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The american economist Henry George first compared the Earth to a ship in Progress and Poverty (1879). George wrote, “It is a well-provisioned ship, this on which we sail through space,” and analogized the planet to a naval craft in which resources in the ship’s hold were abundant but unfairly distributed to passengers because of privatization by the ship’s hands. The phrase “spaceship Earth,” which was coined in 1963 by the futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, has since come to be associated more with a discourse of natural resource scarcity, unsound social planning, and resulting environmental crisis. Writing at the dawn of the space age, Fuller utilized the metaphor to picture the Earth as a form of rocket ship that had been created to provide life support for its inhabitants, but which required upkeep and an understanding of its ecological mechanisms in order to continue to function well.
Fuller envisioned the rise of a new global society in which people would recognize themselves as earthlings, and challenged people to lead more ethical lives as fellow passengers of a common planetary vessel. Though Fuller recognized that society could continue to travel the dystopic path of greed and imperial plunder, in accordance with a history of what he referred to as the “Great Pirates,” Fuller was hopeful that modern science and technology could be deployed democratically in order to achieve necessary conservation of the environment and the creation of a holistic society based on integral understandings of existence. Widely popular at the time, Fuller’s philosophy influenced many experts and public figures. In 1965 the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Adlai Stevenson, drew upon Fuller’s ideas in a speech made to the Economic and Social Council of the UN in which he called upon nations to recognize that they traveled together on a little spaceship, dependent upon its limited land and air.
In 1966, the economists Barbara Ward and Kenneth Boulding each adopted and popularized the metaphor of spaceship Earth to outline the need for new forms of political economy based on an increasing awareness of human dependence upon the natural limits to economic growth. Ward echoed Stevenson in picturing the Earth as a “small ship” in which all of humanity found itself employed as a crew, and she concluded that rational social planning that better distributed economic wealth and engaged with a conservationist ethic was necessitated for mass survival. In this way, Ward successfully attached the spaceship Earth image to nascent versions of sustainable development policy. Boulding, meanwhile, analyzed how the history of frontier economics had come to a close in an age when no new lands remained to be discovered. With illimitable growth no longer possible, he claimed, the “cowboy economy” of the past would have to be superseded by a “spaceman economy” based on an evolved knowledge of a world system in which material goods endlessly circulate and recycle. However, some have questioned whether the metaphor of a spaceship, which presupposes extraterrestrial voyage, appropriately conveys an end to human exploration patterns.
In the 1970s, environmental theorists such Paul Ehrlich and Garrett Hardin argued that exponentially increasing global population rates even further exacerbated the situation on spaceship Earth and that hard decisions about how best to live within the Earth’s carrying capacity were required. Ehrlich went so far as to argue that spaceship Earth could not be saved without population control in the form of strong regulation on international aid and biological conception. Hardin agreed, further critiquing the metaphor of spaceship Earth as flawed in that no planetary captain or steering committee existed for the ship. This, he felt, left policy makers who utilized the metaphor in the position of assuming that people had spaceship rights without spaceship responsibilities. As a corrective, he offered the metaphor of the lifeboat.
Other environmentalists have since challenged the metaphor of Earth as spaceship, arguing that it overly relies on technological discourse and that organic metaphors such as the Earth as superorganism, or Gaia, are more appropriate. Yet, the idea of spaceship Earth has largely resonated with the environmental community. For instance, the AS17-22727 image of the planet taken from space during the Apollo 17 mission has become iconic for International Earth Day, adorning as a logo various flags, posters, shirts, and bumper stickers. Thus, the idea of spaceship Earth endures with those who champion a planetary view and sustainability, though its greatest popularity was doubtless during the 1960s and 1970s.
- Kenneth Boulding, “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth,” in Henry Jarrett, ed., Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy (Johns Hopkins Press, 1966);
- Paul Ehrlich and Richard Harriman, How to Be a Survivor: A Plan to Save Spaceship Earth (Ballantine, 1971);
- Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (E.P. Dutton & Co., 1963);
- Henry George, Progress and Poverty (Robert Schalkenbach Foundation, 1979 );
- Garrett Hardin, “Living on a Lifeboat,” in Garrett Hardin and John Baden, , Managing the Commons (Freeman, 1977);
- Barbara Ward, Spaceship Earth (Columbia University Press, 1966).