Imagine you’re reading a science fiction book. It features an intrepid space crew exploring a distant solar system that has never before been charted by humankind. Low on fuel after their long voyage, the protagonists mine the asteroid belt to refuel their spaceship and repair their electronics. Surveys of the planets in the system show that one of them is human-habitable and contains vast deposits of rare earths. Environmentally and financially, it would make an excellent site for a colony. The ship lands, and begins building habitats, using construction materials mined from the planet. Our protagonists face challenges adapting to their new environment, but they persevere. More people begin arriving, excited and looking forward to their new life on this little-known world. After the colony has been established, our protagonists take off in their spaceship once more, travelling onward to still more far-flung stars.
What is Extractivism?
Sounds familiar? This scenario, and numerous elements within, have played out time and again in science fiction. With the story’s focus usually on our human protagonists and their triumphs and setbacks, social concerns might be addressed, but the ecological ramifications of humanity engaging in industrial activity on exoplanetary environments are rarely tackled and often ignored entirely. In this article, I will break the silence on extractivism in science fiction. How does the genre portray such activity, particularly its in-universe legal and ethical status? This topic is especially relevant today given increasingly serious discussions about humanity engaging in real-life space mining and Mars colonisation, and the absence of a robust modern international space treaty.
Extractivism is a term describing the profit-driven, large-scale removal of natural resources—such as oil, precious metals like gold or platinum, and the practices of logging and agriculture (particularly monocultures)—from the Earth, to sell in another part of the world. As Riofrancos notes, extractivism is a concept that has increasingly been defined widely to comprise many different types of extraction, including from digital spaces and stock markets, so I will clarify that in this article I will focus on natural resource extraction. The practice is especially prevalent in Latin America, where extractivism is a common economic model, tracing its origins to the beginning of colonialism. Indeed, on Earth, extractivism has existed for roughly the past five hundred years primarily as a model in which the Global South are exporters and the Global North importers of raw materials—and the Global South has not had a choice in becoming exporters, nor in the terms of the export .
After decolonisation, largely privatised exportation continued until the more recent emergence of a new model called neo-extractivism in which resources are exported from their country of origin not by a foreign-owned corporation, but by the state, with the aim being for the money earned to support social projects. The extent to which this money results in social uplift is debatable and beyond the scope of this article. I refer those interested to Acosta, Burchardt & Dietz, and García Linera in the works cited. Some consider neo-extractivism to fall squarely under the purview of neo-colonialism, while others would characterise it as resource nationalism necessary to build prosperity and overcome extractivism in the long run . Either way, the flow of natural resources from the Global South to the Global North continues. Extractivism is an unsustainable practice that contributes to climate change and results in a host of other environmental problems like deforestation, loss of biodiversity, soil depletion, and more, and takes a heavy toll on the quality of life of people who live near the mining activity. Extractivism is borne of a fundamentally colonialist mindset which sees nature as a resource, one it believes humanity can and should have unfettered access to.
Extractivism in Science Fiction
How does extractivism translate off-Earth, to the space environment, in science fiction? Extractivism, most commonly in the form of mining planets and asteroids, is rampant throughout the genre, with the vastness of space adding increased scale to the operations. It’s not uncommon in SF to see entire planets gouged out by mining. It’s simply everywhere, from the mining colonies that are common planet-of-the-week visits in Star Trek, to the new Disney-Pixar movie Lightyear’s colonisation of T’Kani Prime, a planet whose biosphere is reduced to a series of gags involving macheting moving vines. Humans and Cylons fight over a resource-rich asteroid in Battlestar Galactica (2004). The titular spaceship from the science fiction comedy Red Dwarf (1988) is a mining ship. In Alien (1979), the Nostromo is a commercial towing ship hauling a mining facility. The Belters in Larry Niven’s Known Space universe make their living from mining asteroids. Arkady Martine’s double-Hugo winning Teixcalaan series prominently features Lsel Station, a mining station. These examples come from a wide variety of science fiction works and all feature space resource extraction in some form, demonstrating its ubiquity throughout the genre. Visions and portrayals of humanity expanding throughout the solar system and mining asteroids and other planets are so common as to often go unquestioned, a sort of modern-day myth we tell each other about our future. Given the harm of extractivism on Earth, the banality of these SF presentations demands a second look.
