spacecraft. US Air Force Space Command now catalogues
and tracks 8,000 larger fragments so that it will not mistake the re-entry
of a piece of orbital debris for an incoming ballistic missile that triggers a
Some debris is deliberately dumped in space − redundant rocket stages,
defunct satellites, wayward lens caps and dead batteries are simply
abandoned. In 1990, the space shuttle recovered an old satellite and
brought it back to Earth. Careful analysis by NASA scientists showed
that it was speckled with urine and faecal matter that had been jettisoned
by previous US and Russian space missions.
If ever you wondered what happened to astronauts’ waste products, now
you know. As in Victorian London, it just goes out the window. Of
course, the First Law of Thermodynamics tells us it won’t just disappear;
it goes into near-Earth orbit.
A turd, travelling at an orbital velocity of 28,000 km/h, is not to be trifled
with. Next time you lie back on the beach at night and gaze at the
firmament − perhaps reflecting on James Joyce’s words “The heaventree
of stars hung with humid nightblue fruit” − you might also reflect that
nightblue fruit is not the only thing hanging in the heaventree of stars, and
hope that it burns up on re-entry.
As we have come to expect, the first answer of the authorities to the
proliferation of space junk is not to stop making waste but to build
barriers between the rubbish and us. The International Space Station − a
multi-country venture due for completion in 2004 − now incorporates a
special space shield, known as a Whipple Bumper, to reduce the chances
of a serious collision over its life. Use of the Whipple Bumper is
expected to reduce the odds of a collision to one in ten. The Space
Shuttle now flies backwards once it is in orbit because the engines at the
rear are no longer needed once the shuttle is in space and can be used to
absorb the impact of debris hitting the shuttle.
Various schemes have been proposed for dealing with the problem of
space junk, including construction of a garbage-collecting spacecraft,
building lasers to vaporise debris (Ronald Reagan liked that one), and
pushing dying spacecraft further out into so-called graveyard orbits. It’s
all so familiar isn’t it? Real end-of-pipe mentality. The garbage tip
smells so build a wall around it. When the wall fails, move the tip somewhere else.
As space-based activities expand, there is a growing danger to the Earth’s
biosphere arising from activities aimed at sending objects into orbit.
Areas of the Earth have become toxic wastelands. In one of the worst
affected areas, spent booster stages from the Russian Tyrantum Space
Centre crash back to Earth in Siberia. Many of the chemicals used in
rockets are extremely dangerous to humans. For example, heptyl, one of
the most toxic chemicals known and several times deadlier than phosgene
gas (a banned chemical weapon), is used in rocketry and is spread over
large areas. The carcinogenic compound UDMH is used in virtually all
storable liquid rocket engines.
It is estimated that two percent of Russian territory is dangerously
polluted by detachable spaceship parts and heptyl rocket propellant. One
of the results is the phenomenon of ‘yellow children’, children suffering
from pathological jaundice, anaemia and disorders of the central nervous
system. Many villagers in the Altai region of Siberia can name local
people who have died or become severely ill after contact with rocket
Falling rocket parts often cause forest fires in Siberia. When falling
boosters burst into flame on impact, the remaining heptyl is converted
into new chemical compounds that may be up to 10 times as toxic as
heptyl itself. More than 50 million acres in Russia, and 200 million acres
in Kazakhstan, are thought to be polluted by chemical fallout from
rockets launched from Russian cosmodromes. Although several types of
US and European rockets use the same types of hazardous fuels as the
Russians, they are launched over the ocean in order to limit the effects on
The problems associated with rocket launches are expected to multiply.
In 1996, only about 50 working satellites circled the Earth. But business
is booming. Around 100 rocket launches each year are expected.
Recently, Microsoft’s Bill Gates announced plans to launch at least 200
new Teledesic satellites to create an ‘Internet in the Sky’.
Of greater concern perhaps is the proliferation of nuclear material in orbit
around the Earth. In August 1998 NASA executed a flyby manoeuvre by
the Cassini space probe which carries 33 kg of plutonium. Cassini
approached the Earth at a speed of more than 133,000 km/h and passed us
a little more than 1000 km above the South Pacific Ocean. According to
NASA’s own Environmental Impact Statement, a collision with the
Earth’s atmosphere would have seen Cassini release 400,000 curies of
plutonium as fine particles which would more than double the amount of
human-made plutonium in the atmosphere. The global health effects
would have been severe. Fortunately, it missed.
