Monday, July 10, 2006

Wish Week Day 3: The University of Earth

This is the third in a series of posts for “Wish Week” – a week devoted to perhaps fanciful ideas on how to make the world a better place. So far I have discussed:

Day 1: Logic Circles

Day 2: Representative Democracy

Today’s proposal is for the ultimate land-grant university – The University of Earth.

This university’s mission is to take children in some of the least healthy environments – in terms of economic poverty, political upheaval, and disease – and give them a chance to move into a boarding school where they would be provided with food, shelter, medical care, and a good education in a truly international university.


The main issue with any project is, “How are you going to pay for this?”

In this case, the form of payment that I have in mind is what makes the University of Earth the ultimate land-grant university. This university would raise money by selling land. The land that would be granted to this university is all of the land that exists in the solar system other than Earth. This includes the Moon, Mars, asteroids, comets, the moons of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, the Kupyer Belt Objects and items in the Oort cloud. All totaled, there are currently over 120,000 known bodies in our solar system, and huge numbers not yet discovered.

Not long ago, I used this idea as a premise for a book, so I worked out the issues in some detail. In the book, the United Nations chartered the University of Earth and passed a resolution governing the sale of property in space to help to fund this University. As a United Nations resolution, people who purchased the land could be confident that their title would carry weight anywhere in the world. This gave potential buyers the confidence of knowing that they would, in fact, actually own the land they purchased.

The book began at the end of the first auction, January 1, 2017. The University of Earth had put 1 million hectares of the lunar surface for sale. This first auction involved a square 100km wide and 100km long centered on the Apollo 11 landing site. The central 2km by 2km region had been donated to the Smithsonian. The University of Earth had reserved a small strip of land around the Smithsonian contribution for its own use. The remaining 984,000 hectares were divided out into a grid and sold in 1-hectare (about 2.5 acres) plots.

This auction, by the way, amounted to less than 1/3000th of the lunar surface.

There were restrictions. Plots could not be sold or transferred to countries, businesses, or organizations, but only to individuals. In addition, no individual could bit for more than 25 hectares.

The second auction in my story was for a number of small asteroids where the winning bid purchased the entire asteroid. The third auction aimed to sell off land near the Lunar south pole, while a fourth would sell off a section of the surface of Mars. The University planned on holding one auction per year, at lest for the foreseeable future.

The Kennedy Square Land Owners’ Association

I called the area involved in this first auction Kennedy Square, and with the auction I created the Kennedy Square Land Owners’ Association with the power to collect dues (equal to $10 per month for each hectare owned) and to repossess and resell any property whose owners neglected to pay their dues. The Landowner’s Association had the responsibility of maintaining a registry of all deeds as well as establishing and maintaining those rules that the property owners agreed upon. Property owners were able to cast one vote for members of the Board of Directors for each hectare of land that they owned. (Note: In the book, I also used the model of proportional representation that I discussed yesterday, where each member of the Board had 1 vote received in the election.)

The Land Owners’ Association used any extra money it received in dues to fund projects for the property owners. For example, its first project was to fund a mission to the moon to get some better pictures of this part of the lunar surface – so the land owners could see more precisely what they owned. In the mean time, the Association also had to manage some private missions – wealthy individual land owners were eager to send their own missions to those parts of the lunar surface that they had purchased land. Some of them were immediately talking about the possibility of developing their property.


There are individuals who have “claimed” the moon and have been selling off tracts of land themselves. I hold that these are merely novelty items, like selling of the right to name stars that provide no actual title to the land.

At the same time, there are those who argue that it is not possible to claim any land unless you go there and actually make use of it. Against this, I hold that property rights are a matter of convention – there is no natural law of property that dictates the manner by which individuals may acquire ownership. If the United Nations passes a resolution stating that such an auction will take place and its members will respect the results of that auction, then we have enough of a convention to make the auction valid.

If the United Nations were to pass a resolution verifying the claims of these organizations that have been selling off pieces of the Moon for years, then this would give them title. However, I see no need to do that. No natural law compels it. No man-made law made the land available for such a claim.

Prospects of Success

One thing that these organizations currently selling lunar property are telling us is that there is at least some money to be made in this type of venture. There would be more money to be made if people could actually trust that their title would be respected. There is even more money to be made if the money would go to a good cause, such as providing food, shelter, medical care, and education to children who have had such a poor start in life.

I do not know how much money would be made, but every dollar would help.

Moral Underpinnings

As the space race between the United States and the former Soviet Union was heating up, the United Nations passed a series of resolutions governing the use of outer space all effectively built on the idea that it be used for the benefit of all mankind and all nations regardless of their economic and scientific status. The concern was with the idea that the wealthy and technologically advanced countries would take space and any benefits space may provide for themselves, and leave the poor countries with nothing.

It is a fair concern, except to the degree that it ends up leaving everybody with nothing. The true goal should be to spread the wealth that space resources can provide, not to create rules that have the effect of keeping all potential users away.

To efficiently use space for the benefit of all mankind, there must be a system of property rights that allows those who invest money to keep the profits of their investment. Otherwise, there will be significant underinvestment in space, and few benefits for mankind.

We live in a universe that is indifferent as to whether the human race continues to exist. Those who care that the human race continue to exist (as I certainly do) recognize a certain value in taking steps to make sure that we protect humanity from an indifferent universe. It is extremely likely that there will be countless civilizations that will reach our state of development, but fail to take the steps necessary to protect themselves from an impact from a long-period comet or asteroid, from the possibility of a nearby gamma ray burst, the variability of their own sun.

In addition, there is reason to be concerned that we may destroy ourselves if we remain in such close proximity to each other. We need to be concerned with the environmental destruction of the planet leaving it uninhabitable. This is more likely the case if we do not harvest the resources of space. The alternative is to cut deeper and deeper scars into the living earth. We must also live with the possibility of self-destruction through nuclear war or the engineering of a biological weapon that may destroy all life. When it comes to our survival as a species, we have more to fear from hostile (and not-quite-rational) neighbors than we do from an indifferent universe.

If we survive as a species, we will some day discover the archaeological ruins of these dead civilizations. I hold that this is much more preferable to a future in which some of those other race discovering the ruins and relics left in our solar system.

Establishing the University of Earth as a land-grant university meets all of these objectives. The poorer nations of the earth get the benefit of acquiring a better education for their citizens. In the mean time, a system of private property rights is established that will better secure the private investment in the use and development of space resources. The ultimate payoff may be the survival of the human species.

Space will, in this way, actually benefit of all mankind, rather than remain unused.

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