Spaceship Earth Economy: Boulding’s lesson on sharing the planet (by Natalia Britto dos Santos)

planet-earth-lowtouch-bannerKenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993) was a British economist, educator, systems scientist and interdisciplinary philosopher. He graduated from Oxford University and was granted US citizenship in 1948. During his career, he was a faculty member at Universities in both the UK (University of Edinburgh) and the US (Colgate University, Iowa State College – now University, University of Michigan, University of Colorado at Boulder). Although, apparently, he has never called himself an ecological economist, his work can be seen as one of the foundations for ecological economics.


Boulding believed that human economic and other behaviours are all embedded in a larger interconnected system. His most influential work is the brilliant essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth (1966), in which he describes two types of economy: the ‘cowboy’ and the ‘spaceman’ economies. The first is characterized by the notion of limitless resources (and space/land), so that if we exhaust one place we can just find another one and keep exploring. In this view, consumption and production are always good (the more the best), and success is measured by the amount of throughput of factors of production. The cowboy economy was dominant among industrialised nations at the time, and unfortunately it is still present in many of our current institutions.


However, this view is not consistent with our reality. We only have one planet to share with all living beings, and all we do depends on what this planet can provide and support. Then, Boulding argues for a ‘spaceman economy’: the Earth is a single spaceship, with limits for both extraction and pollution, and in which “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” (Boulding 1966). In the spaceman economy, throughput needs to be minimised instead of maximised; there is a concern with stock maintenance; and we should aim to maintain positive states with less consumption (for example, producing things that don’t wear out quickly – the opposite of what we mainly see today). Success is measured by the “nature, extent, quality, and complexity of the total capital stock, including in this the state of human bodies and minds” (Boulding 1966).


Boulding presents his main argument based on thermodynamics principles, and discusses closed X open systems regarding matter, energy and knowledge. He argues that the Earth of the future (in 1966, which we could say is now the Earth of the present) is more similar to a closed system: then the need to consider limits for both inputs and outputs in production/consumption processes.


The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth also presents some interesting reflections about behaviour, society and well-being, including intergeneration issues. “The welfare of the individual depends on the extent to which he can identify himself with others, and that the most satisfactory individual identity is that which identifies not only with a community in space but also with a community extending over time from the past into the future.” (Boulding 1966). This community includes all forms of life, all species that share the planet’s heritage and future. It is urgent we live in harmony within this complex and marvellous spaceship Earth.


Boulding, Kenneth E. 1966. The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth.


Natalia Britto dos Santos is a PhD student at York University. Her research interests include ecosystem services, protected areas benefits, and the relations between nature conservation and human well-being.

Categories: Uncategorized

1 reply »

Leave a Reply