This mythical view of an extractivist future is highlighted in the following passage, from a Wall Street Journal review of Leviathan Wakes (2011) by James S.A. Corey, the first title in the Expanse series:
This is the future the way it was supposed to be. From the Moon we’d step to Mars. Mars would become an industrial center, while the asteroid belt would supply hundreds of mountain-size rocks to be tunneled for habitats and mined for construction material….Galactic empires, ‘Star Trek’, ‘Star Wars’, those aren’t going to happen. Those futures have faded. This one, imagined in pixel-sharp detail—it’s still there.
The reviewer draws a line between Star Wars and Star Trek as representing a less realistic, “softer” science fiction future, and The Expanse as representing a credible, “hard” science fiction future—no intelligent aliens (at first), no faster-than-light travel, just “the way it was supposed to be,” with humanity’s expansion throughout the solar system fuelled by resources from the asteroid belt and the other planets. “This is the future the way it was supposed to be” was even selected as the cover quote on Caliban’s War (2012), the second entry in the series. Mass exploitation of the solar system’s resources is at the core of this telling of the future, and is hailed as plausible, likely, and perhaps even necessary—the obvious next step after humanity has conquered the Earth’s environment. Indeed, this cover quote choice highlights the near dominance of extractivist futures for humanity in popular, Western science fiction.
Science fiction featuring extractivism sometimes dives into the human costs of such activity. In present-day extractivism, as practiced on Earth, it is not the locals reaping the benefits of their natural resources, but outside interests. The locals instead see the land they live on reshaped en masse and its resources transported far away. This is also often the case in science fiction extractivism. In The Expanse, the Belters, the working-class residents of the asteroid belt, mine and transport water and other resources to the rich inner solar system worlds of Earth and Mars. The Belters often live and work on asteroids where they have little control over their resources, and where even station security is maintained not by Belters but by companies from Earth. However, whereas indigenous peoples on Earth protesting modern-day extractivism are protesting the despoiling of their land, the Belters’ grievance is one of unequal benefits from extractivism. In Frank Herbert’s epic space opera Dune (1965), a vast interplanetary empire relies on a resource called “melange,” or simply “the spice,” which is only available on the desert planet of Arrakis. The Fremen, the native people of Arrakis, have been exploited for centuries by noble houses like the Harkonnens and the Atreides, as the spice has been harvested. The Belters and the Fremen are not enriched by the extraction of their environments’ resources. Instead, they are subjugated, and Inners from Earth and Mars, or off-world nobles, respectively, grow wealthy.
Both The Expanse and Dune feature the oppressed population revolting against those who are taking their resources, fighting for their rights over the places they call home, but The Expanse especially fails to meaningfully engage with the environmental weight of extractivism. This is especially pronounced as the series progresses and humanity settles exoplanets by travelling through ancient wormholes built by an unknown civilisation. Unlike the solar system’s asteroid belt, these exoplanets, like Ilus and Laconia, are host to native ecosystems. In the world of The Expanse, companies are granted charters to legally settle and exploit these new planets, but the health of these ecosystems is given little concern by human settlers, Belter and Inner alike. The world of Dune features imperial extractivism countered by a global ecological consciousness as discussed in the next paragraph, but does not strongly address planetary protection/contamination concerns (see further in the essay). While science fiction works like The Expanse and Dune do show the negative effects of extractivism, such works are more likely to focus on the social rather than the ecological impacts, and are outweighed by the volume of works that overlook this issue.
James Cameron’s Avatar (2009) is almost unique among science fiction pop culture juggernauts for showing the full ecological and societal consequences of extractivism on an alien planet. The story takes place on Pandora, a moon of a gas giant which is home to a thriving biosphere with an intelligent humanoid native species—the Na’vi. By 2154 in this imagined future, Earth is running low on resources, and humans with a group called the Resources Development Administration go to Pandora to mine a valuable mineral called unobtanium, which is plentiful there. Avatar depicts the RCA as unequivocably antagonistic, and the extraction of unobtanium as incredibly harmful. The very name of the fictional mineral is a heavy-handed metaphor that gives away the end of the movie, in which the Na’vi, with the help of Eywa, the life force of Pandora itself, stop the mining activity and drive almost all humans off of Pandora, but not before their Home Tree is attacked in a costly battle. In the end, Avatar declares that humanity cannot and should not obtain unobtanium.
