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How space exploration is bringing us back down to Earth

Net Gains? Living Well With Technology
Dr Tony Milligan

Research Fellow in the Philosophy of Ethics

27 April 2023

What have our advancements in space technology taught us about ourselves? Dr Tony Milligan researches the science/religion and ethics boundary and its implications for deliberation and policy. As part of Net Gains? Dr Milligan demonstrates how our drive to find out more about the wider galaxy has in fact confronted us with the devastating impact of climate change on our own planet.

Tony Milligan

Writing about the ethics of outer space is a little like making a documentary about the North Pole. We all know that it’s there, and that what happens around the pole affects our lives. But it’s not somewhere that most of us will ever visit. By comparison, every day we engage with phones, computers, Alexa, and other life-reshaping technologies and so ethical deliberation about these matters seems much closer to home. The sense of the remoteness of space is not, then, about technophobia, but about something else.

As far as I can tell, this ‘something else’ is really a combination of two things. The first is the obvious truth that most of us will never travel to the Moon, or Mars, or the International Space Station. The second is an exaggerated sense of separation between Earth and everywhere else. This helps to feed various kinds of skepticism about the value of looking to space as a way to improve life on Earth.

To make sense of this over-separation, I introduced the concept of ‘ground bias’. And it is a concept which makes sense to a good many of my colleagues around the world. Not just colleagues working on the societal dimensions of space exploration, but also colleagues working on geology (especially geoethics), and oceanography.

As an obvious example of this bias, we routinely use technologies while not paying much attention to the satellite systems on which they depend. And even when we do acknowledge the important role of this kind of activity in space, we tend to regard it as strictly local. So, it is common to imagine that our understanding of the greenhouse effect comes from close to Earth, or Earth-only observation, but this is false. It was climate scientists with a background in Mars and Venus atmospheric research who saw the data and quickly recognized what was going on: i.e., a similar process to the global warming which had been recognized on Venus twenty years earlier.

Pointing to these examples is a technical way to frame the larger philosophical problem that we see ourselves as isolated. We do not have much of a sense of cosmological belonging. This would be less worrying if it was just an attenuated quirk of attitudes towards space. But it seems to be bound together with biases about the Earth itself. Down here, on Earth, the same preoccupation with where the humans are is reproduced.

So, for example, we tend towards surface bias, or a tendency to ignore the multiple ways in which the deep geology of the Earth shapes our lives. Even Gaia theory is only concerned with the living surface and not with the deeper parts of the planet. And we tend towards land bias. Our planet is a water world. Its surface is mostly (i.e., around 71%) covered in water. Yet when understanding surface phenomena, we typically start with the land and only then move out to the oceans. We do this repeatedly when thinking about climate change.

Again, the reasons for talking in planetary terms but covertly focusing upon where the humans are seem to be strongly anthropocentric. Ultimately, ground bias involves a preoccupation with ourselves. That preoccupation becomes a problem when we are confronted with changes to climate which are utterly indifferent to our preferred location or well-being.


Find out more in Tony Milligan’s paper, Ground Bias: A Driver for Skepticisms about Space Exploration.

Photo by NASA.

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Tony Milligan

Tony Milligan

Research Fellow, Philosophy of Ethics

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