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Effective space sustainability requires thinking differently from the approaches that led to the climate crisis. (credit: ESA/Spacejunk3D, LLC)

Effective altruism, corporate responsibility, and space sustainability


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The maxim, or general rule, is that we pick and choose which ethical rules to follow. Culture, religion, law, and the desire to stay out of prison, inform our preferences. While I may want to get into trouble at an epic party in Phuket, steering clear of the Bangkok Hilton overrides my fleeting preference to test the effectiveness of Thai law enforcement.

What’s happening in space starts here on Earth. What is launched in space creates jobs… and pollution. Consider the amount of resources involved, and pollution created, to allow one billionaire the privilege of experiencing the Overview Effect. (The SpaceX reusable orbital launch system has been noted.)

There’s a climate crisis on Earth. Why are we applying the same logic that created it to space?

In a December 2021 article, sharing concerns about Earth/space sustainability, I wrote, “One rocket launch emits about 300 tons of carbon dioxide, which is the equivalent of one transatlantic flight carrying 300–400 passengers. The environmental impact of aerospace (A) is closely intertwined with defense (D), at times indistinguishably so. Together, the A&D sector produces significant emissions and is projected to continue on a path of expansion in the years to follow. As reported by Chelsea Gohd for Space.com: ‘SpaceX has filed paperwork for up to 42,000 satellites for the Starlink constellation.’” (See “Who was missing at COP26 and why it’s a problem”, The Space Review, December 13, 2021.)

There’s a climate crisis on Earth. Why are we applying the same logic that created it to space? The Secure World Foundation echoes this sentiment: “Similar to sustainability initiatives on Earth, space sustainability seeks to use the environment of space to meet the current needs of society without compromising the needs of future generations.”

Corporate sustainability self-reporting in aerospace and defense is somewhat dubious. Information asymmetry occurs when incomplete information is supplied. In terms of sustainability, accurate measurement enables good data, which is critical for analysis and effective recommendations. In conducting research for this article, I used Lockheed Martin's most recently updated public information to demonstrate an issue with sustainability self-reporting. Here are three points to consider:

  • Lockheed Martin works with over 50 countries worldwide. In the “Lockheed Martin Corporation - Climate Change 2020 report” information on only six countries are supplied. Where is the climate change information on the other 44 countries?
  • Why is there only one sustainability disclosure report for 2021?
  • Why are the following disclosures and reports missing from the Lockheed Martin “Sustainability Disclosures and Reports” webpage: sustainability reports, assurance statements, CDP water security response, CDP supply chain response, sustainability accounting standards board report, global reporting initiative index, ESH performance reports, diversity and inclusion reports, EEO-1 reporting, human rights report, conflict minerals report, UK gender pay gap report, ESG performance data report and the TCFD report. To emphasize, each of the proceeding reports was missing on the Lockheed Martin sustainability website as of March 24.

What duties of non-maleficence do the affluent have to the poor? Peter Singer is an Australian moral philosopher at Princeton University who, among many things, has furthered the effective altruism movement. Effective altruism is a simple idea: living a fully ethical life involves doing the most good one can. Through the combined application of reason and empirical evidence, effective altruists evaluate for the most effective ways to do good.

Demanding complete information, enacting strict space sustainability regulations, and taxing and penalizing misbehavior are a start.

What are some ways that the space sector can do the most good? There are countless examples from NASA: “From supporting food security to tracking diseases, NASA’s Applied Sciences projects advance what’s possible here on Earth.” What’s another way to apply effective altruism to space? By advocating for increased pro-climate aerospace and defense policy. In a talk on corporate responsibility between Jason Jay, Senior Lecturer Sustainability at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and Bethany Patten, Senior Associate Director, Climate Pathways Project at the MIT Sloan Sustainability Initiative, Patten shared:

Policy in the US is money driven. There are two types of people who walk in the door one, like you said, as a lobbyist, whether it’s a lobbyist for a trade organization, or it’s an internal government relations lobbyist for a big multinational corporation. They’re coming in with a specific ask, and they're coming in with a specific ask that has a lot of dollars behind it. My experience is that most of the meetings that politicians take are meetings where they’re being asked to do something, and that’s exhausting. All day, every day to have to say no, or say yes or have to make some kind of decision with not a lot of information and a lot riding on it is stressful. When we come in and offer an opportunity for politicians to learn [through EnROADS] without any kind of ask, it’s a real relief, and it’s been met with a lot of enthusiasm.

Sustainability decision making without complete information is a demonstrated issue in aerospace and defense. What is an example of an innovation pathway? The En-ROADS Climate Solutions Simulator is a fast, powerful climate simulation tool to demonstrate how we can achieve our climate goals through changes in energy, land use, consumption, agriculture, and other policies. The simulator focuses on how changes in global GDP, energy efficiency, technological innovation, and carbon price influence carbon emissions, global temperature, and other factors. It is designed to provide a synthesis of the best available science on climate solutions and put it at the fingertips of groups in policy workshops and roleplaying games. These experiences enable people to explore the long-term climate impacts of global policy and investment decisions.

Moral hazards within A&D abound. What to do? Making the distinction between A&D corporate sustainability acts and omissions is necessary, while cherry-picking examples of right conduct within the space community is to be avoided. Instead, demanding complete information, enacting strict space sustainability regulations, and taxing and penalizing misbehavior are a start. Or, what?


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