Sky King:  Policy and cultural consequences of the chaos circling our planet, Dr. Robert Zuber

16 Aug

Space Junk

At the end of July, the European Union hosted an event that was hopeful in content but also a bit jarring for some states regarding process.  A week-long session to push forward Multi-National Negotiations on an International Code of Conduct for Outer Space Activities was held inside the UN with assistance from the Office for Disarmament Affairs.

As articulated by Mr. Jacek Bylica of the European External Action Service, the proposed Space Code of Conduct includes confidence-building measures that cover both civilian and military outer space activities.  The welcome goal is to “prevent space from becoming an area of conflict” in part by providing a voluntary framework to resolve disputes in outer space by peaceful means.

There is much value to be gained from such an activity. Where weapons are concerned, the UN is often accused of lagging far behind the negotiating curve, restricting weapons, as it were, that no state still covets, while turning a mostly blind eye to weapons innovations that are soon to dramatically change the security landscape.  The militarization of space would certainly qualify as a security “game changer,” though the proposed Space Code suggests no outright prohibitions against space weaponry, nor does it presume to propose standards that are “legally binding” in any relevant sense.  That states are attentive to some of the negative implications of the misuse of space while seeking to create the means for resolving space disputes is to be commended, though there are clearly urgent security-related dimensions of space use that such a Code is not yet prepared to address.

The trick moving forward is, as a number of states have brought out, to find the best means to merge the EU Code with relevant General Assembly measures, especially with regard to resolution 65/68 (which directly references the EU Code); as well as to any potential discussions that might take place in the Conference on Disarmament about “preventing an arms race in outer space.”  In this instance as in others, “doing the right thing” means doing it the “right way.”  Despite discouragement regarding how the UN copes with weapons challenges which has led to more efforts to pursue disarmament agreements outside of UN conference rooms, the EU surely recognizes that the path towards full, enthusiastic state negotiations on a Code of Conduct requires ongoing, supportive engagement with all relevant UN processes.

Listening to a good bit of the Code of Conduct discussion, my mind wandered in another direction.  It seemed as though the “space: beyond the outer reaches of our planetary biosphere was being described in these meetings as one might describe a messy apartment – clutter that impacts functionality and even breeds dangers.   But an apartment is a “home” as well as a locus of functionality as much as the sky beyond the clouds has psychic and cultural meaning beyond being a storage facility for communications equipment, spy satellites and abandoned spacecraft.

In this city (New York) where “quality time” with the sky is elusive at best, we live with the psychological consequences of restrictive urban vistas–specifically the tendency to behave as though we are the center of the universe rather than a spec in cosmic vastness.  To gaze skyward is to remind ourselves that our personal compromises and petty grievances are simply that – the growing proclivity to turn something casually important into major human drama.  There are satisfactory psychological explanations for this tendency, but the failure to see a larger picture is more a function of our limitations of habit than of psychic capacity.   We too often “practice petty” in our daily urban interactions, and thus the resulting social structures to which we contribute encourage more pettiness than is in our best and healthiest interest.

The ability to see a bigger picture and keeping that picture in focus as we attend to the concrete needs of persons and communities, should be a prerequisite for diplomatic and NGO service in multi-lateral frameworks.  That we so often mistake our particular aesthetic and moral preferences for universal interests represents a failure of our education and our politics.   We have been trained to pursue narrow self-interests not global ones, or even worse to equate narrow policy interests with universal consensus.  We have been trained to micro-manage outcomes rather than explore their many possibilities.  We have habituated ourselves to stare at the sidewalk (or into smaller and smaller digital spaces) rather than seek vistas where we can still gaze into the incomparably vast (though at this point apparently shrinking) cosmos. Hopefully we can continue to find places for gazing can both re-calibrate our often intensely limited contexts, and maybe even increase our commitment to keeping space free of deadly weapons and other needless junk.

This last point illustrates another, more ominous reason to gaze skyward now, as our windows into eternity are littered with debris and danger – debris from all the matter we have launched into space that both enables and threatens this digital age, and danger from all of the “dual use” and single-focus devices that spy and coordinate attacks on our “enemies.”  Space might well be, as the Star Trek introduction puts it, “the final frontier.”  But more and more that “frontier” is brimming with both space junk and deployed (and projected) weapons systems, systems that will forever alter traditional security equations and that threaten to fundamentally change what remains of our positive, healthful and even romantic relationship to sky.

As one who has thrived on relatively unimpeded galaxy views from Oklahoma to South Africa, I mourn the ongoing encasing of our planet in more and more dangerous junk. Indeed, that old television phrase “look out below” will never have more relevance than at the point when we master the ability to rain destruction from the heavens on the unsuspecting, merely at the push of a button.  This newest level of militarized abstraction will inevitably increase levels of public insecurity, perhaps dramatically so. It will surely also compromise the wonder and benefits of gazing into the heavens, a source of awe and inspiration for so many millions over so many centuries.

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