The risk of contamination from radioactive substances is greatest during
the launch of satellites. The Mars 96 space probe was launched carrying
9.2 kg of plutonium, but the space craft went out of control before it
could reach Earth orbit. It re-entered the Earth’s atmosphere on
November 17, 1996. US Space Command, which tracked the route of the
craft, claims that it fell intact into the sea off the coast of Chile.
Eye-witnesses, however, reported that they saw the craft falling in the
border area between Chile and Bolivia where it disintegrated and burned.
So far, no proof for either version has been presented although it would
be reasonable to assume that the 9.2 kg of plutonium vapourized in the
A new issue is the emerging interest in disposal of high-level nuclear
waste by launching it into space. Research papers analysing the business
case for this potential new use of space highlight two major benefits: the
permanent removal of high-level nuclear waste from future generations,
and decades worth of large payloads guaranteeing a market for launch
The view of space as an infinite dumping ground for extremely hazardous
materials manufactured on Earth raises serious ethical concerns. If the
idea works out, it would certainly put paid to the proposal by Pangea to
build a repository for nuclear waste beneath the deserts of Western
The enormous expansion of private sector investment in space-related
activities is the dominant trend at the moment and will undoubtedly give
rise to intense pressures for unfettered access to space for commercial
purposes. At present most interest is in the use of orbital space for
communications – satellites now play a crucial role in television,
telecommunications, remote sensing and GPSs.
There is little doubt that in a decade or two space tourism will became a
must for the trendy rich, bored with private tropical islands and Antarctic
flyovers. People are already booking seats to the Moon on the Space
Shuttle − think of the frequent flyer points. One has to ask whether the
lessons of tourism on Earth have been learned.
Expeditions are now sent to Mount Everest to clean up the cans and other
waste discarded by climbers, just as you can find rubbish along the
walking tracks of the Tasmanian wilderness. Trekking trails in the
Himalayas have been denuded of firewood by Westerners in search of the
inner snow leopard, so that impoverished villagers often have to walk
several hours to find their basic energy source.
In a decade or two, will we watch documentaries about the Sea of
Tranquillity littered with beer cans and discarded film canisters, covered
with a layer of heptyl from rockets blasting off, and criss-crossed by
roads made by lunar buggies carrying wealthy tourists in floral moon
suits? And, at the risk of being too scatological, what about the effluent
from moon tourists − what are the physics of septic systems in low-gravity environments? The mind boggles.
With all of these pressures − waste disposal, toxic pollution, non-renewable resource extraction and so on − we urgently need an ecological
economics of space, if only to pre-empt the neo-classicists. One can
imagine how conventional economics would handle it.
Perhaps we should ask Gary Becker to develop it for us. You will
remember that Becker used the paraphernalia of maximising behaviour,
market equilibrium and stable preferences to analyse the marriage market.
After many pages of mathematical rigour, he ended up describing love as
‘non-marketable household commodity’ and concluded that marriages in
which there is more loving behaviour generate more utility for each
partner because love reduces the costs of policing the marriage.
We may laugh at this, but in 1992, for this and related work, Becker was
awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.
It will not be too long before the World Bank gets into the act. Space is
the perfect place to send all of humanity’s wastes. After all, Lawrence
Summers, when chief economist at the World Bank, argued that rich
countries should ship their toxic wastes to poor countries, writing in an
internal memo that ‘the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic
waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable’ and that ‘under-populated countries in Africa are vastly UNDER-polluted’. How do we
know this? Because in poor countries, Dr Summers wrote, the forgone
wages from illness and early death are so much less than in rich countries.
As far as we know, there is no-one in space whose welfare would be
diminished by dumping plutonium there, no ET whose earning capacity
would be diminished or whose willingness to pay to avoid our waste can
be elicited using a contingent valuation survey. So let’s go for it. The
only barrier is one of cost, and the more we make our way up the
marginal damage curve here on Earth the more attractive it becomes to
convert Challenger into a rocket-propelled dumpster.
