Asteroid Mining and Capitalism in Space

space capitalism

Asteroid mining is the exploitation of raw materials from asteroids and bringing these resources back to Earth. With an exponentially rising global population, precious resources are quickly becoming depleted. Luckily, asteroids contain many materials that we need and so mining them could set us on the path to a sustainable future. There are, however, some important political implications involved with asteroid mining, such as whether it will be subject to the forces of capitalism, and what effects – either negative or positive – will result from the privatisation of these celestial bodies. This is a form of ‘space capitalism’ that deserves critical analysis.

Mining Asteroids for Precious Resources 

Asteroids can contain a variety of valuable resources, including water (which would be useful for long-duration space missions), nickel, cobalt, gold, and platinum. In addition, these materials are often found in much higher concentrations than on Earth. According to some estimates, an asteroid one-kilometre in diameter may contain up to 7,500 tonnes of platinum.

The greatest cost involved in mining asteroids will be transporting the materials back to Earth. So the mining will need to be extremely lucrative in order to make these expenditures worth it. But that could easily be the case. After all, 7,500 tonnes of platinum is worth upwards of $150bn. According to one estimate, the total value of a single asteroid, based on its concentration of rare earth and platinum-group metals, is over $20tr (yes, trillion). Asteroid mining will, therefore, be an unavoidably attractive endeavour for profit-hungry corporations.

We haven’t yet mined an asteroid, so to do so would be an immense historic achievement, a way of making science fiction a reality. There’s no reason, nonetheless, that the same techniques used for mining on Earth can’t also be applied to asteroids. Some other, more novel approaches are being assessed, however. For instance, the aerospace company TransAstra Corporation has proposed using highly concentrated sunlight to break up asteroids and extract their precious metals.

It’s not clear when the first asteroid will be mined. One expert says that we will witness the historic occasion in the next 10-20 years, although other industry experts believe we will have to wait much longer than that. The Asteroid Mining Company, on the other hand, hopes to start asteroid mining operations by 2030.

Legal Issues Associated With Asteroid Mining

There are some interesting legal challenges to consider when it comes to asteroid mining. For instance, if we allow companies to possess, own, transport, use, and sell resources from asteroids, this may violate the Outer Space Treaty (1967), which is the foundation of international space law, with 109 countries as parties to the treaty. It states: “Outer space is not subject to national appropriation by claim of sovereignty, by means of use or occupation, or by any other means.” Thus, nations cannot own a celestial body like an asteroid, but they can, according to the Treaty, “use” outer space, so long as this is done in a way to “benefit all mankind”.

But the Treaty is ambiguous. It refers to nations, whilst making no mention of private companies. For this reason, space mining companies may be able to claim ownership of the minerals they extract and amass capital for themselves in the process. There is also the Moon Treaty, finalised in 1979, which mandates that all resources extracted from space should be shared among nations. However, most countries (including the US) never signed or ratified it. Conversely, we have seen the introduction of legislation that favours space capitalism. In 2015, the American Space Act was passed, which allows for the private ownership of space resources (on the basis of ‘finders keepers’) but this only applies to companies owned by US citizens. Then, in 2017, Luxembourg passed the first EU space mining law, which provides legal certainty that mining companies will be able to own the resources they take from asteroids, and unlike the US legislation, the mining company’s stakeholders don’t have to be based in Luxembourg; they only need to have an office in the country.

The Outer Space Treaty designated outer space as a res communis omnium (a thing of the entire community). Outer space belongs to the “province of mankind”. The Treaty espouses, then, space as a commons. Oscar Schachter, a professor of international law, similarly argued that we should extend the principles we apply to the high seas to outer space as well. In a companion contribution titled Who Owns the Universe? (1952), Schachter said, like the high seas, space should be “the common heritage of humanity”, allowing “free and equal use rather than exclusive possession”. This ‘common heritage of mankind’ principle, applied to the seabed and ocean floor, was codified in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea in 1982, which underlined that any exploitation of the sea must benefit humanity as a whole, with resources and profits equally distributed.

