‘Wild-West’ Versus ‘Space-Age’ Systems Science:

An Extraterrestrial Prisoner’s Dilemma?


Charles Tandy





    Sometimes in life things go from good to better. But the so-called “Prisoner’s Dilemma” helps explain why sometimes things go from bad to worse. Thus, understanding the Dilemma may help us, individually and collectively, engender a future that goes from good to better. The (Flood-Dresher-Tucker) “Prisoner’s Dilemma” as used here does not limit its meaning to a narrow formulation. Rather, I am referring to the generalized Prisoner’s Dilemma. E.g. the “rational-choice” or “game-theory” Dilemma (as used here) may have any number of players, and the game may be single-shot or iterated.


    J. D. G. Evans explains the Prisoner’s Dilemma this way: “The prisoner’s dilemma describes a possible situation in which prisoners are offered various deals and prospects of punishment. The options and outcomes are so constructed that it is rational for each person, when deciding in isolation, to pursue a course which each finds [in terms of actual results] to be against his interest and therefore [in terms of actual results] irrational. … Such a scenario postulates a lack of enforced cooperation; and to avoid the undesirable outcome, the actors in the drama need to be forced into cooperation by a system of [enforced] rules” [1].




    You play the game and you make your moves. In life you try to make rational choices in terms of your individual, or your group’s, self-interest. E.g. as President of the United States you try to act in the self-interest of the United States (US). In life the results of your choices may sometimes surprise you. The results of your (rational) action depend in part on the “rules” of the “game” – the structure of the system in which you are embedded as a decision-maker. But do the results take you from good to better – or from bad to worse? You make a decision as President of the United States; here are the four possible (simplified) results: The results of your rational action turn out to be:


1) Good for both the US and the World.

2) Good for the US but bad for the World.

3) Bad for both the US and the World.

4) Bad for the US but good for the World.


    One may take a single-shot snapshot of the results for evaluation and placement into one of the four categories. Alternatively, one may take repeated snapshots into the far future. Note that the deliberative evaluation and categorization of each snapshot over time may differ; each snapshot does not necessarily fall into the same category. Moreover, the criterion(s) for evaluation may not always be obvious.




    The structure of the system in which you are embedded as a decision-maker may mean that even if all decision-makers are rational in their choices, the result necessarily will be bad for both the US and the World (unless the structure is somehow modified into a new system). If you had been President of the United States in 1945, would you have acted so as to insure that the US would always remain the only country with atomic bombs? Later, when the Soviet Union also possessed atomic bombs, would you have acted so as to insure that only a select few could have doomsday weapons? Later, when more than a few possessed WMDs (Weapons of Mass Death and Destruction), would you have acted so as to insure that no terrorists could ever possess doomsday weapons?


    On August 31, 2006 the President of the United States secretly began to implement a new (and secret) US National Space Policy. The US government quietly notified the public of this at a later time (on October 6, 2006) by merely publishing an unclassified version of it on its ostp.gov website. My reading of it is that it is a major policy change – even though the “real” version remains secret, unavailable, classified. Even in the “watered-down” (unclassified) version, it nevertheless seems clear that the new policy is indeed about developing and deploying US weapons in space and granting the US Secretary of Defense sweeping extraterrestrial authority. (This, despite the fact that by US law and tradition, space has been seen as primarily a civilian, not military, endeavor.) Major newspapers and respected newsreporters have referred to the new policy with headlines like: “BUSH: SPACE IS FOR SOLDIERS”; “NEW BUSH POLICY … STRESSES US FREEDOM OF ACTION”; “BUSH … SPACE PRIORITY … VERY UNILATERAL TONE”; “SPACE IS THE 51ST US STATE”; “AMERICA WANTS IT ALL – LIFE, THE UNIVERSE AND EVERYTHING”. The policy calls for the US to “develop capabilities, plans, and options to insure [US] freedom of action in space … [and] deny such freedom of action to adversaries.” I take it that Bush sees the US in the role of a “Lone Space Cowboy” not unlike a Gunslinger in the Old American Wild-West.




    President Bush has his “Wild-West” view of the “system” and how it works (“systems science”). But by learning from the Prisoner’s Dilemma, I believe we can improve our systems science – and indeed our world – to reflect the new realities of the Space-Age. One difference between Planet Earth and Extraterrestrial Space is that Earth is already saddled with “wild” structures, “prisoner’s dilemmas” that too easily take us from bad to worse to doomsday in a global village of global warming and global weapons.


    Yet in the very long run, almost all of our offspring (if there are any) will be living in the universe somewhere other than Planet Earth. Once we or our offspring are permanently living and working in space, it will be much more difficult to change the social systems, political structures, and special interests that embed there. Thus RIGHT NOW is the feasible, dilemma-free moment (unique opportunity) to establish an extraterrestrial political system different from the terrestrial one. 


