Scratching the Surface: The Ethics of Mining Helium-3

Tony Milligan

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Terrestrial mining is ethically problematic by virtue of its directly destructive impact and by virtue of its contribution to both the depletion of fossil fuels and (through the use of the latter) to the raising of C02 levels in the atmosphere. Extraction of helium-3 (3He) from the lunar regolith would share two of these same problems, i.e. resource depletion (which I will suggest is the soft problem of lunar mining) and destructive impact (which I will suggest is the hard problem). In response to the hard problem, in spite of the fact that the Moon is a lifeless place, I will argue that we do nonetheless have reasons for lunar protection. Firstly, it is a culturally-significant object; secondly, familiar appeals to planetary ‘integrity’ (notably by Holmes Rolston) may be supported by appeal to a ‘last-man argument’; finally (and following Hannah Arendt) living in places which we value is integral to our humanity and this should shape and inform our move beyond the Earth. However, none of these consideration will yield sufficient grounds for ruling out all mining under all circumstances and for all purposes. Different justificatory narratives may then be told for and against any particular proposal. Even so, it is difficult to envisage what kind of narrative could be used to justify destructive mining on an extensive scale other than the familiar narratives which are already used to justify space exploration as such, i.e. those concerning terrestrial advantage; a duty to extend life (or human life); and a naturalistic appeal to a human longing to explore. I will suggest that the latter is by far the least convincing justification. A tendency to expand into new areas is a species trait and not a standard character trait of individual humans. As such, the expression of this trait is not a requirement for human well-being. What this leaves us with is, on the one hand, the terrestrial advantage of a cleaner form of nuclear energy and, on the other, a duty to extend life (or human life) which might be served by the lure of this unique source. However, with regard to terrestrial benefits all is not so simple as it might seem. And, as for the duty to extent human life, while the duty is perhaps both real and noteworthy, it can only be what Kant referred to as an imperfect duty, i.e. a duty which may be fulfilled in several different ways. As a result, only if the other plausible ways of fulfilling this duty were blocked off or, more ethically problematic, should extensive and destructive 3He mining be regarded as the default option.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProcs of the 8th IAA Symposium on the Future of Space Exploration
Subtitle of host publicationTowards the Stars
PublisherInternational Academy of Astronautics
Publication statusPublished - 2013
Event8th IAA Symposium on the Future of Space Exploration - Torino, Italy
Duration: 3 Jul 20135 Jul 2013


Conference8th IAA Symposium on the Future of Space Exploration


  • Space ethics


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