The Ethics of Asteroid Mining


Asteroid mining spacecraft

Asteroid mining spacecraft (Photo credit: Wikipedia)


While asteroid mining is still the stuff of science fiction, Google’s Larry Paige, James Cameron and a few others have said they intend to get into the business. While this might seem like a crazy idea, asteroid mining actually has significant commercial potential. After all, the asteroids are composed of material that would be very useful in space operations. Interestingly enough, one of the most valuable components of asteroids would be water. While water is cheap and abundant on earth, putting into orbit is rather expensive. As for its value in space, it can be converted into liquid oxygen and liquid hydrogen-both of which are key fuels in space vessels. There is also the fact that humans need water to survive, so perhaps someday people will be drinking asteroid water in space (or on earth as a fabulously wasteful luxury item). Some asteroids also contain valuable metals that could be economically mined and used in space  or earth (getting things down is far cheaper than getting things up).

Being a science fiction buff, it is hardly surprising that I am very much in favor of asteroid mining-if only for the fact that it would simply be cool to have asteroid mining occurring in my lifetime. That said, as a philosopher I do have some ethical concerns about asteroid mining.

When it comes to mining, asteroid or otherwise, a main points of moral concern are the impact on the environment and the impact on human health and well being. Mining on earth often has a catastrophic effect on the environment in terms of the direct damage done by the excavating and the secondary effects from such things as the chemicals used in the mining process. These environmental impacts in turn impact the human populations in various ways, such as killing people directly in disasters (such as when retaining walls fail and cause deaths through flooding) and indirectly harming people through chemical contamination.

On the face of it, asteroid mining seems to have a major ethical advantage over terrestrial mining. After all, the asteroids that will be mined are essentially lifeless rocks in space. As such, there will most likely be no ecosystems to damage. While the asteroids that are mined will be destroyed, it seems rather difficult to argue that destroying an asteroid to mine it would be wrong. After all, it is literally just a rock in space and mining it, as far as is known, would have no environmental impact worth noting. In regards to the impact on humans, since asteroid mining takes place in space, the human populations of earth will be safely away from any side effects of mining. As such, asteroid mining seems to be morally acceptable on the grounds that it will almost certainly do no meaningful environmental damage.

It might be objected that the asteroids should still be left alone, despite the fact that they are almost certainly lifeless and thus devoid of creatures that could even be conceivably harmed by the mining. While I am an environmentalist, I do find it rather challenging to find a plausible ground on which to argue that lifeless asteroids should not be mined. After all, most of my stock arguments regarding the environment involve the impact of harms on living creatures (directly or indirectly).

That said, a case could be made that the asteroids themselves have a right not to be mined. But, that would seem to be a rather difficult case to plausible make. However, some other case could be made against mining them, perhaps one based on the concern of any asteroid environmentalists regarding these rocks.

In light of the above arguments, it would seem that there are not any reasonable environmentally based moral arguments against the mining of the asteroids. That could, of course, change if ecosystems were found on asteroids or if it turned out that the asteroids performed an important role in the solar system (this seems unlikely, but not beyond the realm of possibility).

Naturally, the moral concerns regarding asteroid mining are not limited to the environmental impact (or lack thereof) of the mining. There are also the usual concerns regarding the people who will be working in the field. Of course, that is not specific to asteroid mining and hence I will not address the ethics of labor here, other than to say the obvious: those working in the field should be justly compensated.

One moral concern that does interest me is the matter of ownership of the asteroids. What will most likely happen is that everything will play out as usual:  those who control the big guns and big money will decide who owns the rocks. If it follows the usual pattern, corporations will end up owning the rocks and will, with any luck, exploit them for significant profits.  Of course, that just says what will probably happen, not what would be morally right.

Interestingly enough, the situation with the asteroids nicely fits into the state of nature scenarios envisioned by thinkers like Hobbes and Locke: there are resources in abundance with no effective authority (“space police”) over them -at least not yet. Since there are no rightful owners (or, put another way, we are all potentially rightful owners), it is tempting to claim that they are they for the taking: that is, an asteroid belongs to whoever, in Locke’s terms, mixes their labor with it and makes it their own (or more likely their employer’s own). This does have a certain appeal. After all, if my associates and I construct a robot ship that flies out to asteroid and mines it, we seem to have earned the right to that asteroid through our efforts. After all, before our ship mined it for water and metal, these valuable resources were just drifting in space, surrounded by rock. As such, it would seem that we would have the right to grab as many asteroids as we can-as would our competitors.

