The Disappearing Sky

The sky is a unique domain, and one that is inadequately regulated. With the advent of global pollutions and technologies, remedying that has become more urgent than ever.

Some months ago, an American astronaut accidentally let a tool escape into orbit, eliciting concern about its hazardous potential as a hurtling object that could destroy an expensive satellite or even threaten lives aloft. Shortly afterwards, China blew up one of its satellites, immediately doubling the type of fine orbiting debris that is dangerous because it is hard to track.

Once again the world became aware of the strange situation emerging in our skies. The sky is a unique domain, and one that is inadequately regulated. With the advent of global pollutions and technologies, remedying this is becoming an increasingly urgent problem.

In most cases, the laws for skies mirror those governing the world’s oceans. Oceans belong to everyone except those near landmasses, which are managed in a similar manner to the country's land-bound borders. As a result, the sky is usually conceptualized in terms of traffic. Airliners and fighter planes operate in “controlled” air close to the ground, while nationality is supposed to matter less the higher you go. Fragile treaties that cover this are enforced mostly by the fact that few nations can afford to place assets that high.

But lately, more complex problems are beginning to arise from humanity’s sharing the atmosphere. Carbon and fluorocarbons affect everyone’s children. When Chernobyl exploded, it was not Ukraine alone that inherited generations of radioactive effects. Soon nations will colonize the moon, giving rise to the same unsatisfactory and tentative situation we have in Antarctica, where nations essentially take without legally owning.

A more enlightened approach to shared resources is needed, one less dependent on neo-colonial control.

Some suggest that sky governance follow the precedent set by the electromagnetic spectrum. The “airwaves” are used for a variety of communications, including government use and public access like radio. The range of usable territory – the spectrum – is administered by governments as though it were real estate, and is broken up according to wavelength, with an amount apportioned for cell phones, other bits for military pilots, and so on.

Subscribe to PS Digital

Subscribe to PS Digital

Access every new PS commentary, our entire On Point suite of subscriber-exclusive content – including Longer Reads, Insider Interviews, Big Picture/Big Question, and Say More – and the full PS archive.

Subscribe Now

This situation would be disastrous if it could not be closely managed, because people would broadcast on top of one another. Soon, we will see the spectrum become even more active, with the merger of cell phone infrastructure and the relatively unregulated Internet.

This will likely be followed by more sophisticated means of communications based on access to the air. To some extent, everyone will benefit from this, because governments will be less able to censor information. But would it be a better model of atmospheric administration?

Perhaps not. The problem is that at least some electromagnetic waves are dangerous. Consider this: at any given moment, the average citizen in the developed world has billions of messages passing through his or her brain. It can be shown that cells are able to detect these messages, but the extent to which they affect the body is unknown.

However, it is known that bees are dying in the northern hemisphere. This is a major concern because so much food depends on bees for pollination. The primary causes of this recent epidemic are germs and mites, but these have always been with us. So why are they affecting bees now?

A German study suggests that the proliferation of cell phone towers is weakening bees’ immune systems (the study correlates towers and signal strength to bee deaths). The jury is still out, but it may be that there is no safe level of exposure to many common radiations; the more we are exposed, the more damage we do. We would see the result of this in indirect effects, such as growing rates of asthma and hyperactivity in children.

So perhaps the problem with existing regulatory models lies in the assumption that the entire atmosphere is available for unconstrained use. We have an intuitive understanding of the importance of limits when the loss of our sky is articulated in poetic terms. As light pollution covers more of the planet, we are losing one of our oldest connections to nature: the ancient ability to gaze at the stars. If dying bees do not inspire formal guidelines about how the sky should be shared, let us hope that empty space will.

The sky must belong to the people. Abuse of it harms everyone, and profits from its use should benefit all as well, implying the need to establish worldwide democratic rights over what is an unarguably universal resource.