Use of Outer Space Calls for Ethical Standards

Author: Prof. Vittorio Canuto


Prof. Vittorio Canuto

Space exploration is not merely technological issue, Holy See says at UNISPACE III

UNISPACE III, the UN's Third Conference on the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, was held in Vienna, Austria, from 19 to 30 July last The Conference was concerned with the benefits of space for humanity in the 21st century. At the plenary session on 21 July, Prof. Vittorio Canuto, a member of the Holy See's Delegation, made the following Statement in English. Here is the text.

Some 2,400 years ago, an instructive dialogue took place between Socrates and one of his pupils, Glaucus. The latter held that the study of space, outer space as we call it today, was an important endeavour for it would allow humankind to predict the seasons, the art of navigation, agriculture, etc., all important practical applications. Socrates replied that while this was true, a great deal more should ensue from such studies, in particular the improvement of the human spirit

More than 2,000 years later, have we followed Socrates' advice or have we been all too intensively preoccupied with "exploit" space exploration as a new gold mine? For some nations, it has been the best of times, for others, the majority, it has, perhaps, been closer to being the worst of times. Some nations have courageously and indefatigably pursued the new area of outer space, with the ardour of those propelled by the desire to ,conquer nature, not by the desire to conquer other nations. And this new channeling of human energy is, of itself, a good thing if we recall that in the history of humanity, technological advances have traditionally been the byproduct of wars. That much human energy directed vertically rather than horizontally against one another is welcome.

While space activities have made a positive contribution to the globalization process, for some nations it has meant homogenization or, far worse, an uncontrollable flooding via electromagnetic waves of information often alien to local culture and tradition. This seemingly peaceful invasion may have enormous effects on the youth of a nation, effects that we may become aware of when it is too late. The danger of stripping a country of the pillars of its cultural heritage, a topic often discussed in the Outer Space Committees, must be avoided at all costs for it is not exclusively a technological issue or an issue of freedom of information: it is an ethical issue, and it needs to call for the establishment, by common accord, of ethical standards in this sensitive field.

At the dawn of the new millennium and after 50 years of space exploration, what have we learnt? Looking outwards we continue to learn new secrets of our universe. But by far the greatest surprise has come from our looking back at our planet from space. Our exploration of outer space has led us to an unavoidable new conclusion. We are damaging our ecological systems by our profligate use of natural and mineral resources. This is a fundamental shift from the paradigm of the '70s, when we thought that the limits to economic growth were due to the finite nature of natural resources. The limits concern, in fact, the responsible use of these resources, the common patrimony of not only present but also future generations. As we venture both conceptually and practically into the conquest of outer space, we must redefine our way of living on this planet itself. The growing number of positive applications of space exploration hold out immense hope for the promotion of the good of the whole of humanity. To realize these hopes, all must assume responsibility for the promotion of the good of all, not only of the few.

Global warming, sea level rise, El Nino phenomena, deforestation, depletion of the ozone layer, etc. are phenomena which, in a sad twist of events, will affect far more profoundly those who are least equipped to ward them off. Outer space activities have been our diagnostic tool, but we must endeavour to make them our prognostic tool as well. The conventional wisdom that free economy is regulated by a self-correcting mechanism, a hidden hand, an immanent alarm clock that will warn us when natural resources are beginning to be depleted, an almost Darwinian instinct of self-preservation, has demonstrably failed. The unbridled maximization of individual interests in the presence of the diminishing "capital" of natural resources has led to unsustainable development. Outer space activities quantify such processes but cannot be expected to provide a magic bullet to repair the damage. There is ample anecdotal evidence to show that much of the available technology is too expensive, too large in scale and too sophisticated in terms of the skills required.

We need a new paradigm, a new course of action. We often view the flow of human events as being punctuated by revolutions, in the benign sense of the word. After the first revolution, the invention of agriculture some 10,000 years ago, and the industrial revolution 200 years ago, we are primed for a third revolution. It is up to us and only to us to invent it, to shape it for the benefit of all, to implement it in an equitable manner, to use it for the improvement of humankind, as Socrates taught us. The key feature must be knowledge based on education. The latter is an intangible public good that must be available to all if the information revolution is to have positive results. The two previous revolutions we alluded to were based on knowledge. The new fuel is not physical, it is not land, as it was 10,000 years ago, and it is not coal, as it was 200 years ago. It is information. It is a public good because one can share it with others without losing it. Individuals create knowledge which is an unlimited resource, the only truly unlimited resource that we have. For example, even in the hardest of all environments, the ancient Anasazi survived and prospered, for they had knowledge of how to rotate crops and take intelligent advantage of their scarce resources. They only succumbed to phenomena about which they had no previous knowledge.

Mr. Chairman, this proves that knowledge and hunger should not coexist; they do not mix, because with full awareness people cannot knowingly deny others food. We cannot avoid certain natural phenomena, but outer space tells us what they are. We must therefore create the only barrier against them: knowledge of them, as previous populations did over the course of history. We must fight hunger not with piecemeal ad hoc solutions, well intended as they usually are, but with major surgery, the implementation of the anti-virus of knowledge.

Knowledge will mean that we not only know the commercial price of every thing but, more important, its intrinsic value.

Knowledge will mean that we shall no longer live under the pernicious moral confusion that has led us to believe that we can understand nature without reference to moral principles.

Knowledge will mean that we shall bridge the gap now existing between our technological progress on the one hand and moral primitiveness and unhinged individualism on the other.

Knowledge will mean that we shall no longer view the earth and outer space as a piece of real estate to conquer, to map, to acquire, to catalogue, but as a true biosphere where we humans are an integral part of the whole.

Knowledge will endow every individual with the rustproof shield of human dignity, as Socrates taught us it should.

These concepts underline the need to enforce collaboration and participation in the seeking of global solutions to global problems, which cannot be solved through the actions of a few, but through the cooperation of all the different components of our human community. From this point of view, it seems to be imperative for all of us to take into account the relationship between the increased knowledge that space activities give to humanity and the resulting greater responsibility to assure that this knowledge benefits the whole of humanity.

Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
15 September 1999, page 4

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