Avatar has been rightly criticised as a derivative, white saviour story—and yet, it is also likely by far the most influential piece of science fiction media to narratively conclude that not only is human extractivism in space unethical, but humans should cease harming the alien biosphere and leave the world in question. Unlike the majority of works featuring extractivism in space, Dune and especially Avatar do address the ecological perils faced by Arrakis and Pandora, respectively, as they are mined for their resources. Both works do this by presenting an understanding of the ecologically integrated systems that make up a biosphere. Pandora and Arrakis are both planetwide consciousnesses that maintain a homeostasis reminiscent of Lovelock’s Gaia theory, and the struggles of the Na’vi and the Fremen are irrevocably tied to their biospheres. On Earth, presently and historically, indigenous worldviews and indigenous protestors against extractivism have long considered the rights of the Earth, which are missing from the colonialist mindset of extractivists.
Extractivism in SF, Ethics, and the Law
The above paragraphs have laid out a variety of examples of science fiction extractivism, from the mining of lifeless asteroids to unprovoked militaristic attacks against sapient alien beings in order to gain access to precious minerals. I acknowledge the differences within these examples, and I want to draw attention to the ethical questions at play, some of which are unique to space extractivism, rather than extractivism in general: do we have a right to mine space environments? Do we have any ethical duty to protect them? Are they valuable to us only as resources, or for any other reason? Do we care if an asteroid is destroyed? Should we? Do we care if a planet is destroyed? What if that planet has life? What if that planet has intelligent life? What if we can’t be certain if the world in question is home to life? Assuming we could somehow achieve complete certainty that a celestial body was devoid of even the simplest forms of life, what would the ethical considerations be in mining there? These questions are all-too-often glossed over in popular Western science fiction, and yet, they are crucial to determining an ethics for human behaviour in space.
Laws can be useful in studying a society’s ethical viewpoint, as laws can articulate what that society values. In real life, there is little legal guidance for human activity in space, which is unsurprising, given the fact that humanity has not been significantly invested in human spaceflight since it was a political priority during the Cold War. The most recent international treaty, the Outer Space Treaty (its full name is the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies), dates back to the Cold War era—1967, to be precise. The Outer Space Treaty bans nuclear weapons in space and declares space “the province of all mankind”, stating it should be used for peaceful purposes, similarly to Antarctica. 1979’s Moon Treaty (Agreement Governing the Activities of States on the Moon and other Celestial Bodies) attempted to update the Outer Space Treaty, which was notably silent on the status of possible lunar and asteroid mining. The Moon Treaty declared the moon the “common heritage of mankind”, thus preventing individual states or corporations from exploiting its resources alone. However, while all major spacefaring nations are party to the Outer Space Treaty, only eighteen countries are party to the Moon Treaty, and none of them are major players. This makes the Moon Treaty effectively immaterial, and the outdated Outer Space Treaty remains the basis of international space law.
As technology has progressed, governments and corporations alike are starting to look more seriously at mining locations in the solar system like the moon, the asteroid belt, and Mars. Asteroids, especially, are enticing—they contain more platinum-group metals than the Earth’s crust, as well as water (which can be turned into rocket fuel), and organic compounds (which can be used as fertilisers), and all without the pricey fuel expenditure needed to escape a planetary gravity well. Corporate space mining hopefuls, like Deep Space Industries and Planetary Resources (both of which have since declined and been sold due to the volatility of the nascent industry), successfully lobbied the United States Congress to pass the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which states that Americans can exploit space resources. Some scholars consider this to be in violation of the Outer Space Treaty. Rather than space being “the province of all mankind” as in the Treaty, “the Space Act conceives a pre-regulatory framework, essentially leaving the right to define any constraints on extraction and use to the first companies that arrive,” says legal scholar Reed Elizabeth Loder.
In the absence of a modern international space treaty to provide guidance on these issues, and given the clear interest in space mining from many of the biggest players in the commercial space industry, like Elon Musk and Jeffrey Bezos, it seems likely that the rights of space mining might be decided not before such activity first occurs, but when it does. It took the Cold War to spur the Outer Space Treaty, after all. The alternate-history science fiction show For All Mankind provides a fictional portrayal of politics updating space law. In the show, it takes a near-nuclear catastrophe in the alternate 1980s for the Soviet Union and United States to sign a new treaty splitting the moon into hemispheres each controlled by one superpower, leaving “the province of all mankind” behind. In real life, if the international community were to fail to create a new space treaty before space extractivism began, such altruism might be gone for good, in favour of a continuation of the extractivist practice of territorial claims and resource exploitation.
