A new space race | Brazil's got big problems

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This week:

👩🏼‍🚀 The geopolitics of space: it’s not all about Elon, but actually quite a lot of it is.

🦜 Brazil's future: Covid-19, deforestation, and the economy will dominate 2021 and beyond.

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👩🏼‍🚀 The geopolitics of space: the new race for space

Needing space from world news this week, we looked to infinity and beyond for our research and discovered an astronomical amount of action in the skies.

Superb puns aside, military and civilian activities in space have surged in recent years.

This is because space technology has become (and will continue to be) much more accessible and affordable to governments and the private sector.

And while these space activities may not be the swashbuckling feats Hollywood would have us imagine (less Harrison Ford, more Steve Carrell), they will still impact geopolitical and economic competition here on Earth.

Why is space important?

Space is referred to as humankind’s ‘final frontier’. It’s full of wonder, scientific mystery, and (probably murderous) aliens. For a hot minute after the USSR launched the world’s first satellite, ‘Sputnik 1’ in 1957, space technology represented a unifying achievement for humanity.

But things changed the moment national flags were planted in space. Earthly geopolitical contests were extended to space, and the race for dominance was on.

Today, countries jostling for international influence consider space a domain for:

  • 🛰 Military advantage: space technologies like satellites are crucial for wars and national security. They deliver secure communication channels, precision navigation for transport and missiles, and the ability to spy on enemies. Taking out key satellites could cripple modern military forces.

  • 📱Civilian uses: space technologies play a huge role in our daily lives, from GPS navigation to weather reports, managing natural disasters, live broadcasts, and even archaeology.

  • 💎 Commercial gains: interest in space mining is growing, with lunar and asteroid markets worth trillions. H2O deposits, construction materials, gold, and platinum group metals might all be up for grabs.

  • 🚀 Space exploration: private investors are eyeing the lucrative businesses of space travel for the über-wealthy. Elon Musk’s Space X is the first of a new generation of companies cooperating with governments to launch space missions.

Who’s in space?

There are still only ten major players who have launched spacecraft independently.

These are: the US, Russia, China, India, Iran, Israel, Japan, South Korea, the European Space Agency, and (alarmingly) North Korea.

And of the ten, only seven can reach the highest level of Earth orbit, which is ~35,000km above ground. That distance is important because it gives satellites protection from missile threats, along with the ability to continuously monitor large areas of the globe.

The US leads the world in space technology, accounting for over 30% of the spacecraft currently orbiting Earth. But China’s quickly catching up, and expanding its arsenal of satellites while developing ‘counter-space’ technology to challenge the US.

And there are increasingly more players in the game. Aside from a growing list of countries with space capabilities, non-state actors (and states) can also disrupt space activities through cyberattacks. These parties (including bored yoof looking for laughs) can hack or hijack satellites with relatively little effort.

What are the rules of the space game?

With such high stakes, you’d think there’d be a tougher legal regime governing space. But existing international rules aren’t clear on what the permitted military or civilian activities are in space.

⛔️ What’s definitely not allowed:

  • Nuclear weapons.

  • Weapons of mass destruction.

  • Military bases, installations, and fortifications on ‘celestial bodies’. (Ed: this one's already looking dicey with China and the US both eyeing a bigger presence on the moon).

🤷🏻‍♀️ What’s kind of not clear:

  • What rules will govern other weapons in space?

  • Who is liable for satellite collisions in space?

  • One UN Committee says that firms and governments have a duty to ‘improve space governance’, but how can this be enforced?

  • Space mining and debris extraction is a classic tragedy-of-the-commons problem. Who owns these assets, and who will make and enforce the rules to avoid a race to the bottom?

Zoom out

As always, international law and multilateral organisations lag behind the technologies they try to regulate. And as always, self-interest prevails in the meantime.

Countries will continue to push the limits of acceptable behaviour in emerging legal areas such as space (or cyberspace). And they will continue to challenge norms while stopping short of all-out conflict. But there's always a risk of miscalculation and escalation when walking such a fine line.

Over the next decade we can expect that more and more private money will be poured into space exploration. We’ll likely see more public-private joint exploration projects looking to claim and exploit potential resources.

We’re left to wonder: will space voyages become like Elizabethan-era journeys to discover and conquer ‘new’ worlds, or crude, state-sponsored gold rushes? Given that Elon's apparently in charge, who the f*** knows.

For those who want to learn more about the space wars, read ‘Ghost Fleet’ by Peter Singer and August Cole.


🦜Brazil's future: the economy, the Amazon, and the rest of the world

It’s a well known fact that every single Brazilian can dance in a way that puts the rest of us to shame. But Brazil’s fun-loving, relaxed image hides a country with some serious problems.

Before we crack on, some quick facts about Brazil:

  • It has the sixth biggest population in the world at 210 million.

  • GDP per capita is US$6,450, down from almost US$14,000 just 9 years ago. That puts it 83rd in the world, right between Botswana and Belarus (we triple checked that this wasn't just grouped alphabetically).

  • The Amazon rainforest is ~20% bigger than Europe, and ~60% of it is in Brazil.

  • Brazil was a military dictatorship from 1964 - 1985. President Jair Bolsonaro, known for his autocratic tendencies, was a former army captain. Hmmm.

