• Patrick Cox

Man on the moon vs mine on the moon

The bullshit of sustainable development has a new, final frontier.

The BBC today reports on Chinese scientists' discussion of the possibility of using the moon as a source of materials for use on earth. The Chinese state has been steadily building up its ability to put people and objects and space, as befits an emerging global superpower. The moon - that big bright object in the sky that everyone can see - has been earmarked as a potentially "beautiful" strip mine. Very rare minerals like Helium-3 might provide the necessary components for nuclear fusion reactors. The speculation is therefore that plundering the only natural satellite that earth has would provide free, unlimited energy for humans, for perhaps 10,000 years. So we could then leave all the lights on (and the air-conditioning!) all of the time. Professor Ouyang thinks this would be "sustainable development".

This attitude towards the moon speaks of a fundamentally irrational relationship with the cosmos. The logic of hyper-capitalism demands ever greater production and consumption in a self-engorging cycle. The very real and present danger faced by humanity is that although classical economics allows for infinite economic expansion, the biosphere we are all perched upon does not. The earth has a very great many cycles, chemical, ecological, meterological, that interact in such a way that provides the conditions for life to exist. Scientists who specialise in the study of one of these cycles tend to ignore, through necessity, the interactions with all the other cycles. Otherwise it would simply be too complicated to begin to comprehend. This is a crudely put version of James Lovelock's famous Gaia thesis. The earth is a complete organism, and one that has limits.

Originally Gaia, in these terms, was conceived of as benign - something in the way that the English Romantic poets saw nature. Latterly the idea has been challenged, or rather the notion that the system is self-regulating or stable, which wasn't really what Lovelock was saying in the first place. It doesnt really matter. What does is the understanding that the earth is a closed system. Gravity ensures that this is the case. Material may move through different parts of the system, but the remain within it, somewhere. The very great danger would be to introduce on any great scale material or energy that would change the components of the system. There is absolutely no knowing, and no way of predicting using the scientific method, what would be a tolerable level, and of what materials. Even if limitless exploitation were possible - what would happen once the moon was expended as a useful resource. The idea of 'peak moon' is too crazy to contemplate.

The only other period of space exploration was driven by the chauvinistic competition of Cold War. Landing on the moon was an exercise in flag-planting one-upmanship, with some scientific discoveries added in for good measure. The fringe benefits were the genuine awe and wonder they inspired and the knowledge that planet earth was a fragile and beautiful homeland for all human peoples. Neil Armstrong inspired whole generations, and then went off to play golf.

We can only hope that the Chinese plans are state-prestige bolstering fantasies that won't come to fruition. Certainly the technical and technological difficulties of mounting such operations in a period of dwindling resources are fairly gargantuan. But it's telling that we would even consider putting mining scars on the face of our planet's orbitary companion.


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