Three early promoters of “Spaceship Earth”

Barbara Mary Ward (1914 –1981) was a British economist and writer interested in the problems of developing countries. She urged Western governments to share their prosperity with the rest of the world and in the 1960s turned her attention to environmental questions as well. She was an early advocate of sustainable development before this term became familiar and was well known as a journalist, lecturer and broadcaster.

Ward started to see a close connection between wealth distribution and conservation of planetary resources. “… the careful husbandry of the Earth is sine qua non for the survival of the human species, and for the creation of decent ways of life for all the people of the world.” She used the phrases “inner limits and “outer limits” to refer to the inner limits of the human right to an adequate standard of living and the outer limits of what the Earth can sustain. In 1966, she published Spaceship Earth the phrase that she is sometimes said to have coined.

With hindsight, Ward is seen as a pioneer of sustainable development. She and René Dubos, co-authors of Only One Earth have been described as “parents” of a concept which “did not know its own name at first”. Only One Earth: The Care and Maintenance of a Small Planet was written for the 1972 UN Stockholm conference on the Human Environment. The report was commissioned by Maurice Strong, secretary general of the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment.

Ward’s work was rooted in her sense of morality and Christian values. She saw care of the environment and concern for the well-being of all humankind as a “dual responsibility”, especially for anyone sharing her religious outlook. At the same time, she believed wealth distribution combined with conservation was essentially a rational policy: “We are a ship’s company on a small ship. Rational behaviour is the condition of survival.”

In 1971 she founded the not-for-profit think tank the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), acting as president from 1973 and chairman from 1980.

Kenneth Boulding (1910-1993) was an American economist famous for his emphasis on the social, moral, and ecological implications of economic growth. Boulding coined the term “spaceship earth” to emphasize the energy, material, and environmental limits to economic growth. He compared the economy to biological systems in terms of its need to use energy to transform materials, which in the process produces wastes. Boulding suggested that the current “cowboy” economy, defined by the wasteful use of non-renewable resources, must ultimately be replaced by a “spaceship” economy, powered by renewable energy and characterized by efficient recycling of materials. He was a founding intellectual in the field of ecological economics.

His essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth (1966), with its vivid metaphors of the cowboy and spaceman economies, can be credited with energizing the field of environmental economics in the late 1960s and then ecological economics in the 1990s. Boulding described the open economy of the past with its seemingly unlimited resources and contrasted it with the closed economy of the future. He wrote, ‘I am tempted to call the open economy the “cowboy economy,” the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behaviour, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the “spaceman” economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy.”

Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983) was another public intellectual who popularised the metaphor of “Spaceship Earth” in the years that followed Boulding’s essay. Again from Wikipedia:

Buckminster Fuller was an early environmental activist. He was very aware of the finite resources the planet has to offer, and promoted a principle of “doing more with less”. Resources and waste material from cruder products could be recycled into making more valuable products, increasing the efficiency of the entire process.  He developed a systems approach which he named synergetics – the empirical study of systems in transformation, with an emphasis on total system behaviour unpredicted by the behaviour of any isolated components. Fuller coined this term long before the term synergy became popular.

Fuller was a pioneer in thinking globally… he was concerned about sustainability and about human survival under the existing socio-economic system, yet remained optimistic about humanity’s future. Defining wealth in terms of knowledge, as the “technological ability to protect, nurture, support, and accommodate all growth needs of life,” his analysis of the condition of “Spaceship Earth” caused him to conclude that at a certain time during the 1970s, humanity had attained an unprecedented state. He was convinced that the accumulation of relevant knowledge, combined with the quantities of major recyclable resources that had already been extracted from the earth, had attained a critical level, such that competition for necessities was not necessary anymore. Cooperation had become the optimum survival strategy. “Selfishness,” he declared, “is unnecessary… War is obsolete.”


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