Light Rights Tangles

We are a long way from running out of room, rocks, and sunlight on Earth, but eventually, probably well within a thousand years, our descendants will colonize our Solar System in earnest. When they do, they will have to answer some key property rights questions:

  • How do things go from unowned to owned? An auction? First to touch/use in some way?
  • What orbital rights-of-way can be owned? Only Sun-centered spheres? Any initially used orbit and any changes that don’t intersect other used orbits?
  • Who can block what sunlight? Let anyone block anything? Can’t block used light without permission?

On this last question, I can see light rights easily evolving as did water rights on Earth, where those using some water for a while gained a right to keep on using it. However, on reflection this seems like a mistake for sunlight. Imagine one gained a right to sunlight in a certain orbit after one had used it that way for a while. Once there came to be lots of complex orbits of things using sunlight, it would become very hard to contract with all those light owners to put together the rights to build something large orbiting closer to the sun. Such a new close thing would naturally block many far away things.

Yet the long term efficient use of sunlight would probably involve fewer big collectors orbiting close to the Sun. Thus a natural initial way to allocate light rights would lead naturally to an inefficient long-term allocation of those rights. So it might be better to start the light rights system off differently. I suggest having the property rights be that anyone can block anyone’s light as long as doing so is accidental and doesn’t seem especially targeted at blocking their light. This system would eventually allow a smoother transition to the more efficient arrangement of having fewer big close light collectors.

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  • Jess Riedel

    > I suggest having the property rights be that anyone can block anyone’s light as long as doing so is accidental and doesn’t seem especially targeted at blocking their light. This system would eventually allow a smoother transition to the more efficient arrangement of having fewer big close light collectors.

    I must be missing something. Doesn’t this mean no property rights? Won’t this lead to arms race to build as close to the sun as possible (to gather light, not to block others light per se), even if this is inefficient because very close objects will have to operate at extreme temperatures?

  • Salem

    Rights to light already exist in legal systems on earth, see e.g. wikipedia.

    The disadvantage of your proposed system is that it is uncertain. Notions of something being “accidental” and “not especially targeted” are very vague. Demonstrating long usage is comparatively easy. For property rights to be efficient and meaningful, they must be certain.

    • Gil

      Ha ha! U.S. law probably mirrors the Libertarian assertion that a person can’t tell another person what they can and can’t do with their own private property.

  • Meng Bomin

    While close to the Sun is nice for light collection, one would have to have a good means of transmitting that energy elsewhere and one of the issues of being close to the Sun is being deeper into its gravity well, making it harder to transport objects.

    While the concept of light rights is interesting, I have doubts that it would be a dominant issue. The solar system is big. So big that despite being roughly planar, Venus only transits the Sun from our vantage point 4 times every 243 years, and when it does so, it only blocks out a minuscule portion of the disc. Rather than having an issue with huge light collectors close to the sun, I suspect that large artificial satellites would be at issue, as they are close enough to their parent planet so as to have a major impact (compare the much smaller Moon and its solar eclipses to the aforementioned transits of Venus).

    Ultimately, I think that that issue will be overshadowed by land rights in such places as the Moon and Mars. However, I have less to say on that matter at the moment.

  • Ben

    By quick calculation, you could fit over a half a billion Earths at Earth-distance from the sun, which would then consume all the light coming from the sun. That’s a lot of space/light, compared to a relatively small amount of land/matter.

  • Robert Koslover

    Here’s how I see it. It is one thing to “colonize our Solar System in earnest.” That is difficult, but (I agree with Robin) quite conceivable in the stated time-frame. It is another thing entirely, however, to carry out such colonization at a density great enough that light from the sun becomes a scarce commodity! Have you considered how big the sun is? Or how big the Earth’s orbit is? Sure, initially, we will presumably colonize areas only in the vicinity of the plane of the ecliptic, which despite its enormous size compared to the Earth, is still much less area then if one considers the set of all possible orbits. Once there are enough cases of blocked sunlight to care about, humans (or whatever they have evolved or uploaded into) will establish systems for allocating sunlight that could be sort-of/vaguely analogous to those used to allocate radio-frequency bandwidth today. Meanwhile, anyone who isn’t happy with the ruling system’s decisions, can choose to move outside the plane of the ecliptic to the lower-priced real estate there. And finally, by the time the fully-3D space in the solar system fills up, humans will be likely so technologically advanced that they may be able to move to other stars. Regardless, by that very distant time, how much would you wager that any of our descendants will care about the solutions discussed here? Or, perhaps, is this simply a ploy to become listed in future citations in the form “…the earliest known record of anyone discussing this problem is…” Heh.