    Dr. Carol Rosin has argued that achieving an enforceable, permanent ban on space-based weapons is feasible only at this moment in history BEFORE actual weapons are placed in space [2]. She proposes a carefully worded World Space Preservation Treaty as an effective and verifiable multilateral agreement to prevent an arms race in outer space. This includes prevention of the weaponization of outer space.


    The 1967 UN Outer Space Treaty has been signed by 116 nations, banning weapons of mass destruction from outer space. The proposed Space Preservation Treaty establishes and funds the Outer Space Peacekeeping Agency that will monitor and enforce the ban. This Treaty would serve as a catalyst or foundation for a cooperative world space economy, security system, and society.


    This innovative approach may shift our collective consciousness toward concern for:


1) World health and education.

2) A clean and sustainable environment.

3) International security needs through information sharing.

4) Research and development of clean energy and stimulation of the world economy.

5) Our role in the infinite universe.

6) Peace preserved in space as leading to peace on earth.


    The Treaty can serve to facilitate the building of a world economy fit for the Space-Age. This would include a variety of public and private cooperative space ventures not related to space-based weapons. For example, defense activities in space not related to space-based weapons include communications, navigation, surveillance, reconnaissance, early warning, and remote sensing. There is indeed a vital need for such military related activities in space.


    With this treaty in place, the solving or management of global problems thus becomes more feasible. By capping the arms race before it escalates into space, we world citizens are transforming the entire weapons mindset and war industry into a cooperative world space industry. As we begin to work in space (and eventually make Extraterrestrial Green-habitat Communities [EGCs] our permanent homes for quality living [3]), we will find it in our economic interest to establish in space:


1) Factories.

2) Hospitals.

3) Hotels and resorts.

4) Schools and universities.


    According to Rosin, weapons deployed in space will have the ability to target any point on earth with great accuracy, allowing the nation controlling those weapons to dominate the entire earth with impunity. At present, the war industry thinks it has a mandate to expand into space. Nevertheless the war industry has the ability to change its mind and transform itself in line with the proposed Treaty. For example, satellites have important functions: to monitor the environment, to early-warn us of human-made or natural disasters, and to verify arms agreements.


    By living peacefully in space, we will eventually learn to live peacefully on earth. This Treaty will not immediately solve all problems, but it is an unusually important necessary step in the right direction. It offers hope for the future, and opportunities to invest in a future worth living in. Under this Treaty, the military-academic-industrial complex will move into space, but within a framework that enforceably bans space-based weapons and encourages world security and cooperation and the flourishing of multiple biospheres.




    Once the proposed Treaty is ratified, an Outer Space Peacekeeping Agency will be established. This agency would not only enforce the proposed Treaty but would enforce the 1967 Outer Space Treaty (for the first time!) as well. The proposed Treaty (including Peacekeeping Agency) will be the international mechanism by which the nations of the world community work together, with effective enforcement, so they can protect themselves against any aggressor nation that might attempt to unilaterally (or with allies) weaponize space.


    This monitoring and enforcement applies equally against all nations and parties, whether signatories to the Space Preservation Treaty or not. This Treaty in essence creates a world agency, similar to a United Nations of Space, under a sovereign multilateral treaty establishing a world outer space jurisdictional authority with full enforcement powers. It is not subject to the terrestrial limitations of the Security Council under the United Nations Charter, a prior Treaty that will have been superseded for purposes of jurisdiction in outer space.


    Today’s “wild” social-political system of Planet Earth represents a Prisoner’s Dilemma of weapons and violence. Changing the global rules of the game and dissolving the Prisoner’s Dilemma in such case is a difficult task. But an Extraterrestrial Prisoner’s Dilemma does not exist (or secretly exists on a relatively small scale) at the present moment. Thus the task of stable peace in extraterrestrial space – if we proceed RIGHT NOW at this unique point in history – is doable. Our extraterrestrial offspring (i.e. ALMOST ALL of our offspring in the LONG RUN) will be grateful to us because, finally after many centuries, we ENFORCEABLY ended human slavery beginning in the nineteenth century. I believe that they will also be grateful to us because, at a unique point in history, we ENFORCEABLY banned extraterrestrial weapons beginning in the twenty-first century.     




[1] J. D. G. Evans, “Prisoner’s Dilemma,” in The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Ted Honderich, Ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995, p. 719.


[2] C. Rosin,   [The Institute for  Cooperation  in  Space   (website):]



[3] G. K. O’Neill, The High Frontier: Human Colonies in Space. New York: Morrow, 1977. [A year 2000 reprint (from Collectors Guide Publishing, Inc.) contains updated information and a CD-ROM];

    A. Globus, Space Settlements. <www.nas.nasa.gov/Services/Education/SpaceSettlement/>.





1. This paper was revised on 12 November 2006.

2. This paper was revised on 01 December 2006.


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