Spaceship Earth

metaphor for Humankind's conditions in the Anthropocene

Spaceship Earth (or Spacecraft Earth or Spaceship Planet Earth) is a worldview encouraging everyone on Earth to act as a harmonious crew working toward the greater good.

Spaceship Earth


  • We really are approaching the end of the era of expanding man. ...Man has always had somewhere to go... somewhere to beckon him as a virgin land of promise. ...The photographs of the earth by astronauts in lunar orbit symbolize the end of this era. ...[T]he earth is a beautiful little spaceship, all blue and green and white, with baroque cloud patterns... and its destination is unknown. It is getting pretty crowded and its resources rather limited.
    The problem of the present age is that of the transition from the Great Plains into the spaceship or what Barbara Ward and I have been calling spaceship earth. ...[W]e must develop a cyclical economy within which man can maintain an agreeable state. ...[T]he idea of the GNP simply falls apart. ...This is a fundamental change in human consciousness, and it will require an adjustment of our ethical, religious, and national systems which may be quite traumatic. ...If the whole world developed to American standards overnight, we would run out of everything in 100 years.
    Economic development... will result in final catastrophe unless we treat this interval in the history of man as an opportunity to make the transition to spaceship earth. ...We will have to aim for much lower levels of growth, because the cyclical process costs more than the throughput does. ...The idea that we are moving into a world of absolutely secure and effortless abundance is nonsense.
    • Kenneth E. Boulding, "Fun Games with the Gross National Product: The Role of Misleading Indicators in Social Policy" Environment and Society: A Book of Readings on Environmental Policy, Attitudes, and Values (1974) ed., Robert T. Roelofs, Joseph N. Crowley, Donald D. Hardesty, pp. 131-136.
  • Young people are always asking what it's like to be on a spaceship... Well, what does it feel like? Because that's what you're on. The earth is a very small spaceship hurtling through space. ...This spaceship is so superbly designed that we've had men on board here for about two million years reproducing themselves, thanks to the ecological balance ...all the vegetation is breathing up [out] all the gases needed by the mammals and all the mammals are giving off all the gases needed by the vegetation ...
    • Buckminster Fuller, graduation speech at his niece Kariska's school, as quoted by Athena V. Lord, Pilot for Spaceship Earth: R. Buckminster Fuller, Architect, Inventor, and Poet (1978) p. 139.
  • It is a well-provisioned ship, this on which we sail through space. If the bread and beef above decks seem to grow scarce, we but open a hatch and there is a new supply, of which before we never dreamed. And very great command over the services of others comes to those who as the hatches are opened are permitted to say, "This is mine!"
  • Until recently, economists have not been particularly carried away with concern over environmental problems caused by industrial development. ...[T]he few economists ...who have always sounded the alarm ...are somewhat out of the mainstream. These humanist concerns seem to have gone out of style after the age of classical economics. Even the conventional analytical models of contemporary economics seem to prefer to exclude these concepts by ignoring them entirely or by shunting them off into their own branch, called "economic externalities." ...In recent years concern over these ...externalities has grown. The environmentalists are beginning to be included in the mainstream. ...Attempts are even being made to extend the theoretical framework to include the changes in the environment caused by economic activity... The Materials Flow of the Economy... sees the human race living on a 'space ship earth' in which all the inputs and outputs, all the original resources and all the final wastes, must be accounted for. ...[W]hen the materials are returned in the form of smoke, sewage, garbage, junk, heat, noise, and a wide variety of noxious gases... the change is seldom for the better. ...[T]he less production that is needed to maintain an adequate level of affluence, the better. An efficient economy is one that gets big results with little effort. More industries, more mines, more businesses, more employment, and more consumer goods do not always mean more well-being... because all these also mean more destruction of our natural resources and despoilation of our surroundings.
    • Martin Gerhard Giesbrecht, The Evolution of Economic Society: An Introduction to Economics (1972) Ch. 10, The New Dimensions of Mature Economies, pp. 321-322.
  • Spaceship Earth not only illustrated but also created a fundamental shift in the conception of life and living space on the earth that brought about new regimes and visions of efficiency. Spaceship Earth signified the threat to earth as a natural habitat, but it also created expectations for science and technology to provide a 'blueprint for survival', substituting the biosphere of the earth with possible surrogate spaces elsewhere. ...[T]he singular historical constellation around... 1970... may be characterized by the intersection of the aspirations of space flight, rising environmental concerns, Cold War conflicts, the consciousness of a new global interdependence, and... the hitherto unprecedented potential for intervention—and destruction—by scientific and technological means. ...New in the 1960s were not the environmental concerns but the optimistic ideas of being able to turn the dismal fate of the planet into a bright future planned by scientists and engineers. ...[U]p to the late 80s ...Spaceship Earth did not simply serve as a metaphor to express the fragility of the planet; rather... a range of aspects associated with the constraint and crowdedness of the earth. Spaceship Earth became the central part of a mythology to present the problems of planetary closure meaningfully and to propose strategies and solutions of escape.
