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How to ask for the moon? Applying the Social-Ecological System Framework to Lunar Resource Systems

Everyone knows: There are no stupid questions. So, why not ask for the moon? Or more specifically, lunar resources? In their new paper, Kuhn et al. (2022) prepare for this question by working out how to ask for the moon. By applying Social-Ecological System (SES) concepts, they designed a lunar resource database to compare different lunar resources and explore possible governance approaches needed in the future. While the Outer Space Treaty ensures outer space is free for all, prohibiting all appropriation of space and celestial bodies, it also establishes the freedom to access, explore, and use space. This duality of assertions, in times of rapidly growing space technologies and ambitions, leads to a legal ambiguity about the commercial and especially the extractive use of the Moon and its resources. While some analogies for global commons are quick to come by (i.e., International Telecommunication Union or International Seabed Authority), the unknown nature of essential modalities of lunar resource systems that will determine potential use cases, like their morphologies, resource concentration or environmental conditions for extraction makes their fit questionable. Kuhn et al. propose that an application of the SES framework can help define lunar resource systems and prepare for more nuanced and congruent governance solutions for different resources.

Individual components of an SES are part of an overarching political, social, and economic landscape, making interactions within and with other systems complex and every SES unique. Examining these dynamics and identifying the social-ecological components of lunar SESs can foster effective and sustainable (self-)governance. Kuhn et al. use 38 variables from the SES framework and the Social-Ecological Systems Meta Analysis Database (SESMAD) about environmental commons and social systems. They divide them into three subsystems: the Lunar Resource System (with variables like system scarcity, resource renewability or use case), the Social System (with variables like stakeholder, group size or leadership), and the Governance System (with variables like potential conflicts, collective choice arrangements or sanctions). They serve as a generalized framework that helps to uncover intervention points and governance alternatives.

Kuhn et al. apply this framework to five different lunar resource systems: The Radio-Quiet Zone (RQZ), Permanently Shadowed Regions (PSR), Lunar Lava Tubes (LLT), Peaks of Eternal Light (PEL), and the Lunar Regolith (Regolith). This uncovers several differences and similarities between the resource systems: For example, while PEL and PSR are both scarce resources, the Regolith is abundant depending on which component is used and so are LLT. Use cases vary significantly depending on multiple factors and cannot be predicted with certainty at present: LLT could be used as natural shielding for food, supplies or waste storage, or serve as sources of extractable pristine materials. Similarly, PSR volatiles can be used to produce key commodities such as oxygen, liquid water, and rocket propellant, or serve as sites for various scientific uses. Some of these uses are mutually exclusive which can present challenges especially if the resource systems are scarce. RQZ, for instance, is a unique SES with absolute mutual exclusiveness for certain radio frequencies. On the other hand, PEL offer partially complementary use cases in solar power or thermal consistency. Instead, here not the use case exclusiveness but the limited availability of perceived vital services and the prevailing first-come-first-serve regime could cause conflict. This variety in uses also creates a variety of stakeholders with different and potentially conflicting interests. Additionally, resource renewability features, crucial for long-term sustainability on the Moon, are dependent on the use case or scale of use: While LLT are restorable as long as they are used for shelter or storage purposes, they are non-renewable when resources are extracted.

 The extent of permanently shadowed regions (outlined in pink)53 from 80° poleward (Image produced using LROC’s Quick Map Tool. Credit: NASA/GSFC/ASU.)

The case studies illustrate the need for a diverse management approach: While resource systems like PEL might require international coordination of priority rights, the RQZ might profit more from ongoing use coordination and shared standards. For the Regolith, it might be enough to implement a notification and prioritization process. Kuhn et al. conclude that one single governance organization cannot efficiently and sustainably address all resource systems and the variety of stakeholder interests and point to polycentricity as a possible framework to move forward. Polycentricity allows for diversity and subsidiarity that addresses the complexity of lunar SES locally and individually while enabling (self-)governance under shared norms and values like transparency, sustainability, peace, cooperation, and justice. That way, asking for the moon might not look as impossible as usual.

If you want to read more about the application of the variables in the five case studies, make sure to check out the full paper here.
This project already moved into its second and third phases: Phase II investigates analog governance systems, while Phase III envisions potential governance cases to inform the development of a space governance regime. If you want to find out more, check out the project website at openluna.org/resluna.

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