Yet in spite of defences of outer space as a commons (including in the Outer Space Treaty), we find that other pieces of legislation (such as those in the US and Luxembourg) act against the notion of space communism. Furthermore, the asteroid mining industry already exists, with various corporations getting ready to profit from space mining endeavours. The extension of capitalism into outer space, indeed, is well underway.

Space Capitalism: Perspectives From Critical Theory

The arrival of the commercialised space age has been referred to as the age of ‘NewSpace’. This is in contrast to ‘Old Space’, the Cold War-era form of space relations where nation states tried to dominate outer space. Victor L. Shammas and Tomas B. Holen apply perspectives from the critical theory tradition to the issue of space capitalism in their paper One giant leap for capitalistkind: private enterprise in outer space (2019). They describe NewSpace as follows (it deserves quoting in full):

But how are we to understand NewSpace? In some ways, NewSpace signals the emergence of capitalism in space. The production of carrier rockets, placement of satellites into orbit around Earth, and the exploration, exploitation, or colonization of outer space (including planets, asteroids, and other celestial objects), will not be the work of humankind as such, a pure species-being (Gattungswesen), but of particular capitalist entrepreneurs who stand in for and represent humanity. Crucially, they will do so in ways modulated by the exigencies of capital accumulation. These enterprising capitalists are forging a new political-economic regime in space, a post-Fordism in space aimed at profit maximization and the apparent minimization of government interference. A new breed of charismatic, starry-eyed entrepreneurs, including Musk’s SpaceX, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, and Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, to name but a selection, aim at becoming ‘capitalists in space’ (Parker, 2009) or space capitalists. Neil Armstrong’s famous statement will have to be reformulated: space will not be the site of ‘one giant leap for mankind’, but rather one giant leap for capitalistkind. With the ascendancy of NewSpace, humanity’s future in space will not be ‘ours’, benefiting humanity tout court, but will rather be the result of particular capitalists, or capitalistkind, toiling to recuperate space and bring its vast domain into the fold of capital accumulation: NewSpace sees outer space as the domain of private enterprise, set to become the ‘first-trillion dollar industry’, according to some estimates, and likely to produce the world’s first trillionaires (see, e.g., Honan, 2018)—as opposed to Old Space, a derisive moniker coined by enthusiastic proponents of capitalism-in-space, widely seen to have been the sole preserve of the state and a handful of giant aerospace corporations, including Boeing and Lockheed Martin, in Cold War-era Space Age.

The worry, then, is that the privatisation of space will serve the interests of a small number of space capitalists, rather than benefit humankind as a whole, in the way that you hope asteroid mining would, given the potential to supply the world with essential minerals. As capitalism extends to outer space, so might many of the issues we see with terrestrial capitalism, such as the over-exploitation of precious resources, monopolisation, and crony capitalism. And where does this extension of capitalism end? After all, NewSpace doesn’t just relate to asteroid mining; the space capitalists are also involved in space tourism and the colonisation of Mars, and – assuming we make it this far into the future – the colonisation of other planets.

Shammas and Holen argue that space will become a ‘spatial fix’, a concept developed by the Marxist thinker David Harvey which involves “the geographic modulation of capital accumulation, consisting in the outward expansion of capital onto new geographic terrains, or into new spaces, with the aim of filling a gap in the home terrains of capital.” But as Harvey contends, the geographical expansion and restructuring of the spatial fix is only a temporary solution, as new appropriated spaces (in this case, asteroids) will also be exhausted of their profitability. Thus, in relation to the question of how far space capitalism will extend, Shammas and Holen assert that “this outwards drive of capitalism is inherently limitless: there is no end point or final destination for capitalism. Instead, capitalism must continuously propel itself onwards in search of pristine sites of renewed capital accumulation.”