Of course the answer to the question of the optimal use of any resource is
the proper allocation of property rights. Gary Becker would divide the
universe up into sectors and auction them off for exclusive use. You
could pick up a galaxy pretty cheaply, or snap up signage rights on Mars.
What about sponsorships? We might gaze in awe at the Coca-Cola
Southern Cross, Tattersals Big Dipper or Cadbury’s Milky Way. Perhaps
− like recent dot com investors − you would prefer to put your money
into a black hole.
But watch out; there are traps for new players. As stars may die out
before their light reaches the Earth, you may find you have made a down
payment on a property that no longer exists; a bit like absolute waterfront
in Queensland. Caveat emptor. And let’s hope that an alien being does
not arrive to claim title to your galaxy or you will end up before the
Cosmic Court of Disputed Claims.
Obviously the price paid for space property will rise as the travel cost
diminishes, so you can expect to pay a premium for acreage on the Moon
and Mars. In fact bargains are still available. According to Ad Astra, the
magazine of the National Space Society − a surprisingly influential
organisation dedicated to furthering the exploration and development of
space − a Californian entrepreneur named Dennis Hope is already selling
1800-acre plots on the Moon.
Mr Hope’s claim to the Moon is based on a letter he wrote to the UN
claiming title to it. He has declared that, since he received no reply from
the UN, he assumes that no-one disputes his claim. The plots sell for
$15.99 plus ‘lunar tax’ and shipping. Obviously the price of $15.99 was
set after careful market research indicated that many buyers would be
deterred by a price at or above the critical psychological threshold of $16.
Thousands of people have already invested in Mr Hope’s lunar real
estate. In addition to legions of Star Wars devotees, buyers include
luminaries such as Ronald Reagan, Harrison Ford, David Letterman and
Tom Hanks. This is a true story. But storm clouds are gathering. Space
lawyer Declan O’Donnell is threatening a legal challenge to prevent Mr
Hope from further sales, arguing that the lunar real estate venture is a
scam, one that may deter legitimate attempts to establish private property
rights over the Moon.
Segments of the space development lobby believe that private property
should be established through homestead rights, or squatting as we know
it in Australia (no problem with terra nullius there). Whoever gets there
first and establishes a base should be able to claim ownership of the land,
According to some activists, the US should simply pass a law directing
American courts to recognise any extraterrestrial land claim by any
private entity that has established a settlement. One space entrepreneur,
Jim Benson, believes it should be easier still: rather than having to
establish a human settlement, if someone can put a robot on a celestial
body such as an asteroid and bring back mineral resources then they
should be able to claim title to it. Jim Benson is planning to do just that
and has declared: “If the U.N. doesn’t like it, they can send a tank up to
my asteroid …”. There are probably a few people in the UN who would
enjoy sending a tank up Mr Benson’s asteroid.
Human settlement of space is high on the agenda of some groups.
According to the National Space Society, which is also committed to the
colonisation of space by humans:
When space colonization was first suggested, it was considered a
bizarre notion just this side of science fiction. The idea that people
could have an interesting life in a space station was seen as
unlikely. ‘Who’, we were asked, ‘would want to live in such a
The NSS adds with out any apparent irony:
Nowadays, of course, the proliferation of integrated shopping/
entertainment/residential malls answers that question: lots of
They have a special message for members of ISEE:
And it should be easy to persuade those who celebrate
‘biodiversity’ that the ultimate biodiversity consists of life
spreading throughout the solar system and beyond.
Somehow I don’t think that this was what those in Rio who formulated
the principles of sustainability had in mind.
So that’s about it. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. But space
exploitation is a serious business, and it’s getting seriouser by the day.
Someone sooner or later is going to have to do something to bring some
sense to the situation. Part of the problem is that, unlike
environmentalism on Earth, we lack a philosophy and ethics of how
humans should approach space. We are still driven by the beguiling
fantasies of Stephen Spielberg and George Lucas that take us beyond the
moral universe of earth-bound beings.
Someone needs to found a new NGO to answer Mrs Finnbogattodir’s
grand question: Who will take responsibility for outer space? There is
only one answer to that question. You and I must take responsibility,
because at the moment it is run by cowboys, entrepreneurs, generals and
pork-barrelling politicians. So I am thinking about taking a deep breath
and making that one small step. If you also think it is time, perhaps we
can get together.