One of the biggest ethical considerations brought up by extractivism in space, and prominent in my list of questions above, is that of planetary protection. “Planetary protection” can be a confusing term. To the uninitiated it conjures images of defending the Earth from a killer comet, but in reality, planetary protection refers to protecting Earth and other celestial bodies from biological contamination. This goes both ways—preventing forward contamination from the Earth to another body, and backward contamination of extra-terrestrial organisms from other bodies to Earth. Planetary protection is vital for the safety of Earth life, and of hypothetical alien life, because of our lack of knowledge about the harm that could be caused by the two biospheres interacting.
Contamination also disrupts science results. If life is found on Mars, how could we be certain it was not actually Earth life we brought along on an earlier mission? The Outer Space Treaty contains a principle requiring planetary protection procedures, which are followed on missions such as NASA’s Mars rovers. By contrast, the Space Act of 2015 provides no guidance to avoid contamination in space resource extraction—if such a thing is even possible . Microbes are all around us on Earth, and indeed inside us, and despite NASA’s rigorous clean room procedures, it is likely there are already fragments of Earth DNA on Mars. It is therefore hard to believe space mining activity could avoid contamination. I say this not to declare planetary protection efforts to preserve life futile (they aren’t), but to highlight how disruptive and damaging extractivism in space could be. In mining an asteroid, or Mars, we might be destroying or contaminating a finding of immense scientific value, and we would never know.
This is why, as an exoplanet scientist who has done graduate level coursework in astrobiology, I find scenes where humans wantonly interact with and exploit alien biospheres in works that otherwise make an effort to be quite scientifically rigorous, like The Expanse, so troubling. What does it look like when science fiction does take planetary protection into account? Once again, Avatar displays awareness of the ecological reality of extractivism in an extraterrestrial environment, with human characters unable to breathe Pandora’s atmosphere and needing to rely on the titular avatars to interact with the biosphere. However, taking my analysis a step further, I would like to examine two recent science fiction works that, unlike Avatar, do not feature extractivism in their space travel at all: Becky Chambers’ novella To Be Taught, If Fortunate (2019) and the audio drama Tides (2018).
To Be Taught is the story of a crew of four astronauts exploring four exoplanets in another star system, which they believe might host life. The astronauts do find life, and practice a painstaking decontamination procedure every time they enter and exit their habitat, working to disturb the local ecosystem as little as possible. There is a particularly emotionally powerful scene in which an alien animal accidentally ends up brought into the airlock of their habitat in a sample crate, and isn’t caught until after the decontamination procedure is over, and the astronauts have taken off their space suits. When it is discovered, the astronauts are forced to kill it rather than risk returning it to its own ecosystem after its contamination by theirs, since they have no idea what Earth microbes could do to this alien world.
Tides tells the story of Dr Winifred Eurus, a xenobiologist who is stranded away from her shipmates on Fons, a moon of a gas giant, which experiences very strong tidal forces and has a thriving intertidal ecosystem. Despite Fons having a breathable atmosphere and despite her own dire situation, Dr Eurus refuses to remove her exosuit, saying “I’m worried about contamination, of course. My presence here is an unwelcome intrusion into what might very well be a fragile ecosystem. So far I’m not removing my helmet and trusting the biofilters to just do their job. But I can’t help but wonder if on the outside of this suit a single, very lucky tardigrade is waiting to unleash havoc on the hapless Fonsian microbes.”
Eurus arguably goes farther than the To Be Taught characters, who are all following their in-universe planetary protection protocol. Eurus, on the other hand, places it above her own well-being in her personal moral code, even as colleagues express surprise at her staunch refusal to remove her helmet:
EURUS: I can also not smell my own body odor anymore inside this suit, which, you know, is definitely an improvement.
MONTAGUE: Wait, you’re still wearing the suit? I would have taken that off days ago. You said the air was fine, right? We’ve only gotten spotty reception of your signal, but I didn’t realize that you would still be -
EURUS: Contamination, Montague! Damn, just for a second have a thought about the biosphere I’m in, that’s way more important than my comfort. How could I possibly justify ruining this for future research?
