Imposing lunar time zones, a giant leap toward colonizing the Moon

Mari Margil
7 min readApr 7, 2023

by Mari Margil, Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights; Associate Professor Alice Gorman, Flinders University; Dr. Michelle Maloney, Australian Earth Laws Alliance

The Earth’s Moon. Image by Van Fulpen.

The European Space Agency recently proposed standardizing lunar time, creating a time zone, or time zones, for the Moon. Considered by some to be merely symbolic, history demonstrates that where contemporary humans have imposed time, they have also imposed control, development, extractivism, and ultimately, destruction.

The Standardization of Time

The first time zones in the United States were established by railroad corporations in 1883 to facilitate their growing industry.

One year later, the designation of a prime meridian through Greenwich, England, was established at the International Meridian Conference held in Washington, D.C. The prime meridian — a line running from the North to the South Pole — established Greenwich Mean Time (replaced now by Coordinated Universal Time (UTC)) upon which time zones around the world are based. This standardization of time “brought to the world’s cartographers a universal map language allowing them to join their maps together, facilitating international trade and maritime navigation.”

Standardizing time proved essential to growing development, industry, and trade around the globe. So, what does this have to do with the Moon?

Colonizing the Moon

National Geographic defines “colonialism” as “control by one power over a dependent area or people. It occurs when one nation subjugates another, conquering its population and exploiting it, often while forcing its own language and cultural values upon its people.”

Through colonization, a dominant power settles and forces its customs and practices on “new” places. Western Europe’s colonization of the Earth, beginning in the 15th Century, spread rapidly, building the wealth and power of the colonizing nations. It is a history of bloodshed, destruction, and ongoing harm to people, places, and natural communities around the world.

Colonization stripped Indigenous peoples of their lands, imposing spatial maps, and dividing the Earth into different uses, as well as different ownership, both private and public. These divisions controlled how people could move and what they could do.

Time systems are the same. They enable settlement and development, dividing time into productive units. Indigenous peoples across the world were forced to adhere to hours and minutes that were used to regulate their labor. The clock became the arbiter of what was work and what was leisure.

Standardizing time on the Moon is considered a key step toward imposing control, access, and development on the Moon. It comes, as well, as part of the effort to impose spatial — cadastral — boundaries on the Moon. Spatial boundaries, like here on Earth, will control movement and access on the lunar surface.

The U.S.-led Artemis Accords — signed onto by the United Kingdom, Japan, Australia, Canada, and others — seeks to create so-called “safety zones” around signatory nation’s lunar activities. While these zones are not meant to be permanent, they will be the first artificial geographic boundaries on the Moon.

Likewise, establishing time zones for the Moon will represent a significant leap forward in human colonization of the Moon. Like the testing of rockets and rovers, it is creating the conditions that make lunar colonization all the more likely.

Today, governments and corporations around the world are eyeing the Moon for mining and other industries. The U.S. space agency, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), calls it the “Lunar Gold Rush.” NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory put it bluntly: “The moon holds hundreds of billions of dollars of untapped resource.”

NASA and other national space agencies also view human return to the Moon as preparation for humans to travel to, and colonize, Mars.

All of this fervor ignores the long, terrible history of human colonization on our home planet.

Human Impact Off-Earth

Harvard philosopher George Santayana warned, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

When it comes to the off-Earth environment, we’re already repeating it.

Today, orbital debris is threatening to curtail our ability to use key orbits around Earth. To date we have relied on atmospheric drag to remove debris through re-entry. However, a growing body of research has demonstrated that this is depositing ozone-depleting alumina particles in the upper atmosphere.

Pollution of the lunar exosphere and lunar surface are also significant. The Apollo missions emitted more than 60 tons of exhaust gases into the lunar environment, with the Soviet Luna missions producing a similar level.

Many look to the Moon and think there’s nothing there. That it’s dead. So, they ask, what difference does it make what we do up there?

Many great astronomers and physicists helped us understand, over time, that the Earth was round, that the Earth orbited the sun, that the Earth spins. Science has also shown us that the Moon is vitally important to life here on Earth.

