In a world of booming populations, consumerism and rising energy prices, how do we make sure that natural resources are used sustainably?
Consume less, runs the traditional argument. Change customers’ behaviour. Develop renewable energy and bioplastics. Reduce, reuse, recycle.
This week, Guardian Sustainable Business offered a radical alternative: instead of reducing demand to meet Earth’s limited supply of resources, just find some new resources.
“Near-Earth asteroids are prime candidates for mining operations,” runs the article. “A lunar resource called helium-3 could fuel future nuclear fusion power stations… In the long-term we have to move beyond sustainability to obtain resources from space.”
In short: don’t worry about using up all our energy and minerals ‒ there’s plenty more where they came from. And if half of the moon can be converted into a giant mine, the other half can probably be used as a massive waste dump.
I’m no luddite. If the future is robot drones, space elevators and solar power-beaming satellites, I’m on board. And yet there’s something depressing about a future in which the only solution to unsustainable consumption is yet more unsustainable consumption.
There’s another problem, too. Who owns space?
On Earth, national sovereignty over resources is relatively clear. International treaties cover mining and waste dumping in Antarctica and other protected areas. But, according to a recent article, “in theory, anyone who could manage it (and afford it) could go to the moon tomorrow, dig out a huge chunk of lunar rock, bring it back to earth and sell it off to the highest bidder”.
“There are no votes in space. There’s nothing there,” says the US Vice President in the TV comedy Veep. You could just as well change “votes” to “stakeholders”. On Earth, local communities are often the final barrier standing in the way of environmental damage. In space, there’s no-one to scream.
The environmentalist Paul Kingsnorth compares so-called “technological utopianism” to climate change denial. By convincing ourselves that a sci-fi future will solve everything, we are able to distract ourselves from urgent problems and difficult solutions.
Even if all our tech utopian dreams do come true, do we really want to end up like the Vogons from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy ‒ demolishing entire planets to make way for hyperspace express routes?
Forget about colonising other planets. Shouldn’t we figure out how to live on this one first?