These works provide refreshing examples of planetary protection in science fiction, but they don’t feature it interacting with extractivism. Narratively, it is clear why many science fiction works feature extractivism. As can be seen from real-life discussions, extractivism (along with colonisation, which it is inextricably linked to) provides a reason to go to space, which is of course necessary if one wants to set their science fiction work there. When these reasons are removed, what remains is exploration with the goal of increasing scientific knowledge—and this is the reason to go to space in To Be Taught and Tides. Some philosophers working in the field of space ethics, like Ian Stoner, have concluded that this reason—scientific curiosity—is the only reason for humans to go to other planets that we should accept morally. However, while space journeys with a scientific justification can provide riveting science fiction tales, it is clear that extractivism makes up a large part of our imagined future in space. Space extractivism is a strong possibility in real life, and it is right that science fiction should examine this potential future. The trouble is that many SF works fail to thoughtfully depict the ethics of it. Namely, destruction of alien environments and potential scientific discoveries are often ignored, as well as the rights of alien life, from the microbial to the intelligent, and the rights of ecosystems themselves. Furthermore, Western notions of property and land rights are often applied without critique to space environments. The question “should we be allowed to cause this destruction?” is rarely addressed, with the need for resources being tacitly endorsed as reason enough to destroy.
A Personal Contribution to the Debate: ROGUEMAKER
All of the above was on my mind while I was world-building for my science fiction audio drama, ROGUEMAKER. I wanted to include extractivism in ROGUEMAKER’s future spacefaring society, along with giving it a clearer legal status than in real life, or indeed than in most science fiction. The society of ROGUEMAKER includes in its lawbooks the Alien Autonomy Act—AAA—which prohibits commercial exploration of living worlds. Society is composed of two intelligent species—humans and the alien ǵnonw—and while they have discovered many worlds with unintelligent biospheres, from microbial to plants and bugs, they have not found any other evidence of “higher life” in the galaxy outside of themselves and the ruins of an unknown ancient civilisation they dub “the Tracers.”
Humans and ǵnonw largely live on their own homeworlds. They only take to space for industrial activity, such as the space resource extraction from “dead” worlds—that is, worlds they have not discovered any extant life on, which includes worlds with abandoned ruins of the Tracers—that fuels much of their lifestyles. ROGUEMAKER presents a society in which microbial alien ecosystems are protected by law—far more protection than such life forms enjoy in most SF stories—and yet, AAA is constantly under attack from corporations eager to exploit these worlds. For example, corporations continually search for rogue planets (planets that are not gravitationally bound to any star) to mine, taking advantage of the legal loophole that, as one miner says, “where rogues are concerned, there are no pesky J-Gov laws to worry about—it’s finders-keepers.” This philosophy is not unlike that of the 2015 Space Act above.
At the same time as AAA protects alien ecosystems from extractivism, the practice still causes environmental harm. Several characters are involved in anti-extractivism with an activist group called Canary. One character sums up the group’s beliefs by saying “our society takes whole planets’ worth of resources from space to fuel luxury, and claims to have ‘solved’ our homeworlds’ environmental crises by dumping our pollution into outer space. Moving our problem somewhere else isn’t solving it ... instead of all this endless expansion, Canary tries to encourage people to use the resources we already have.” Characters regularly debate the ethical and environmental issues of extractivism, even in a society where it is legally regulated. My hope with ROGUEMAKER is to present a science fiction story in which extractivism, with all its legal and ethical baggage, is not an aside or a mere backdrop, but is instead taken seriously, in all its riches and horrors.
Science fiction is a genre that continues to struggle with its own colonialist history, of which many of its portrayals of extractivism are a part. Science fiction is also a genre that has a history of being socially progressive and conscious. These are both truths. Western, popular science fiction works largely have a disturbing tendency to ignore the ecological ramifications of extractivism, even if they do address the social ones—itself a fallacy because the ecological and the social are intertwined. Given we are now nearing the technological ability to mine our own solar system, the time to be considering the ethics of such activity is now—not after it is too late and space has gone from “the province of all mankind” to a series of corporate claims. In real life and in science fiction, many people justify asteroid mining by saying that depleted resources on Earth may make it necessary to the survival of the human species. Rather than glossing over catastrophic ecosystem death in its depictions of space extractivism, more science fiction should question such justifications, which try to claim that extractivism is the solution, where it is really the cause.
It’s time to stop turning a blind eye to extractivism in science fiction. We can do so by paying attention to space law and the growth of the commercial space industry, listening to indigenous activists and scholars fighting extractivism here on Earth, and considering the rights of the space environment in our world-building. It’s time to stop uncritically retelling the same myth of the future.
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