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.