1. Covid-19 and the economy

President Bolsonaro has overseen one of the world's worst responses to Covid-19. Last year, he called Covid-19 'fake news' - then promptly contracted it.

Brazil is in the grips of a horrific second wave of the virus. A second wave that was thought unlikely, with many assuming there would be herd immunity from last year's high rates of infection.

Last month, Venezuela shipped oxygen to its border with Brazil to 'alleviate Jair Bolsonaro's public health disaster'. World leaders - they're petty and passive aggressive just like us!

But it's not only government incompetence. Brazil is one of the most economically unequal countries on earth and policies like social distancing are impossible to enact in Brazil’s infamous favelas, where inhabitants live cheek-to-jowl.

To combat the economic fallout of Covid-19, Brazil increased government spending by 40%, issuing vital stimmy cheques to those worst economically-affected citizens.

As a result, Brazil's short term government debt has ballooned, 30% of which is due in 2022, and foreign investors left Brazil in record numbers. Inflation is becoming a real worry in a country that can't afford it.

🗝 Key takeaway

The last decade has been tough on Brazil and Covid-19 only made things worse, especially in dense urban centres. Covid spending has put Brazil's finances in a precarious position.

It's not clear that President Bolsonaro can or will reform the economy like many had hoped because stimulus spending has boosted his popularity. With Presidential elections due next year, Bolsonaro may well be tempted to keep the cash flowing.

2. Booming agriculture vs the disappearing Amazon

In stark contrast to the urban centres, the interior of Brazil is booming thanks to agriculture. The sparsely populated but enormous state of Mato Grosso is experiencing something of a 'crop rush' on the back of insatiable Chinese demand for soybeans.

Bolsonaro is popular in Mato Grosso having delivered long-needed funding for roads and other infrastructure projects. He likely sees rural regions as a way out of Brazil's economic woes, and as a path to re-election.

But the profitability of farming is putting pressure on the Amazon. From 2019-2020, an area almost the size of Wales was cleared for farmland. Add to that devastating fires in 2020 and, according to Brazil's environmental protection agency, the threat to the Amazon is more urgent than ever.

President Bolsonaro's take?

There aren’t any fires, nor is there one bit of deforestation, it’s a lie.

Oh, well that's that then.

🗝 Key takeaway

The international community understandably loves to hand-wring about the Amazon. Not only is it a natural wonder of the world, but also home to around 400 indigenous tribes and a critical absorber of the world’s harmful greenhouses gases.

But it's not that simple - in a relatively poor and desperately unequal country, unlocking Brazil's vast interior could provide a path out of poverty for millions.

3. Diplomacy (or lack of it)

It's no secret that President Bolsonaro isn't internationally popular - referring to Brazil's military dictatorship as 'a very good period' will do that. Brazil’s biggest diplomatic challenges are:

  • Walking a fine line with neighbours

    President Bolsonaro isn't tactful. He has criticised Argentina's legalisation of abortion, praised former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, and has a serious ongoing feud with Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro. He also recently ended Brazil’s investigation into the Odebrecht scandal that engulfed Latin America, claiming 'there is no more corruption left'. Critics suggest it was because investigators were getting too close to the President's own family.

  • Managing a fragile US relationship

    Trump and Bolsonoro were famously bffs. With Trump gone, Brazil's relationship with the US is less clear. In 2020, Biden suggested he’d consider sanctions against Brazil if they didn’t reduce deforestation. While that's pretty unlikely to happen, we can’t imagine a world leader less likely to vibe with Biden than the bombastic, Trump-esque, Bolsonaro.

  • Pushing back on China, but not too much

    Bolsonaro has long been suspicious of China. He criticised the Chinese-made Covid-19 vaccine and China’s involvement in Brazil's internal political coronavirus warfare. But China is also the major buyer of the raw resources and agricultural products keeping Brazil’s economy afloat.

🗝 Key takeaway

Brazil's diplomatic relationships will likely play second fiddle to domestic concerns - a.k.a President Bolsonaro's re-election hopes. His base responds well to populist, nationalist messages, so we should expect fierce rhetoric denouncing external 'enemies' as the cause of Brazil's problems.

That said, Bolsonaro's administration isn't stupid. They'll probably toe the diplomatic line just enough to keep the US and China onside. Sadly for most Brazilians, 2021 looks to be a tough year.


➕ Extra intrigue


🔎 Intriguing recommendations

👩‍🦱 Helen: At a time when we feel trapped between our four walls, there's a strong hankering for open skies. Mongolia seems like a pretty great fix for that. Read this epic travelogue of this bloke's journey through the stunning country. (Recalling fond memories of my own travels through Mongolia back in 2008, when I made the mistake of challenging a Mongol boy to a wrestling match which I resoundingly lost.)

👴 John: Three things for you this week dear reader:

  1. Missing bars? Recreate your favourite haunt’s ambience in the comfort of your living room.

  2. Quiet night by the wireless more your thing? Why not travel at the same time with this listenable map of the world’s radio stations. I could listen to Icelandic all day.

  3. If you’re still not entertained, check out this terrifying video of a lightning fireball striking Shenyang, China.


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