Of course, Locke also has his proviso: those who take from the common resources must leave as much and as good for others. While this proviso has been grotesquely violated on earth, the asteroids provide us with a new opportunity (presumably to continue to grotesquely violate that proviso) to consider how to share (or not) the resources in the asteroids.

Naturally, it might be argued that there is no obligation to leave as much and as good for others in space and that things should be on a strict first grab, first get approach. After all, the people who get their equipment into space would have done the work (or put up the money) and hence (as argued above) would be entitled to all they can grab and use or sell. Other people are free to grab what they can, provided that they have access to the resources needed to reach and mine the asteroids. Naturally, the folks who lack the resources to compete will end up, as they always do, out of luck and poor.

While this has a certain appeal, a case can be made as to why the resources should be shared. One reason is that the people who reach the asteroids to mine them did not do so by creating the means out of nothing. After all, reaching the asteroids will be the result of centuries of human civilization that made such technology possible. As such, there would seem to be a general debt owed to humanity and paying this off would involve also contributing to the general good of humanity. Naturally, this line of reasoning can be countered by arguing that the successful miners will benefit humanity when their profits “trickle down” from space.

Second, there is the concern for not only the people who are alive today but also for the people to be. To use an analogy, think of a buffet line: the mere fact that I am first in line does not seem to give me the right to devour everything I can with no regard for the people behind me. It also does not give me the right to grab whatever I cannot eat myself so I can sell it to those who just happened to be behind me in line. As such, these resources should be treated in a similar manner, namely fairly and with some concern for those who are behind the first people in line.

Fortunately, space is really big and there are vast resources out there that will help with the distribution problem of said resources. Of course, the same used to be said of the earth and, as we expand, we will no doubt find even the solar system too small for our needs.

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  1. There is some fallback in international (space) law and mechanisms governments could use to restrict access to space resources (try launching a rocket without authorisation), so I am not overtly concerned about asteroid exploitation by private individuals. But laws would need to consider maintaining the mass of Earth…it would be rather bad if adding masses of material to Earth we moved a bit from our orbit around the sun!

  2. Mike;

    Interesting post, I happened to be a science fiction aficionado.

    Reading this article, I wondered like you, who owns the space resources? Specifically what are the philosophical ideas around property?

    This case is beautiful, in the sense that there is a whole universe that has no ownership, and as far as I know does not care about ownership. So what gives us the right to own it?

    I admire the entrepeneurship of these people and I truly hope they make a lot of money. If they succed, they truly deserve it and they will met a future critical need, metals. But still the question remains who owns the universe, including our earth?

    How do we justify property? Do they own the asteroids? Do they own the profits taking into account they do not actually own the asteroids?

    I am puzzled so I would like to hear ideas.

    The point you make is very interesting; do they have to compensate mankind in some way? Certainly, they did not start from scratch, and if NASA space program helped them, do they have a responsability to the US taxpayers? At least not to ask for a loophole?

    In any case, I love what they are planing to do – I do not know at the moment of any harmful effects of their activity-, and I wish them a lot of luck and financial success.

  3. Who said that philosophy had nothing left to reason?

  4. Moving mass around the solar system has limits like peak oil, but greater potential for catastrophe. The stability of planetary orbits has complex boundaries, even with only 19,500 target asteroids classed as near earth objects by these proposals.

    Mapping the effect of each object’s absence is essential, if only to the orbits of other objects, let alone the addition of mass to the Earth.

    Luckily, prohibitive costs might push this project to a future point where more careful measurements are taken. I would hope too that management of resources on Earth could offset this unrestrained desire to strip mine the solar system.

    Rights follow the mighty and this attempt to avoid rare earth dependency on China will likely fail in the short term.

    Sometime, there will be a reappraisal of economic activity toward more sustainable ends. Until then, these pioneers bear responsibility for the welfare of all.

  5. Ethics is about humans. We invent ethics for ourselves. So in this regard I agree with some of your statements about the human impact of mining generally, whether on earth or on asteroids.

    We also invent ethics with regard to animals; mainly because we feel an empathy towards them. But that’s still a human ethics towards animals. We don’t expect them to develop and adhere to ethical standards, towards us or each other.

    Some tree huggers may invent their own ethics towards plants. That’s a bit tricky then for vegetarian tree huggers. But unless they go all spiritual on all plants I don’t anticipate many tree huggers protesting on behalf of that persecuted branch of the plant kingdom commonly referred to as weeds. And pretty much everyone else would write them off as nut jobs if they did.