    • Robert Koslover

      p.s. Regarding colonization, it looks like I probably should have cited the Invariable Plane, which is nearly the same as, but not exactly the same as, the Ecliptic Plane. I just meant to refer to the plane with most of the existing planetary matter in it.

  • bcg

    Once there came to be lots of complex orbits of things using sunlight, it would become very hard to contract with all those light owners to put together the rights to build something larger orbiting closer to the sun.

    Sounds like the mass transit problem

  • Adrian Ratnapala

    Ok guys, remember compound interest. If the whole colonisation thing works, and we have enough Godlike Future Technology, we might just grow exponentially till we are buliding big enough to turn light into a problem. Especially if everyone wants real-estate in the goddamn ecliptic! Although perhaps we will all be eating vacuum energy by then.

    One twist with light rights is that orbits all have different periods. This means that someone might only eclipse you for a few minutes an year. If the law treated such an eclipse as *zero*, then we would have RH’s free-for-all, without an arbitrary rule to sort accidental from especially targeted. It does mean that as time goes by, more and more dastards will start eclipsing the people in higher orbits. But RH points out that this might be a good thing.

  • Rain

    Force will be, as always, the ultimate arbiter of property rights, and whatever system comes into place will fluxuate based on the ideas of whoever has the most force at that time.

    • Dan Weber

      The ironic thing is that, in any intra-system dispute, the higher orbits literally have the high ground. Without too much trouble they can drop things on people in the lower orbits, who would have a harder time flinging anything back up at them.

  • Robin Hanson

    Jess, yes allowing habitual blocking all else equal creates some pressure to move closer to the sun. Its not obvious this pressure is very strong though.

    Salem, if one set high standards for concluding a blockage is non-accidental, that aspect would have minimal influence.

    Meng, yes I’m guessing that collecting light close and then transmitting the energy to far is cheaper than collecting the light far.

    Meng, Ben, and Robert, in the era when blocking light is rare, blockage rules will make little difference. Yes that is a long way off, and yes this is nothing like an urgent problem.

  • M Talib

    International law has largely resolved the first question when addressing unclaimed territory on Earth. In the Eastern Greenland case, the Permanent Court of International Justice laid down a test based on (1) the intention to occupy and (2) the display of actual acts of authority to acquire title to unclaimed territory.

    Admittedly, this is a test designed for states (whilst you seem to posit private property rights), but its hard to identify any other practical test for what is essentially a fact driven exercise to determine the nature and effect of control over particular territory in the context of a challenge to the title. The test has been applied by international tribunals for over 80 years since the decision.

    It’s also worth noting that the current international legal regime for space (i.e. the system within which any hypothetical property rights would have to exist to be enforceable) is based more on the law of the high seas than on territorial property concepts. The key feature of the regime is the idea that space is the common property of mankind, freely exploitable by all actors without the ability of any actor to assert proprietary claims.

    In a key sense, the questions are currently seen by the vast majority of states as the ‘wrong’ way to address the possibilities of space who’ve adopted a non-proprietary approach to space to ensure that these questions do not arise.

    • roystgnr

      Hypothetical property rights would have to exist within current legal regimes, for cases where the word “hypothetical” or “current” is used to signify its antonym.

      If/when property in outer space becomes useful and as contentious as property on Earth is, the Outer Space Treaty will be withdrawn from by just about everybody except Cuba. Of course, one of the obstacles to property in outer space becoming useful is the uncertainty regarding property rights (again, see Cuba).

  • scott

    What about some sort of streamlined penalty system, where covering up someone else’s sunlight is punishable by a fine payable to them, equivalent to their lost revenue?

    Wait, what? Civil courts, IN SPACE?

  • David

    Heh, I think we should pay someone to cast a little shade on the ol’ Earth! It’s getting hot down here! Mind you, not too much shade. Remember Mr. Burn’s scheme to block out the sun to increase the demand for electricity?