The Moon’s gravity constantly tugs on the oceans, creating the tides that species depend upon. The Moon helps certain species with migration, and still others rely on the Moon to know when to procreate.

If we contemplate deep time, we don’t need scientists to tell us that the Moon is important to life on Earth. It is our connection to our ancestors — of all species — since the first spark of life on our planet, the Moon has been with us. All life forms have emerged under its silvery light; and no doubt every human has gazed at its brilliance. It should be a humbling and marvelous recognition — that the Moon has been our planet’s evolutionary companion.

But today’s space race doesn’t appear to be interested in that which is sacred or spiritually important to our species, or to the well-being of the Moon as an autonomous entity.

Rather, there is growing enthusiasm from corporations and governments to access and consume the Moon’s water and potential mineral resources. Plans are being developed to operate mining and other extractive industries on the Moon — even though we have no idea what our impacts would be.

Carving the Moon up into spatial and temporal units is meant to create the conditions necessary for colonizing the Moon. Under these systems, the Moon will become a commodity, its fate decided by politicians, miners, and stockbrokers.

In Relationship with the Moon

Ecosystems are defined as a set of relationships. An “ecosystem is a geographic area where plants, animals, and other organisms, as well as weather and landscape, work together to form a bubble of life. Ecosystems contain biotic or living, parts, as well as abiotic factors, or nonliving parts…Every factor in an ecosystem depends on every other factor, either directly or indirectly…Ecosystems can be very large or very small.”

Maintaining the fragile balance of ecosystems is essential to life, and yet we upset that balance constantly. The results are dramatic. We are now in the age of the Sixth Great Extinction event on Earth, with extinction rates well beyond natural background extinction rates.

We know what happens when we disturb ecosystems here on Earth. Climate change. Die-off of coral reefs. Acidification of the oceans. Destruction of wetlands. Species extinction.

The Moon is an ecosystem. And the Earth is in an ecosystem with the Moon.

Indeed, we are in a relationship with the Moon. It is vital to life on Earth.

Yet we treat the natural world — both on-Earth and increasingly, off-Earth — as existing for our use. We talk about controlling nature, but — as the increase in extreme flooding, heat waves, and more and more powerful storms demonstrate — we are not in control. Our actions have upset the balance of the natural world. The idea of control is an illusion.

Theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli writes in his Seven Brief Lessons on Physics that time is also an illusion. “Physicists and philosophers have come to the conclusion that the idea of a present that is common to the whole universe is an illusion and that the universal “flow” of time is a generalization that doesn’t work.” He quotes Albert Einstein who wrote that “the distinction made between past, present and future is nothing more than a persistent, stubborn illusion.”

A Declaration of the Rights of the Moon

The proposal to standardize lunar time reinforces the dominance of affluent, space-faring nations over the Moon, which is meant to be the “province of all humanity” according to the U.N. Outer Space Treaty of 1967.

Colonizing the Moon will cause harm, damage. It already has.

But we can do something. And that something may mean doing nothing.

We drafted the Declaration of the Rights of the Moon with an understanding that human colonization is inherently destructive, and that we must respect the natural environment of the Moon.

The Declaration was inspired by the important work that is taking place here on Earth, by First Nations, communities, and even countries, to recognize legal rights of the natural world. It is a recognition that we are in relationship with nature, and that our actions have wrought long-lasting and permanent havoc to the natural world upon which we depend.

The recognition of rights of nature in law and governance — a growing global movement — is aimed at making a fundamental shift in humankind’s relationship with nature. Moving from one of use and exploitation, to one of respect and protection. This is necessary today because of the harm that we have caused worldwide. Let us not export such harm off-Earth.

Jeff Goldblum’s character in Jurassic Park — Dr. Ian Malcolm — states plainly the problem confronting us. It applies equally well to the idea of bringing back dinosaurs to contemplating colonizing the Moon. He explained that people “were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

We have time, now, to decide. We invite you to read the Declaration and engage with us.

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Mari Margil

Mari Margil serves as the Executive Director of the Center for Democratic and Environmental Rights.