Via Erik Conway on Facebook, via Encyclopedia of Earth
Title: The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth
Author: Kenneth Ewart Boulding
Source: H. Jarrett (ed.), Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy, pp. 3-14. Baltimore, MD: Resources for the Future/Johns Hopkins University Press.
Year published: 1966
It’s interesting though not flawless. “The question of whether there is anything corresponding to entropy in the information system is a puzzling one” is a bit of a clunker, wouldn’t you say? And I’m still inclined to think of von Bertalanffy, whom he cites directly, as a hack pretending to be Norbert Wiener. But the interest is more than historical.
Economists in particular, for the most part, have failed to come to grips with the ultimate consequences of the transition from the open to the closed earth. One hesitates to use the terms “open” and “closed” in this connection, as they have been used with so many different shades of meaning. Nevertheless, it is hard to find equivalents. The open system, indeed, has some similarities to the open system of von Bertalanffy, in that it implies that some kind of a structure is maintained in the midst of a throughput from inputs to outputs. In a closed system, the outputs of all parts of the system are linked to the inputs of other parts. There are no inputs from outside and no outputs to the outside; indeed, there is no outside at all. Closed systems, in fact, are very rare in human experience, in fact almost by definition unknowable, for if there are genuinely closed systems around us, we have no way of getting information into them or out of them; and hence if they are really closed, we would be quite unaware of their existence. We can only find out about a closed system if we participate in it.
The closed earth of the future requires economic principles which are somewhat different from those of the open earth of the past. For the sake of picturesqueness, 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 behavior, 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.
The difference between the two types of economy becomes most apparent in the attitude towards consumption. In the cowboy economy, consumption is regarded as a good thing and production likewise; and the success of the economy is measured by the amount of the throughput from the “factors of production,” a part of which, at any rate, is extracted from the reservoirs of raw materials and noneconomic objects, and another part of which is output into the reservoirs of pollution. If there are infinite reservoirs from which material can be obtained and into which effluvia can be deposited, then the throughput is at least a plausible measure of the success of the economy. The gross national product is a rough measure of this total throughput. It should be possible, however, to distinguish that part of the GNP which is derived from exhaustible and that which is derived from reproducible resources, as well as that part of consumption which represents effluvia and that which represents input into the productive system again. Nobody, as far as I know, has ever attempted to break down the GNP in this way, although it would be an interesting and extremely important exercise, which is unfortunately beyond the scope of this paper.
By contrast, in the spaceman economy, throughput is by no means a desideratum, and is indeed to be regarded as something to be minimized rather than maximized. The essential measure of the success of the economy is not production and consumption at all, but the nature, extent, quality, and complexity of the total capital stock, including in this the state of the human bodies and minds included in the system.
In the spaceman economy, what we are primarily concerned with is stock maintenance, and any technological change which results in the maintenance of a given total stock with a lessened throughput (that is, less production and consumption) is clearly a gain. This idea that both production and consumption are bad things rather than good things is very strange to economists, who have been obsessed with the income-flow concepts to the exclusion, almost, of capital-stock concepts.
Emphasis added (along with a couple of paragraph breaks for easier reading).
The same site describes Boulding as follows:
Kenneth Ewart Boulding (1910-1993), 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 nonrenewable resources, must ultimately be replaced by a “spaceship” economy, powered by renewable energy and characterized by efficient recycling of materials. Boulding was a founding intellectual in the field of ecological economics.
I had thought the Spaceship Earth idea was Bucky Fuller’s. Clearly there was some mutual influence between Bucky and Boulding.