Thursday, August 09, 2007

Property: It's A Good Thing

Last time, I snarked off about a Russian expedition to the North Pole. There are actually some serious implications that probably need to be talked about. To wit: property rights.

A staple of sci-fi for several years was the undersea colony. We've had things like SeaLab, SeaQuest DSV, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, and all that good stuff. Well, there's a good reason why none of that is happening. It's not because the technology isn't up to it, though that's part of it. No, the real problem is that no one in their right mind is about to sink big money into deep-sea mining unless and until sovereignty issues have been sorted out.

You see, without sovereignty, there is really no guarantee of personal or corporate property rights. And without property rights, there's no development. You'd have to be nuts to put good money at risk that way, if no one were standing overwatch to guarantee that no one jumps your claim.

Let's leave the particulars of Russia's claim as beside the point for the moment. It's sufficient to note that, unless Russia were able to establish clear title to the sea floor in question, there's no way any Russian company would set up shop drilling there. And there's plenty of legal wrangling to be done, because Canada isn't sure that they can't make the same claim.

But that brings us 'round to the other link from that post.

As much as I might like to think so, the United States has no territorial claims on the Moon. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 prohibits such claims. And that's a problem. Why? Because, as I said before, without sovereignty there's no guarantee of property rights, and without property rights there's no development.

Anyone who wants to start up a business based on extraction of extraterrestrial resources is treading on very uncertain legal ground. Which is why no one has seriously explored such options to date. Oh sure, we're years away from having the technology to exploit such resources. But if the legal basis were more firm, there'd be more of an impetus to develop said technologies.

This is a problem, to be sure, but not necessarily an insurmountable one. I'm not going to guess precisely how this problem gets resolved -- there's more than one way to paint a fence, after all. As long as the path doesn't involve anything heinous, it's the goal that's important. But, sooner or later, we have to come to grips with this problem.

It's raining soup Out There, and the sooner we get 'round to making bowls, the better.

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