Shammas and Holen note that the ambitions of SpaceX and other similar ventures “are not so very different from maritime colonialists and the trader-exploiters of the British East India Company.” SpaceX and other ventures are also like the British East India Company in that they are semi-private corporations. Just as the latter received a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth I to carry out its trading operations, so too is SpaceX being supported by the state (the United States in, this case): in the words of Shammas and Holen, “it, too, depends on the infrastructure, contracts, and regulatory environment that thus far only a state seems able to provide.” As Peter Lothian Nelson and Walter E. Block highlight in their book Space Capitalism (2018):

If there’s a consistent charge against Elon Musk and his high-flying companies…it’s that they’re not really examples of independent, innovative market capitalism. Rather, they’re government contractors, dependent on taxpayer money to stay afloat.

Under a system of neoliberalism, this is to be expected. In the words of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu: “The economic field is, more than any other, inhabited by the state, which contributes at every moment to its existence and persistence, and also to the structure of the relations of force that characterize it.” Neoliberalism, unlike capitalism per se, supports and facilitates market exchanges. The philosopher Gilles Deleuze and psychoanalyst Félix Guattari make the same point in their book A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia (1980); they say “it is the modern state that gives capitalism its models of realization.” In a system of neoliberalism, the state is integrated with the market, and for capitalism to thrive in space, it will rely on the state’s funding, subsidisation of infrastructure, regulatory frameworks, contracts, and symbolic support. The state would prop up space capitalism by making outer space legally, technically, and economically accessible.

In their paper, Shammas and Holen also underscore the position of the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) when it comes to the privatisation of space:

Even the UNOOSA spoke vociferously in favor of the commercialization of space, appealing variously to the ‘industry and private sector’ and elevating the ‘space economy’ to a central pillar in its Space2030 Agenda (including the ‘use of resources that create and provide value and benefits to the world population in the course of exploring, understanding and utilizing space’), even as the UN agency falls back on a humanistic, almost social-democratic vision of the equitable distribution of benefits (and profits) from space mining, exploration, and colonization (UNOOSA, 2018)

From the point of view of Shammas and Holen, as well as other critics of capitalism, it seems unlikely that NewSpace will have the humanising effects that the UNOOSA and space capitalists are trying to convince us it will have. It is not humanity venturing forth into outer space in the era of NewSpace, but rather “a specific set of capitalist entrepreneurs” (Shammas & Holen).

Could Asteroid Mining Bring an End to Conflict Minerals?

In spite of the concerns about the ever-expanding reaches of capitalism into space, the privatisation of asteroid mining may offer a terrestrial benefit; that is, it may help put an end to the human rights abuses involved in mining on Earth.

Many asteroids contain coltan, a metallic mineral used for the production of tantalum capacitors, which are found in pretty much every single electronic device – laptops, cameras, video game consoles, smartphones; you name it. Coltan, unfortunately, is a conflict mineral. It’s a mineral that is mined in areas of armed conflict, most notably in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Other conflict minerals include cassiterite, wolframite, and gold. The mining of coltan in the Congo has resulted in a number of human rights violations, including child labour, forced labour, sexual violence, physical abuse, human trafficking, slavery, and unsafe working conditions. In the name of putting profits over people’s rights, corporations continue to benefit from the exploitation of people in the DRC, with capitalists amassing large amounts of profit while miners receive measly inadequate wages and work in slave-like conditions, as there are little to no labour regulations. This is surely one of the ugliest faces of capitalism.

If we are able to extract all the coltan we need from asteroids, then this may eradicate any incentive for such horrible human rights abuses in the Congo. Of course, we should not wait and hope for asteroid mining to be the silver bullet that solves the problem of conflict minerals, but if we are to take a cynical and pessimistic stance, then it may be the case that we see the advent of asteroid mining before the end of conflict minerals. Will conflict minerals still exist a decade from now? On the other hand, who’s to say that profiting from asteroid mining won’t also result in more human exploitation? Might we not see space capitalists exploiting space miners, forcing them to overwork and stay away from Earth for longer than can be considered psychologically healthy?

There are no clear-cut answers to these questions, given that we are still some time away from asteroid mining becoming technologically feasible. Asteroid mining could prove to be a sustainable way of extracting natural resources; it just remains to be seen whether space capitalism will – when it arises – mirror the worst aspects of the current capitalist system.

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