    Of late (the last century mostly) we have become aware of and have started to appreciate much simpler life forms, such as bacteria. We appreciate them for the way they contribute to the whole life cycle; and even, as a generic life form, their historic evolutionary contribution to our own ancestry. But is anyone crying over the eradication (the force extinction, the genocide?) of viruses?

    And rocks? “That said, a case could be made that the asteroids themselves have a right not to be mined.” – FFS! On what possible grounds? Are we talking the inherent consciousness of the universe? God’s purpose for specific lumps of rock? You may need to give Deepak Chopra a call on this one, because I’m clearly out of my depth (of insanity).

    Really, a lump of rock in space is on a one way ticket to oblivion; destined to end up as star food, or black hole snack, or eventual cosmic fading to nothing. What possible unethical consequence for the rock could be imagined? Well, it would have to be imagined, with a very vivid imagination.

    I’ve just read Russell Blackford’s piece on Free Will by Sam Harris. He raises an objected I’ve seen before – Pat Churchland I think – that Harris has a simplistic view of ethics. On the contrary. Ethics is pretty simple in principle. All the complexity comes out of the fact that different humans have different opinions on specifics. Unless you believe in some objective morality (I accept that some do, though their reasons for doing so are weak) then it’s all a matter of preference: the choice between vanilla and chocolate, but with feeling. All the theoretical complexity of ethics is yet a further invention of s specific sub-set of humans – that comprising philosophers and theologians. And this piece is another fine example.

    This complexity gets confusing with topics like the environment. The only interest to us that the environment has is that it sustains us, along with the animals that we happen to care about. That’s it. We could do our very best to wipe out all life on this planet, and we’d probably fail. And given some life would probably survive we could be looking at a few short billion years before it erupts and flourishes again. But even if we succedded, so what? Are we so arrogant that we feel we have some special purpose, some special responsibility to sustain life? We sustain life so because we want to. We invent purposes for it, but there’s no evidence that we are driven to it by anything other than our evolved survival instinct, glammed up with that social invention, ethics. We get carried away with our central role and start imposing our feelings on vague notions like ‘the environment’.

    Don’t get me wrong. I have real human feelings towards my fellow humans; towards my pets; towards all animals; all life, including plants. I too am an evolved survival machine – I want to live, personally; and I want (though I can’t think why) the human race (or whatever it becomes) to go on for many more millennia. But I don’t suffer any angst as I sit in my garden worrying about the doomed weeds I see, much less about the lettuce leaf I’m chomping on at the time. And a rock is a rock.

  6. Although I am not a cultural relativist, I do endorse ‘species relativism’: As a species, we have the moral right to use any resource available to us in any way that will benefit us.

    There is, admittedly, a bit of vagueness in ‘species’ and ‘benefit’–in other words, fertile ground for philosophizing–but the verdict is clear after setting such aside: Asteroids are fair game.

  7. mm,

    Moving asteroids into earth orbit to mine them would have risks, as you noted. After all, an asteroid tug could fail and end up pushing a rock deep enough into the earth’s gravity well so that it would fall from orbit. That could be very bad if the rock is big enough. However, if the mining is done on site and only the mined materials are shipped back for use, then the risk would be extremely low. Naturally, there is also the concern that mining equipment could be used for terrorist or military purposes: dropping big rocks from orbit could do a lot of damage.

    There will be a high start up cost for mining, but once the operation gets going it could become viable. Once mining equipment can be made from materials that are mined, then the biggest cost (getting stuff into space) will be eliminated.

  8. Juan,

    Property is a tricky thing. 🙂

    In my opinion, which is probably wrong, Locke has one of the most plausible accounts. If we assume that everything is initially owned in common (or, in effect, that no one owns anything) and that each person “owns” himself/herself, then when a person “mixes” labor with the common resources, they become her property. For example, if we are shipwrecked on an island and you work hard making a hut, gathering coconuts and so on, then those things would seem to be rightfully your property. If I just sauntered along and said “hey, thanks for the hut and snacks” I would be stealing.

    Naturally, this simple (but appealing) model gets busted all to heck when things get more complicated. But the basic idea of “I did the work, so it is mine” is very appealing. Naturally, to match our capitalist system, it would be more like “I put up the capital, so it is mine.” This means, of course, that those who already have will keep on getting more (unless the screw up).

    Switching to practical matters, I would say that property is justified in terms of its utility in maintaining social order. Hobbes makes a pretty good case for this: if everyone owns everything and their is no private property, then this would generally be a “deathmatch” style scenario in which everyone fights for things. Once we make up the rules of property, we still fight-but more often in court than on the field of battle. And even our wars are more orderly that the state of war of all against all.

