From ‘cowboy economy’ to ‘spaceman economy’

Kenneth Boulding and the view from Spaceship Earth

By Peter Burnett

Sustainability is a complex multidisciplinary field, so it’s not surprising that many of its concepts evolved over decades of scholarship and policy development. However, in my research, I have been surprised on several occasions by scholars putting forward valuable framings of sustainability concepts well before the emergence of the notion of sustainable development itself. Kenneth Boulding’s 1966 essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth is the example par excellence of this phenomenon. Not only did Boulding hit the nail on the head in regards to the nature of the problem, he also framed the way forward in a compelling and lucid way. It’s something we can still learn from today.

Early Boulding

Boulding was a British-American; a professor of economics by title, a social philosopher by inclination and a Quaker by conviction.

He began publishing in the 1930s and had been pushing boundaries long before Spaceship Earth. Influenced by his study of accounting, he had argued in his 1950 book A Reconstruction of Economics that the balance sheet should be a central analytical concept in economics, specifically that asset preferences (stocks) rather than profit maximisation (flows) should be a central to explaining the behaviour of economic entities. It is thus not surprising to find Boulding talking elsewhere about World War II as having ‘drained the economic bathtub in a great waste of consumption’, with the task of post-war reconstruction being to refill the bath.

Boulding argued for a ‘conceptual revolution’ concerning consumption. He believed the emphasis should be on the enjoyment of assets rather than their consumption (or, as Boulding put it, their destruction). Through this lens, production and income should be seen as quantities to be minimised rather than maximised, in the interests of maximum enjoyment. This would have been complete heresy in an era when the idea of unbounded growth was rapidly becoming dominant.

Undaunted, Boulding would make much the same argument a decade and a half later in Spaceship Earth, but this time in connection with the environment.

Spaceship Earth

In 1966 Boulding was invited to write an essay for a forum held by the think tank Resources for the Future (RFF, itself an interesting organisation that played a pivotal role in sustainability thinking). Prompted by growing recognition that most of the pressures on the natural environment were the result of high levels of consumption and economic growth, RFF adopted a forum theme of ‘Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy’. (If RFF had added the word ‘maintaining’ to this theme they would, in essence, have defined environmental sustainability 20 years early: another example of prescient thinking.)

Boulding was a big picture thinker and in 1966 the ‘space race’ and the ‘moonshot’ were the order of the day (as was the sexist language in the quotes that follow). His narrative was that humans were making a long transition in their image of interaction with the environment. This transition involved moving from the ‘cowboy economy’, in which there were vast expanses of resources and an ever-beckoning frontier, to the ‘spaceman economy’, which was a closed system, a single earthly ‘spaceship’ in which man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system that is capable of continuous reproduction but limited by energy inputs from the sun (whether directly as solar radiation or indirectly through fossil fuels).

The measure of success in the cowboy economy was production and consumption (throughput), because reservoirs of resources were effectively infinite. In contrast, the measure of success in the spaceman economy was not throughput but the nature and extent of total capital stock, including human bodies and minds (which we would now call human and intellectual capital). The task in the spaceman economy was thus to maintain the stock, in part by increasing resource-use efficiency. In a masterly understatement, Boulding noted that the idea that both production and consumption were undesirable would be very strange to economists. It would have been to politicians too, who by then had become wedded to the mantra of economic growth and GDP as the only measure of success, as reflected in the OECD’s 1961 target of increasing growth by 50% in a decade!

Sustaining capital in time and space

Boulding describes the sphere of economic activity as the ‘econosphere’ and society as the ‘sociosphere’, with environmental resources passing from the environment into the econosphere and waste passing in the reverse direction. This pretty much captures the later foundational model of ecological economics (figure 1) in which the economy is a subset of, and thus dependent on society, which in turn sits within and depends upon the environment.

Figure 1: The foundational model that lies at the heart of ecological economics.

Boulding recognised that a prescription of maintaining capital for the long haul raises the question of why we should do such a thing, encapsulated in the sardonic aphorism ‘What has posterity ever done for me?’ Rather than pose a normative answer to this question, as nations later did in endorsing the principle of intergenerational equity through the Rio Declaration (1992), Boulding argues an anthropological rationale: that the welfare of the individual depends on identifying with a community, not only in space but over time. In other words, we identify with future generations as part of our own well-being.

Natural capital on Spaceship Earth

The Spaceship Earth essay carries, expressly or by implication, a full theory of, and prescription for, environmental sustainability. It recognises that our attitude to the environment is based on our image of the environment, which thus explains our attitudes. It presages the insights of ecological economics and the policy prescriptions of modern environmental sustainability: maintain natural capital, increase resource efficiency and ensure that the scale of consumption remains within the regenerative capacity of the environment.

Even where Boulding does not solve a problem of sustainability policy, he plants the seed of its solution. For example, he recognises that even if we accept the welfare of future generations as part of our own welfare, it remains economic practice to discount future values. He explains that discounting is based on our myopia concerning the future, which is ‘an illusion which the moral man should not tolerate’.

Although he does not propose a solution, he nevertheless plants the seeds of one in his prescription to maintain capital. In economics, the case for any project is evaluated by cost-benefit analysis, in which future costs are discounted. If the maintaining of capital is a prescribed as fundamental policy, then the case for any individual project, which might otherwise have been justified solely by reference to cost-benefit analysis, must now be made within and subject to a constraint of maintaining capital. In other words, you can discount all you like but your project will be constrained by rules concerning or prices of natural capital.

Beyond Silent Spring

Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring (1963) is generally acknowledged as the foundational work of the modern environmental era. However, Silent Spring identified a particular aspect of the problem of environmental decline and did not develop a solution. Spaceship Earth came a little later, but it was the first to describe the problem in holistic and conceptual terms and the first to outline a policy solution.

The best modern approaches to environmental sustainability can trace a direct lineage to Boulding’s essay and sit entirely within its construct. It is a tour de force.

Image: The Blue Marble, the view from Apollo 17 of Spaceship Earth some 45,000 kilometres distant. (NASA, 1942)

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