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Nobody Owns the Moon: The Ethics of Space…

Nobody Owns the Moon: The Ethics of Space Exploitation (2015)

by Tony Milligan

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This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Tony Milligan is a teaching fellow in the Department of Theology and Religious Studies at King's College in London. He has become known for his work in the area of animal ethics and space exploration, and so it is no real surprise that he penned Nobody Owns the Moon, a book examining the ethics of space exploration and exploitation. In this book, Milligan tackles a wide array of questions concerning human exploration of space, and what humanity's ethical obligations are when it comes to using the resources to be found there, and what responsibilities humanity has to be curators of what we may find, be it alive or otherwise.

In Nobody Owns the Moon, Milligan begins his inquiry from the ground up, so to speak, starting with the fundamental question of whether space exploration itself can be ethically justified at all, specifically focusing on whether manned space exploration is justifiable. By starting at such a fundamental level, Milligan indicates that he is going to tackle the questions at hand without presuming that anything is justified. Instead, Milligan works through each issue with as few preconceptions as possible, examining both the arguments for and against the proposition being examined. This can seem frustratingly indecisive at times, because with most questions there is no clear cut answer one way or the other, because there are pros and cons to every position. The end result is that for most such questions, the answer lies in choosing which is the best of a flawed collection of alternatives, not in choosing the one that is clearly correct.

Milligan is also concerned with only dealing with questions that result from actions that are within the realm of possibility. To this end, he spends a fair amount of time examining the question of whether terraforming a planet to be more Earth-like is possible before he gets into the question of whether it is ethical. As he points out, examining a question that could never possibly come to pass is simply idle speculation. To a certain extent, almost all of the questions Milligan addresses in the book are somewhat hypothetical - no one is currently actually mining asteroids or terraforming Mars, but as he outlines in the book, they are all within the realm of reasonable possibility, and thus it is worthwhile to consider their the ethical implications.

The topics covered by Milligan in Nobody Owns the Moon are wide-ranging. In many ways, this book covers the topic of space ethics in breadth rather than in depth, touching on issues from the ethics of terraforming celestial bodies to the ethics of multigenerational starships, with a broad collection of topics in between. In each case, Milligan makes an assessment of what the possible harms that could result from humans undertaking the proposed action, and then examines the justifications for doing them anyway. In some cases, Milligan points out potential harms that one might not have even considered to be harms. For example, while almost everyone agrees that humans have an ethical duty not to destroy extraterrestrial life should we find it on some planet or asteroid, but Milligan also considers whether humans have an ethical duty to preserve the very places themselves, regardless of whether they support life or not. If this seems strange, consider whether humans would be ethically justified in destroying the Grand Canyon, or destroying Mount Kilimanjaro. If not, then why would destroying Mons Olympus or the Mariner Valley by terraforming Mars be any different? As is usual for Milligan, the answers he comes up with for these questions are complex and at times, inconclusive, but ultimately thought-provoking.

Perusing the acknowledgements page reveals that three of the twelve chapters were originally published separately, as academic works, while other portions were formulated during formal and informal discussions. To acertain extent, this reveals the reason for the only true weaknesses of the book, which is that the material is sometimes presented in a moderately disjointed fashion, as the author darts from one topic to the next. The other weakness is that Milligan seems to repeat himself on occasion, covering the same issues more than once, and using the same language and thought-experiments to do so a couple of times. In the end this is a minor flaw, however, a tiny blemish on an otherwise beautiful and compelling piece of work.

To a certain extent, reading this book is a painful experience for a science fiction fan. By turning his eye upon many of the possible activities that underlie many of the treasured tropes of the genre, Milligan reveals that many of them are ethically dubious at best, and in some cases nigh impossible to justify. This is, of course, somewhat disappointing to science fiction fans - after all, if someone tells you that the heroes of the stories you love may have been behaving unethically when they launched themselves to the stars on a generation ship, or terraformed Mars and set into motion the destruction of its natural wonders, one is understandably a bit concerned. All of those stories about colonizing the Moon, mining the asteroids, and otherwise exploiting space at the very least raise some ethical questions that most stories (and much of the genre) have simply glided past without much in the way of self-reflection. On the other hand, the ideas presenting in this book seem like they could serve as useful inspiration for some new and insightful stories in the hands of the right author.