  9. Ron,

    And rocks? “That said, a case could be made that the asteroids themselves have a right not to be mined.” – FFS! On what possible grounds?

    While I do believe that such a case would be weak, at best, a good philosopher never passes on a challenge. And neither do I. 🙂

    The most plausible approach is to argue for indirect rights. Kant, when arguing about animals, contends that we have no direct duties to animals. But, treating animals badly would be likely to make a person behave badly towards other people. As Kant sees it, animals are just objects (they lack rationality and hence have no moral significance). Asteroids are also objects (they lack rationality) and if destroying them could make people behave worse towards other people, then the asteroids should not be damaged. Thus, they could be seen as having a right not to be destroyed.

    Not surprisingly, I think that busting rocks would not make a person bad-hence this would be a weak argument (but still an argument).

    Another option is to use an approach sometimes taken in both aesthetics and environmental ethics and contend that objects can have value in and of themselves. Just as damaging art would be wrong, so too would be damaging the environment-including the asteroids.

    While this does have some appeal (and is a case for not mining), it is rather weak. After all, even if we assume that asteroids have some sort of value in and of themselves as asteroids, this value would seem to be rather low. After all, they are just rocks in space-cosmic debris.

    As I said, a case can be made. Not necessarily a good case, of course.

  10. Mike: I would say that property is justified in terms of its utility in maintaining social order.

    This seems a dangerous way to justify something.

    What we appear to be saying is that ‘A’ is justified if it prevents us from doing bad things to each other.

    If we accept this as good reasoning, then it seems we would also have to accept a situation where, for example, some future state implanted microchips in its citizens forcing them to obey all of its commands. So long as it commanded its citizens to do good things to each other, your argument would seem to justify such a state of affairs.

    Do you agree with that?

  11. Dennis Sceviour

    There does seem to be something unsatisfactory about the principle of utility. Would it be justifiable to sedate an entire population with narcotics to eliminate social disorder? Property recognition may be necessary, but it needs another reason than the principle of utility.

  12. Ethically, this venture makes no sense. Its pursuit can only be explained from a monetization standpoint. Yet, the costs are so enormous, what chemical element absolutely needed in the industries of all of these investors, and being consumed at an exponential rate in new technology, could justify the endeavor?

    Answer that question, and you will know why I sold all of my Wall Street stocks and invested in physical silver (mostly ten years ago when it sold at $4 FRN an ounce, but also again when it temporarily dipped down to $25 FRN).

  13. Stark: I think everyone agrees that asteroid mining would only occur when the benefit outweighed the cost.

    Mike’s question seemed to be whether there were any other relevant concerns. You don’t seem to think that there are, and I agree. However, I bump into a fair amount of people who seem to think that any undisturbed natural setting has an intrinsic value that has to be taken into account…this is something I don’t agree with, and I was hoping that someone might step up to discuss it, but I guess not.

  14. I think that people should maintain sources of solutions. And as I’m a Christian, I believe Jesus when he said “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give back to God what is God’s”.
    Therefore all services need to be paid back or at least given thanks to.
    Now I dare to say that most people could not fully repay all of their sources of solutions yet, but maybe after asteroid mining we could focus on this issue more.
    The miners should give back to einstein for his invention in relativity, to Gandhi, Buddha, Jesus, and others for their peaceful works.
    By how much? Now the more advantage you get, the more you owe to your sources.

    In terms of who has the right to asteroids I believe that not all, but also not just those people. They are not the ones who do the work, we obey the law, we support science, we support democracy, we support humanity, our ancestors supported humanity, well some of them maybe. So basically these works should account for something. Unfortunately due to scarce resources people could not give thanks to every sources of solutions, but at least through asteroid mining, we’d had the chance to practice this in much better ways.

  15. Correction please, sorry. I should’ve said “They are not the only ones who’d accomplished the task” instead “They are not the ones who do the work”.

  16. Asur,

    I am willing to consider that an undisturbed natural setting could have intrinsic value. A plausible approach here would be one based on the sort of argument sometimes used in aesthetics to argue that art or beautiful things can have intrinsic value. In the case of something like the Grand Canyon, I’d be inclined to say that destroying it through mining would be wrong because of the value of the canyon. However, I would be hard pressed to properly ground the alleged intrinsic value of the canyon. It would be far easier to just argue that it has extrinsic value based on the potential and actual appreciation in regards to the canyon.

