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#SpaceWatchGL Opinion: What Bedouins can teach us about Space Sustainability 

by Alyssa Goessler 

Credits: Unsplash

Sustainability has been practiced as a precondition for survival by many indigenous groups throughout the span of history. For those of us concerned with sustainability in space—or “the ability of all humanity to continue to use outer space for peaceful purposes and socioeconomic benefit over the long term”— this ought to be a heartening reality, as we can look to these practices to help avoid “reinventing the wheel.”

The recent launch of the UAE’s Hope Probe is a useful opportunity for a thought exercise. The UAE branded the Hope launch as an Arab undertaking, and an effort to inspire a new generation of Arabs to pursue space science. There is no better resource to turn to for Arab space sustainability efforts than the Bedouin people—the nomadic and semi-nomadic people who have historically inhabited desert regions throughout North Africa, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Levantine region.

Given the austere conditions of the desert, their survival has been contingent upon frugal use of resources and a keen understanding of their environment. Here are a few Bedouin lessons that are relevant to space sustainability.

Empiricism is key

The Bedouins’ ability to survive in the desert rests in large part upon their principled use of empiricism. For navigation, the Bedouins utilized extensive and rigorous observations of their environment: the position of celestial bodies; the angles of sand on the dunes carved by the wind; prior paths denoted by footprints. Bedouins also relied on knowledge of their local ecosystem. Their Traditional Ecological Knowledge (TEK) base was built over centuries, passed down through tribal lineages, and continuously expanded in response to local changes.

This Bedouin practice should remind us to seek out and generate an array of timely data sources, particularly on space situational awareness and space-traffic management, and make these resources widely available. Furthermore, we ought to recognize the existing footprints in the sand: namely, the various resources, such as ASTRIAGraph, that illustrate the pressure being placed on orbital “carrying” capacity [GAL1]

Mutual aid and generosity are essential “norms of behavior” for survival

The well-known Arab custom of hospitality is rooted directly in the Bedouin experience, as a lack of generosity within a tribe would be fatal. The sustained hardship experienced in the desert led to a rigid social discipline within a Bedouin community, wherein groups tended to coordinate their efforts more efficiently in times of stress.

It is incumbent upon both private and public actors in space to uphold an equal degree of commitment to these norms of behavior: mutual aid and collaboration. While ample agreements and accords exist—most notably, the Outer Space Treaty of 1967— a meaningful and publicly available oversight mechanism is lacking, and neither carrot nor stick can be found. The TEK of groups like the Bedouins can help to guide the way.

Commercialization—if done right—can yield benefits

Since the discovery of oil in the UAE in 1966, the UAE’s economy has experienced a rapid transition which led to the coordinated urbanization of most Bedouins. In his book, Calvert Jones details the undertakings of the UAE government throughout the 70’s and 80’s as they began offering generous benefits to its citizens, including the Bedouins, in order to build a modern nation via its “cradle-to-grave” welfare state. Many UAE citizens still identify with their Bedouin ancestry while enjoying a higher quality of life than they would have experienced in the absence of the oil boom.

The space sector has taken a shift towards commercialization, as illustrated by the rapid proliferation of commercial satellites and the first commercial human spaceflight mission launched by SpaceX in May. While there is certainly great potential for meaningful scientific and economic benefit from these commercial activities, we ought to remain cautious as to the costs—namely, the overcrowding of space, and the corresponding increase in likelihood of collision.

A couple notes on the points made above. Data on the behavior of states could be affected by mis- and disinformation, or by biases ingrained into the analysis itself. This should not be a disincentive to us from a data-based approach, but should rather affirm the importance of robust and intelligent analytical methods.

Some argue that norms are not efficient at inducing desired behaviors. However, there are many incidents of normative campaigns resulting in the development of powerful international accords, such as the normative campaign on the use of landmines and the taboo surrounding the use of nuclear weapons. Finally, as noted above, commercialization on earth has often coincided with a tragedy of the commons. The key for success in the context of the Bedouin shift towards commercialization is that it coincided with the development of a welfare system. Similarly, we ought to enter space with an equal focus on general welfare, ensuring that everyone will benefit–not solely those generating a profit.


Alyssa Goessler; Courtesy by the author

Alyssa Goessler is a second-year graduate student pursuing a dual-degree in Global Policy and Middle Eastern Studies at the LBJ School of Public Affairs and the Center for Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Prior to joining the UT community, Alyssa worked for three years in foreign policy in New York City—first, at the Mission of Jordan to the United Nations, and thereafter in the Executive Office of the Council on Foreign Relations. She is a Brumley Fellow at the Strauss Center for International Law specializing in space security, safety and sustainability.


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