Nobody Owns the Moon is a good introduction and overview of the field of space ethics. Straddling the middle ground between the technical writing of academia and the simpler prose of "popular" ethics, this book has enough detail to be interesting, but not so much dry and abstruse analysis as to make it opaque to the lay reader. Reading this book won't make one an expert in space ethics, but it will likely provide enough basic information to allow one to be able to follow a discussion of the subject. Overall, this is an excellent place to start one's foray into the field of space ethics, and well worth reading.

This review has also been posted to my blog Dreaming About Other Worlds. ( )
  StormRaven | Feb 9, 2017 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
Nobody Owns the Moon by Tony Milligan reads like a secular humanist view of life and space exploration. The author presents a number of hypothetical questions concerning the value of human life as opposed to alien life with the presumption that human life has a duty to prolong the survival of humanity.

Beginning with problems related to microbial life Milligan states that “if microbes happened to have more than marginal value and if they might actually be there, it would then be best (at the very least) to cordon off several significant areas of pristine Martian territory” (p 23). If history serves me correctly, this was done with the American Indians with disastrous results.

Throughout the book he speaks of humans as moral agents without any recognition that morality has to have consistent standards above the value of the humans. Otherwise it would be impossible to determine which morality is correct when comparing one culture with another

I found the book difficult to accept Milligan’s assumptions and hypothetical situations. As such, I would not recommend the book. ( )
  RedSable | Oct 9, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
"Nobody Owns the Moon" is a thoughtful book outlining the need for ethical discussions on human economic activities in space, and suggests a pathway of decisions that policy makers should consider before diving headlong into it all.

It's largely philosophical in nature, focusing on other intersteller bodies, and at times it feels as if our own planet has been overlooked as being too far gone. Obviously this is not the case, as our own local issues were not included in the premise of the book, but it may be something the author may wish to include in an expanded second edition.

Although the book could use a good proofreading (and some minor editing) in places, it is still relevant, and should be taken seriously by those forward looking enough to realize that this is not too far into the distant future. ( )
  editfish | Aug 19, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
This book is a short overview of ethical principles behind several space-based hypotheticals, including generation ships and mining on the moon.

It reminded me (in a good way, mostly!) of late-night college BS sessions. Unfortunately, unlike the BS sessions, I couldn't interject to add my own arguments, which was a shame.

Like a lot of formal ethical philosophy, this seems to stand heavily on vaguely defined hypothetical scenarios and undefended assumptions, but for what it is, it wasn't bad. It's well-grounded in the literature of space ethics, but never seems to reach far beyond it. For example, he cites exactly three hard science fiction authors (one of them multiple times) but manages to do such things as have an entire chapter on whether it's ethical to interfere with other planets without once mentioning Star Trek's Prime Directive, or any of the rest of the long conversation about its ethical implications that has run through decades of science fiction. Similarly, there are hundred of SF works that discuss generation ships, almost all of them taking part in the ethical discussion in some way, and he mentions exactly one of them

I understand if this wants to stay within the formal ethical literature rather than becoming about ethics in SF, but if that's the case, then citing your favorite three SF authors and ignoring the rest (including the many who have written nonfiction explorations of space ethics!) is not the way to do it.

And if he was going to stay out of the SF realm, I'd been hoping for more about the actual, current, very real ethical issues we are facing about humans in space. There is some discussion of that, involving for example space tourism and the ethics of spending public money on a space program, but nothing about, for example, orbital rights, space junk, satellite surveillance, or the ethics of international space treaties in a world where more and more countries are reaching for space. It's a book that would rather speculate on what will happen after the sun burns out than what is happening right now.

As for the actual ethical arguments, it was interesting to read and there were some good thoughts, but for someone who has been following the popular ethical discussion through SF and space fandom, there were a lot of absences as well: things that as an SF fan I take for granted as central to space ethics that he doesn't seem to be aware of. For example, he never seems to even consider the possibility that information has inherent ethical value - that destroying something is bad because we have lost the potential to learn from what it was, that exploring might be inherently good because we learn new things. Given that space enthusiasts tend to be people who are just really excited about knowing new things, it seems odd to never even acknowledge this POV.

