Politics in outer space
November 24, 2012 3:51 AM   Subscribe

What would politics in outer space look like?

I was looking at the Rockwell International Integrated Space Plan and it got me wondering on how we would organise ourselves once we are settled or in the process of settling in outer space.

According to a few treaties settled in the 1960s, it was declared that outer space will only be used for peaceful and mutually beneficial purposes, but past and current activity in space relations doesn't seem to be heading in that direction at all (space race, high levels of secrecy surrounding the launch of unmanned objects into space, nations signalling interest in the militarisation of space i.e. Star Wars). That, and the fact that there is a massive amount of precious metals, solar energy, and thus also a huge potential for industrialisation in outer space probably means it will be quite difficult to separate politics from the development of human settlement in outer space.

Even if countries were able to put aside their self-interests, it would only last until the point when markets/systems of organisation develop, and politics would come into play again. It's interesting to think of what could happen: the treaties could be repealed, or the whole of settled outer space would be established as separate and disconnected from the earth (wouldn't be desirable), or there would be some new kind of politics made to bridge the "gaps" between earth relations and space relations.
posted by espada0 to Law & Government (13 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
My guess: It will follow a similar track to the internet, where the pioneers create a social structure with its own rules of behavior, and then as more and more people get involved/move to space, it will mirror whatever's going on in Earth-politics, albeit with pervasive elements of the "pioneer mindset".
posted by dubold at 4:24 AM on November 24, 2012

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy covers this.
posted by empath at 4:43 AM on November 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

Kim Stanley Robinson's Mars trilogy covers this.

And then is taken up substantially in 2312! It's an interesting idea, and I'm not sure how realistic, that once you put people at distances that are difficult to reach that they will then separate themselves into political entities. But not unlikely.
posted by RJ Reynolds at 5:05 AM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

This is hard to answer because people don't always act in their own best interest. If you're mining an asteroid and someone else starts mining the other end, do you go shoot them for claim jumping? The old west mindset is yes, but the scope and scale of things is more like fighting to the death in an environment that would, itself, cheerfully kill you, because someone was getting a drink of water out of lake Huron, and Dammit! you claimed lake Huron!

Also, in space it would be wicked hard to sneak up on anyone actually looking for you, so until there's enough traffic that you could easily pretend to be someone else, space piracy is pretty much out.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:06 AM on November 24, 2012

I think the answer will depend on who/what effectively colonizes space first. Colonization via corporate/commercial interests will probably result in a form of governance far different than colonization via an "Oklahoma Land Rush" type of scenario.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:33 AM on November 24, 2012

There's a book called Gradisil that handles this in a fairly interesting way. The first third or so is about a small group of hobbyists establishing a semi-permanent orbital settlement using a new technology that lets any aircraft essentially float into space based on some sort of electromagnetic principal. They start out fiercely defending their independence, but eventually have to cooperate with fledging government colonies that use the same technology and are much better equipped.

The plot hinges on the idea that travel into Earth's orbit becomes easy enough that anyone with sufficient resources could do it, but if you accept the premise it's a cool look at a fledgling orbital society.
posted by anaximander at 6:01 AM on November 24, 2012

Some prereqs, under the assumption that we don't find a way to violate the known laws of physics, but do continue to make steady progress in faster-stronger-cheaper - Though seriously moving beyond the Earth/Moon neighborhood will likely require a major (though not impossible) advance in energy production, something akin to the Mr. Fusion:
  1. You can't hide (though you can effectively run as long as you have power)
  2. You can't sneak up on someone (as Kid Charlemagne pointed out)
  3. "Exile" becomes viable again, but not without giving away millions of dollars worth of gear (unless intended as a death sentence)
  4. Communication has a significant delay...
    • At typical Star Trek ship-to-ship encounter distances, you'd have half a second of lag - Doesn't sound like much, but VERY disruptive to the flow of a conversation
    • At interplanetary distances, you have delays of 5-20 minutes(inner solar system) to hours (Uranus to Neptune in opposition takes seven hours)
  5. Actual physical travel (including non-beam weapons) has delays of days to months (currently, years)
  6. Beam weapons don't work well at interplanetary scales
  7. It takes a lot lower tech to shoot a vehicle down than it does to cross interplanetary space and successfully land a live crew
  8. Help will not come, and even if it does, it would only really serve to ID the bodies
Use of military force becomes something of a non-starter, because of points 5 through 7 above. Terrorist attacks, however - even "little" ones on the scale of a lone suicide bomber blowing up a bus - goes from a mere statistical blip, to ship- or colony-eradicating.

So, what would politics look like once we become a "real" near-space-faring society? On a large scale, it would look very slow and deliberate. Warm isolationism would become the default stance, as a simple practical matter. Short of trade agreements, neither side would really have much ability to force their position on opponents (and a completely dead opponent in a smoking crater doesn't serve many political purposes). That said, we will have needed to solve most resource scarcity issues just to make travel around the solar system a reality; so, the single greatest large-scale threat will likely come from zealotism.

On local scales, humans would remain humans, and confined to much smaller spaces than does our psyches good. Imagine the self-organization of the "inmates" of a typical US highschool, and you'll probably have a pretty accurate picture.
posted by pla at 7:35 AM on November 24, 2012 [2 favorites]

I'd expect a lot of tension between the colonies or other settlements and the governments along the mother planet. Almost the "state's rights" arguments we see in the States, though probably closer to those from the 1800s (I'm not talking about slavery at all, just in general) simply because of the time delays in communication and travel. Like "What do those Washington bureaucrats know about life out here on Centauri IX?" So a strong push for local self-government, if not outright independence, feels about right to me, barring advances in communication and technology that make things less isolating.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 7:57 AM on November 24, 2012

The UN Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (COPUOS) is a good place to start. They have a list of all the current UN, multi-lateral, and national regulations on the activities in space, as well as transcripts of the current debates on space issues. There are already some agreements in place on the exploitation of resources and liability of space activities.
posted by chrisulonic at 8:24 AM on November 24, 2012

Ian Banks has an interesting take on this in relation to the formation of the culture - nuwen.net/culture.html - a combination of internal dependance and always being able to move away shaping the way people relate to each other.
posted by Gilgongo at 8:40 AM on November 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Also check out the International Institute on Space Law. Some of these issues are not hundreds of years ahead... for instance space debris is a problem that people are worried about now: the unregulated junk that lots of countries independently shoot into space that has the possibility of destroying us all eventually, in a high speed explosive avalanche of doom.
posted by kellybird at 10:54 AM on November 24, 2012

We can't possibly know. Compare the Treaty of Tordesillas with how power and politics actually unfolded in the Americas and how are they politically organized today. At the time, England wasn't even a player. Any current international space treaty is equivalent to Tordesillas, for all we know Africa might be the dominant world power 500 years from now, and space might be governed by African law.
posted by Tom-B at 6:33 AM on November 25, 2012

I think in the near term the existing agreements are likely to hold. Look for practical analogs in places like Antarctica. Resource extraction is the probable spur for any changes in law or practice and any new regime would only come about after a serious conflict that the existing one could not resolve. We'll likely see outer-space disputes resembling the South China Sea and the Falklands -- as much the early history as the more recent.

The Falklands were claimed successively by Spain, France, and Britain, flags were planted, temporary whaleship supply depots and settlements were built, and then they began kicking each other off the archipelago until Britain finally scared off everyone else. So, stuff like that.

A lot of it is going depend on whether there people live someplace permanently, or how valuable a resource is found and how economical it is to extract.

The next big shift after that will be when the people living there want more autonomy or independence.
posted by dhartung at 9:03 AM on November 25, 2012

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