    Asteroids seem even more challenging to argue for in this regard. After all, they are rocks in space and seem to generally lack aesthetic value. Also, they do not seem to have unique features or qualities that would give them some sort of special status. And, of course, people do not visit them to experience their beauty (or lack thereof).

    All that said, if natural objects can have intrinsic value, then I would suppose that asteroids could have it as well. The challenge is trying to find some plausible foundation for this claim, at least when it comes to an asteroid.

    Like you, I was hoping that someone would bring just such an argument into the discussion. But perhaps the poor rocks have no defenders. I am tempted to blame the game Asteroids-so many people squandered their youth dumping coins into that arcade game to “kill” asteroids that most people are probably hardened against their plight. 🙂

  17. Dennis Sceviour

    I like the discussion of intrinsic and extrinsic value. There are lots of rocks around, but they do not have intrinsic value. However, if someone buys a pet rock at the store (they are for sale), then the pet rock has an intrinsic value. Perhaps an answer to get people interested in an intrinsic value for Asteroids would be to start an “Adopt an Asteroid” program.

  18. Dennis,

    I’d say that the pet rock still on has extrinsic value-the value it has is derived from the person valuing it.

    I’m impressed that they are still selling those things-I first saw them when I was a kid and even then I had enough sense to just capture and tame a wild rock rather than buy the pet.

  19. Dennis Sceviour

    “…extrinsic value-the value it has is derived from the person valuing it.”

    Where does this definition come from? I was of the opinion this was the definition of intrinsic value. In economics for example, extrinsic value is the market selling price of an item as opposed to the intrinsic holding value of an item to the owner.

    The approach you are taking is that a pet rock has no intrinsic value, which I assume you mean because a rock is an inert substance. I may agree that one should not attach an intrinsic value to a rock. I was being humorous about the “Adopt an Asteroid” program. 🙂 It would also be the Buddhist approach to not attach value to inert objects. However, how does another person distinguish the difference between the value of an abandoned rock and a pet rock, if the properties of both rocks are the same?

    In comparison, I was thinking of an ancient medicine bag, which contained sacred corn and owls teeth. The substance had no material value but was considered spiritual. That is, the spiritual value was the intrinsic value. Therefore, a pet rock would only have intrinsic value to its owner, until it was sold or discarded.

  20. Dennis,

    I’m going with my usual definitions from ethics, which could be wrong:

    intrinsic value: the worth of something is such that it is inherent to the thing or person and it does not depend on value derived from its use or being valued. That is, it is just valuable in and of it self. For Kant, we rational beings would have intrinsic value.

    Extrinsic value: the worth of something is such that it is external to the thing or person and it does depend on value derived from its being used or being valued. The tacos I am having for dinner would have extrinsic value. So to for pet rocks.

    But people use the terms differently and I do not claim to be exclusively right in my usage.

    Actually, I expect to see an Adopt an Asteroid program-you should start it now and make a fortune. 🙂

  21. Dennis Sceviour

    I make no sense of a definition that an intrinsic value depends upon it not being valued. There appears to be a bugbear in the philosophical definitions. All do not agree. J. S. Mill considered knowledge instrumental and not intrinsic, but G.E. Moore considered knowledge intrinsic. The Stanford article on Intrinsic Value states, “Kant is in fact discussing a concept quite different from that with which this article is concerned.”

    Intrinsic value should be of interest to philosophy since decision theory depends on it. Too many decision criteria are called intrinsic to ignore the meaning. It is important to reduce ambiguity. My examples above make sense to me, but we seem to be apart from a definition of intrinsic value.

  22. Dennis,

    Something that has intrinsic value can still be valued, but the idea is that its value does not depend on its being valued (it is just inherently worthy of being valued). This does strike many as odd,though.

    As you note, philosophers disagree a great deal about this matter-even what the terms mean. I usually go with Locke’s view here: we can use words as we please, but we just need to be sure everyone involved is aware of how we are using them. So, I should have followed my own advice and defined my terms in the post.

  23. Dennis Sceviour

    I am feeling more confident that I am on the correct track. I should also follow Locke and define the terms, even though others may not agree with them.

    Intrinsic value: the value attached to the properties that make the thing or person. The value derived from the person valuing it.

    Extrinsic value: the value of something external to the thing or person, and it depends on the value derived from others usage or valuation. The value others ascribe to the thing or person.

  24. As soon as I at first commented I clicked the Notify me whenever new comments are added checkbox and currently every time a remark is added I get four messages with the exact same comment.

  25. Click,

    I’m not sure what that would happen-my notifications just come as singles.

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