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Should We Grant 'Legal Personhood' to the Moon?

Old fashioned black and white vector illustration of a man in the moon. Facial expression of eyebrow raised. Download includes Illustrator 8 eps, high resolution jpg and png file.
By Richard Dahl | Last updated on

Anybody with a bit of romantic imagination knows there's a man or woman in the moon.

Or maybe, if you're from China, it's a rabbit. Or, if you're a member of the Salish Tribe in the Pacific Northwest, a toad.

Wherever you're from, you know there's something special about the moon. It's not just craters, rocks, and dust. It's an object of adoration, the subject of countless ballads and poems.

And that is why, as the first commercial flights to the moon are set to launch soon, some people with romantic streaks think we need to take steps now to provide legal protections for our ancient lunar friend.

But how?

An Australian archaeologist has an idea that she'd like the world to consider: Grant the moon "legal personhood."

Alice Gorman, an associate professor in archaeology and space studies at Flinders University in Adelaide, argues that we Earthlings should think of the moon as a living being. She argues that we need to think about assigning trustees for the moon, much as we assign legal guardians in court for incapacitated family members who can't communicate their own needs and wishes.

A Theory That's Been Put Into Action

A wacky idea? Probably. But it's one that's been put into practice in a few locations, though not in the U.S. In 2017, the New Zealand Parliament granted legal personhood to the Whanganui River, putting it under the care of trustees appointed by a Maori tribe and the government. Two years later, Bangladesh declared legal personhood for all its rivers.

Basically, this means that these rivers have the same rights as humans. They can file suit, for instance. And they can't be owned or altered without permission because nature is presumed to have the same rights as humans.

How would that work for the moon? Good question.

Gorman doesn't address which Earthlings might qualify as worthy trustees for the moon, or which court would make that determination. She seems to be planting the idea now for further consideration when humans start doing things up there.

And make no mistake, she says. Humans will soon start doing things up there.

At the moment, at least 10 commercial flights to the moon are scheduled between now and the end of 2021.

The U.S. Makes Plans for Lunar Commerce

The U.S., at least, is trying to stake a claim already. In April, President Trump signed an executive order giving American companies and individuals the right to explore for, recover, and use resources in space.

The action is an endorsement of the idea that the moon and other celestial bodies comprise a "global commons" and that properly licensed entrepreneurs may extract what they can for a profit. And the moon does appear to possess materials of value, like rare earth minerals and helium-3, a possible clean-energy source.

Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, suggests that the "global commons" model resembles what we know on Earth as "the law of the high seas."

This law, he explains, is "not under the control of an individual country, but completely open to the duly licensed law-abiding fishing operations from any country's citizens and companies. Then, once the fish is in the nets, it is legally theirs to sell."

But if these commercial interests find riches on the moon, might it threaten the man, the woman, the rabbit, or the toad who lives there in our imaginations?

And might we find a way for the moon to speak for itself?

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