An Inquiry for an Alternative Institutional Arrangement to Govern Outer Space

  • Shane Chaddha

Student thesis: Phd


The uncontrolled growth of the space debris population is an environmental challenge. The several major debris-generating events at the beginning of the 21st Century suggests that the existing space governance regime encourages self-interested, rational state and non-state space actors to freely access and make use of the extraterrestrial commons without credible restraint, and lacks the robustness to hold these entities directly accountable and liable for their polluting activities. Such non-discriminatory right encourages these users to act and behave individualistically when utilising outer space, and make irresponsible choices like decisions to carry out debris-creating activities. These events also show that actors are tied together in a lattice of interdependence so long as they continue to share the space environment. An irresponsible operator who carries out an unsafe, risky activity increases the environmental costs shared by all members, both current and future users. The debris problem is an externality produced by human activities in space which can over time create a type of social dilemma called the 'Tragedy of the Commons' - a situation involving the environmental degradation and possible ruin of a shared resource. Many conferences have emphasised the seriousness of space congestion, and technological efforts have been adopted to reduce environmental degradation. However, while they are practical in the short and medium term, these measures lack the capacity to offer long-term solutions to deal with the problem. Often overlooked is a scrutiny on the adequacy of the existing space governance regime to preserve the space environment and control the debris population. The focus has been on exploration and exploitation and less on actively regulating the actions and behaviours of space actors when appropriating the resource, and restraining those strategic choices users would take in given situations. This thesis considers the shortcomings of the current outer space regulatory regime and proposes alternative space governance arrangements. It uses insights from the works of two property-rights theorists: Garrett Hardin and Elinor Ostrom - who developed the most widely used institutional designs to manage terrestrial and small-scale common-pool resources. They argue that resource users cannot efficiently coordinate collective action to deal with social dilemmas because of its institutional arrangement, and that such regime must be redesigned. However, their policy prescriptions are competing. Hardin states that the commons should be either privatised or managed by an external authority. Ostrom, on the other hand, argues that community-based governance can be successful when certain conditions are satisfied. From their respective works, this thesis constructs theoretical frameworks to determine if either Hardin's or Ostrom's prescriptions can be so crafted to provide an alternative space governance regime, and address the space debris problem. If the proposed institutional arrangement is appropriate and viable to govern outer space, it offers considerations on what further must be done to ensure its robustness to effectively regulate access and oversee the use of the space environment; restrain actors from carrying out potentially harmful activities; and organise actors to resolve collective action problems.
Date of Award1 Aug 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • The University of Manchester
SupervisorJackson Maogoto (Supervisor) & Gary Lynch-Wood (Supervisor)

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