    • daigekidou

      Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun!

  • Paulie

    These property rights questions might arise in the not so distant future. Especially with respect to the highly desirable stable Sun-Earth Lagrangian points that are already occupied.

    Apparently there are already 3 satellites in the Sun-Earth-L1 and 2 in the Sun-Earth-L2, with future missions planned.

    I have no idea how ‘big’ these points are, or how much real-estate they can accommodate.

  • Karl Hallowell

    Perhaps it would be helpful to consider an extreme theoretical example. William Mook kicked off a discussion of constructing a Dyson sphere. There were two related ideas. One that a Dyson sphere could be made incrementally from components that were typically disconnected, even in independent orbits (though consensus was that it got pretty unrealistic to consider components closer to the Sun than about 1 million km, because that lead to the threshold at which all known materials would melt.

    Second, that the benefit of such a system was restricted solely to consideration of beamed power. Crudely, the simplest of these systems appeared to me to be a cloud of orbiting mirrored (reflecting all visible and near-visible light) solar sails, perhaps many millions of km in diameter (the Sun is a bit over 1 million km in diameter, depending how you measure when it starts). Let’s assume for our purposes, that the cloud (I’ll call it a “Dyson cloud” to distinguish between that and a hypothetical solid Dyson sphere) has an effective diameter of ten times that of the Sun.

    What that means is that with proper orientation of the solar sails as mirrors, you can focus solar radiation to some degree. From the target, the Sun would have appeared to grow by a factor of ten in diameter, yielding roughly 100 times the solar intensity/power of regular sunlight. That of course would bake Earth, but it’d also result in almost double Venus level illumination at Jupiter and Earth level illumination at Saturn (which is 10 AU out).

    But that’s maximum power. Another effect of this is that you could have anywhere from almost zero illumination to full 100 times power for multiple objects in the Solar System. For example, it should be possible to illuminate planets out to Saturn at Earth normal almost continuously except for the uncommon circumstances when two of them align. with the Dyson cloud. You probably could selectively illuminate or shade thousands perhaps even millions of targets throughout the Solar System.

    You can also direct all that power in one direction to accelerate the Sun (and hence the entire Solar System). Power output of the Sun is roughly 4*10^26 Watts, For beamed light, that results in a force of roughly 10^18 Newtons. The mass of the Sun (and roughly 99% of the Solar System) is roughly 2*10^30 kg, giving an acceleration of roughly 5*10^-13 m/s^2. If you do that for a million years, you can accelerate the Solar System by roughly 16 km/s (which is a bit less than 10% of the Solar System’s current velocity through space. In about a hundred million years, you could reach escape velocity from the Galaxy. Not stop on a dime maneuverable, but if you think there’s going to be some drama,say from a galaxy collision or future supernova, you can move about to some degree.

    It gets even better, if you can convert all that power to laser light and have the cloud act as a reasonable interferometer. You should be able (assuming my math is correct) to get Earth level illumination out to hundreds of lightyears (as in it’d take centuries for the light from your cloud to get to the thing it’s illuminating).

    In such extreme cases, the entire energy output of the Sun is effectively controlled by the Dyson cloud. But it’s probably not too hard to beam enough power to keep current “stakeholders” (all current planets and large bodies in the Solar System) illuminated at whatever intensity they desire.

    The real problem is if the Dyson cloud starts frying targets of opportunity.

  • David C

    My guess is the light issue could become serious within a 1000 years due to satellites orbiting the Earth, which is an area (volume?) close enough to us that it could block off a considerable amount of sunlight. However, there’s a bigger issue that will come up much sooner, which is unmanned satellites colliding into each other.

  • Explodicle

    I’ve been a long-time Geoist and have thought about this from time to time. IMHO, property elsewhere in space is already owned by humankind. Sure, the United States have a flag on the moon, but it is not America’s moon, it’s everyone’s moon. The same goes for all land and natural resources, everywhere. This includes sunlight and asteroid minerals. Of course, there is no point in actually charging rent on land where there is so little scarcity… At the moment. Compare it to taxing land in Antarctica – it would cost so much to enforce for so little revenue, even countries which have claimed large portions of it simply leave it in anarchy.

    To you Firefly fans: yes, we CAN take the sky from you. 🙂

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