But then, pure ethicists in general seem to have an odd blind spot when it comes to knowledge: so many of the conclusions are based on hypothetical situations where everyone involved has perfect knowledge of everything involved. I tend to be more interested in the ethical decisions that come with figuring out how to balance unknowns against each; those are the difficult ones.

Anyway, not having read deeply in the work of theoretical ethicists recently, I'm not sure how to judge this as a book in the tradition of ethics. As a book in the tradition of writing about how to go to space and not be evil - which I have read a lot of - it was ok but not great. ( )
  melannen | Aug 12, 2015 |
This review was written for LibraryThing Early Reviewers.
I found this book to be, in the end, unsatisfying. It varies between making ethical arguments that are not convincing and arguments that are not necessary.

Nits to pick: In the Bibliography, “G” came before “F”. And secondary sources were used in preference to citing the actual newspaper articles.

Arguments not necessary: Dr. Milligan points out several times that we will need to explore the universe, perhaps exploiting the universe’s resources, because sooner or later our solar system will no longer be habitable, and that we should do this ethically. It is certain that in about a billion years, the Earth will be uninhabitable. Surely this is not the most pressing reason for current space exploitation. Perhaps we can let this go for another 900 million years before worrying about it?

Arguments unconvincing:
Page 63, third line: “But even if we concede that the end of humanity would be a bad thing…”

Ethicists are fond of pointing out that such things as private property are inherently unethical. (This goes to the question of “owning” the Moon, or possible asteroid mines.) Unfortunately, private property is simply part of every advanced human society. There is unlikely to be any change in this in the near future.

Dr. Milligan also seems to find an ethical issue in the destruction of various landforms as a part of resource extraction. For many people, one response to this would be offworld resource extraction. But Dr. Milligan also finds that the Moon, Mars, and the asteroids have value in and of themselves that might preclude their use. This is unconvincing. Resources will be extracted. The only question is from where.

The workforce engaged in such extraction would of necessity be highly educated, and quite scarce. They would be an asset to be protected by any firm or political entity employing them. Dr. Milligan seems to expect exploitation of the work force, somewhat invoking visions of Welsh coal miners or diamond miners from West Africa.

There is a large segment on the possibility of extraterrestrial life, even if it is only microbial life. Dr. Milligan feels that we should protect such life for its own sake. He even goes on to state that should we come up with a cure for anthrax, it might not be a good thing to go ahead and eliminate the disease as well. This seems to fly in the face of what we are already doing for polio. (I’ve often wondered: Do Bonsai trees suffer? Is shaping a tree to fit my own sense of aesthetics unethical?)

In chapter 10 Dr. Milligan points out that one reason to explore space is to spread humanity far enough so that no single catastrophe could wipe us out, that our species has established a global society that has made such dangers possible. But we have established such a global society because we are a social species. Putting larger distances between us would not remove this social tendency.

And finally, Dr. Milligan also seems to give rather short shrift to the possibility that the reason we will expand to the stars (or outer planets) is that, simply, we tend to do such things. ( )
  WLFobe | Jun 24, 2015 |
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Space ethics is a comparatively new field and, with the notable exception of Jacques Arnould's Icarus' Second Chance: The Basis and Perspectives of Space Ethics (2011), most of the key literature is scattered across technical publications and a series of journals which are dedicated to other matters such as politics or the environment, rather than consolidated into unified texts.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0786472650, Paperback)

Space exploration and commercial activity off-world has its skeptics as well as its enthusiasts. What does seem to be clear, however, is that such activity has increased and is set to expand further, and dramatically so, during the present century. This book explores some of the ethical issues which have already started to arise and it explores the prospects for our medium-range future: Can terraforming of other worlds succeed? Would it be defensible? Should there be limits to mining in space? Do lifeless planets have an 'integrity' which we ought to respect? Could indigenous micro-bacteria have any special intrinsic value? Do we have a duty to extend human life? The text then moves onto a treatment of the ethics of sending world-ships on inter-stellar journeys and the unpredictable risks associated with seeding other worlds with rudimentary forms of life. Throughout, the book is as much about our humanity as it is about space. (And here, a shared humanity is not reducible to species membership.) It concludes with an attempt to explore the connection between our belonging to a single home planet and our sense of belonging to a single moral community.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:17:10 -0400)

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