Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Review - Nobody Owns the Moon: The Ethics of Space Exploitation by Tony Milligan

Short review: A broad overview of the field of space ethics as explained by one of the more prominent figures in the discipline.

The ethics of space
Exploration, colonies,
and terraforming

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.

Full review: 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 due to the fact that there are pros and cons to almost 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.

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