Who should control the Moon? Technocrats, says AC Grayling

AC Grayling's new book looks at the Moon as a 'resource domain'
AC Grayling's new book looks at the Moon as a 'resource domain' - Darren Lehane

It’s a good question. Who hasn’t, at some point, wondered to whom the Moon belongs? And these days, since we aren’t content to leave it as a source of occult influence, or a giant lump of cheese, its colonisation awaits. Humans haven’t stepped foot on it for 52 years – assuming you believe we did – but it isn’t difficult to imagine an Elon Musk character, or a Chinese mining conglomerate, declaring their “rights” to this enigmatic rock and asset-stripping the hell out of it. How can we – if we can – stop the Moon becoming yet another depleted resource?

Who Owns the Moon?, the latest book by AC Grayling, is an informative and serious look at the legal, ethical and practical implications of understanding the Moon as “a resource domain” for humanity. While the focus of the book is space and our lunar friend in particular, Grayling notes that his broader concern is about “how exporting our too-common human bad behaviour to them might harm us back on Earth”.

However remote, even strange, it may seem to speculate about space resources, and however dearly we may hope that such exploitation – and its attendant risks – aren’t on the cards, we should be concerned. The Moon has plenty of valuable resources, including cobalt and nickel, and as Grayling points out, commercial lunar missions are already underway, with Japan and the UAE, among others, sending lunar rovers out last year. Near-Earth space is already cluttered with satellites and junk, and people have been fantasising about “star wars” for decades – not only in cinemas and novels.

In 2000, the neo-conservative think tank Project for the New American Century put out a report, Rebuilding America’s Defences, that described the need for America to “control the new international commons of space and cyberspace”, and called space “a key theatre of war”. In 2019, China was the first country to send a rover to the dark side of the moon; Beijing plans a manned mission by 2030.

In order to underline the need for a collective discussion about the Moon, Grayling deploys a series of historical and currently existing analogies to understand how we might avoid a lunar “tragedy of the commons” – the harming of a supposedly shared resource by asymmetrical and unjust appropriation – and ensure, instead, that humanity’s “commonly held interest” is protected. In a series of worthwhile (if treaty-heavy) comparisons, he looks at the Antarctic, the high seas and deep oceans, and the scramble for Africa, before turning to the existing 1967 Outer Space Treaty (handily included in this book’s appendices, alongside the 1961 Antarctic Treaty, and excerpts from the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of Sea).

AC Grayling, author of Who Owns the Moon?
AC Grayling, author of Who Owns the Moon?

This is an efficient move: it allows the reader to transport his or herself from the ocean floor, fishing disputes, and the history of gold rushes and mineral extractions onto the surface of the Moon. Yet there’s something doleful and technocratic about Grayling’s move as well. We admire and revere the Moon because of its strangeness and beauty, not because we want to see it divided up in a fair way. By accepting the parameters of a legal, rationalist attitude, Grayling brushes past the idea that we might want to leave the Moon alone for irrational – that is to say, non-calculable – reasons.

But Grayling is an Enlightenment thinker for whom treaties make reality. He argues that it’s better to conduct certain kinds of industrial activity, such as mining for minerals, on the Moon, “as a way of defending Earth against further environmental damage”. So, from the treaties he holds up, what might we actually learn? Thus far the Antarctic Treaty has held, but we can see from the refusal of America to sign the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea that powerful countries have little incentive to sign up for something that will force them to redistribute precious commodities.

The aspirational UN statements in the existing Outer Space Treaty, regarding the common interest of mankind, a desire for peaceful exploration and the hope that all peoples of the Earth might benefit from it are still just that – aspirations. There is, unsurprisingly, a strong overlap between being a nuclear power and having a space programme. A new Cold War – absolute zero, in zero gravity – would be best avoided. Competing for the Moon only makes this more likely.

As Grayling points out, we’ll need “something” to guarantee the efficacy of any revised space treaty. For his part, he proposes that humanity develop a collective understanding that we will benefit and suffer together from any future lunar activity. Yet, on that front, his conclusion is pessimistic: “Humanity’s self-management has to improve… by growing up.”


Who Owns the Moon? is published by Oneworld at £16.99. To order your copy for £14.99, call 0844 871 1514 or visit Telegraph Books