    • Sabine Höhler, Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960–1990 (2015) 1, Capacity: Environment in a Century of Space.
  • What is man? As Homo sapiens he experiences the ecological crisis with all the rest of Spaceship Earth: but as imago Dei he alone knows it, writes books and laws about it, and is able to pray for as well as prey on his fellow creatures. ...Co-author H. Paul Santmire devotes the second half of the volume to an impassioned plea for the reorientation in human values at this critical juncture in man's ecological life. The issue, he contends, is... the survival of humanity. ...Thinking ecologically ...calls for a restructuring of our entire way of life. ...Immediate remedies include the stabalization and reduction of population growth, a radical cut-back in the non-essentials of economic growth, massive programs for recycling and pollution control, the substitution of cooperation for competition as the prevailing ethos of community life, and a thoroughgoing redistribution of wealth. ...Chaplain Santmire calls for the acceptance of a universal good to serve as the valuational fuel for the moral inhabitants of Spaceship Earth.
    • William H. Lazareth, Foreword to Ecological Renewal (1972) by Paul E. Lutz, H. Paul Santmire, pp. xi-xiii.
  • Bucky's phrase "Spaceship Earth" captured the imagination not only of those young graduates but also the imagination of the world. People use it commonly today. More importantly, our view of the earth, our planning and direction for the future, and our understanding of the universe have all been influenced significantly by this use of Bucky's concept.
    • Athena V. Lord, Pilot for Spaceship Earth: R. Buckminster Fuller, Architect, Inventor, and Poet (1978) p. 139.
  • The lives of 3½ billion astronauts on board Spaceship Earth are are just about as much in peril today as were the men aboard Apollo 13 in 1970. However, the pervasive irony of this analogy is that we... have nowhere else to go... We must begin to treat our spaceship within this context. ...Proper and moderate use of our mineral resources is necessary. Maintaining the correct atmospheric mixture of oxygen, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen is critical. Renewable resources such as minerals, gases, and water must be returned to their cycles in a reusable form. Solid wastes on board... must be efficiently disposed of... in a form that can be degraded by decomposer organisms so that such materials will not accumulate. ...In short, the environment of the spacecraft must be kept orderly, balanced, and efficient. ...[P]otentially, overpopulation is more dangerous than a malfunctioning of... life-support systems... We can restore the craft's environment only if we fully understand not only its processes, causes, and effects, but also all the ramifications of our attempts at restoration... [and] the physical inner-workings of the entire system. ...[T]he current environmental crisis can ultimately be alleviated only by a massive shift in our individual and corporate lifestyles. ...Drastic changes in our economic, sociological, political, moral, ecological, and religious practices and beliefs must occur live in relative harmony... to change our style of living... to that of a spaceman... being, acting, thinking, living, and responding like an astronaut on board Spaceship Earth.
    • Paul E. Lutz, Ecological Renewal (1972) Preface, pp. 4-6.
  • The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that everyone does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system.
  • It was during one of the Apollo flights that... James Lovell... exclaimed, "the earth from here is a grand oasis in the great vastness of space." From these words and from pictures showing a tiny marbled sphere developed the popular metaphor—spaceship earth. Our tiny spaceship carries its own life support system: atmosphere for supporting respiration, vegetation for supporting life, and resources that can be transformed into goods and services. ...[W]e hope that studies of our past history ( far as 5 billion years) as to the way... earth evolved... will help us in predicting our future course. ...We develop the broad concept of earth as an ecosphere (ecological system) and include... speculations pertaining to the long range future of earth as an inhabitable planet.
    • Robert S. Rouse, Robert O. Smith, Energy: Resource, Slave, Pollutant (1975) a physical science text, p. 27.
  • We travel together, passengers on a spaceship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and I will say the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave to the ancient enemies of man, half free in liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all.
    • Adlai Stevenson, Speech before the United Nations Economic and Social Council (July 9, 1965) Geneva, Switzerland. This was his last form speech, 5 days prior to his death. As quoted by Dr. George S. Reuter, Jr., "Two Great Dreamers" Congressional Record: Proceedings and Debates of the 91st Congress, First Session, Volume 115—Part 15, July 15, 1969 to July 25, 1969, p. 20596, column 3.
  • [A]t long last the concept of Earth Day, of world patriotism and of the family of man, have come into being. May there only be peaceful and cheerful Earth Days to come for our beautiful space ship Earth as it continues to spin and circle in frigid space with its warm and fragile cargo of animate life.
    • U Thant, Earth Day ceremony speech (March 21, 1971) upon the sounding of the Peace Bell, as quoted in Forward by Aye Aye Thant in Earth Day: Vision for Peace, Justice, and Earth Care: My Life and Thought at Age 96 (2011) by John McConnell, p. x.
  • In the last few decades, mankind has been overcome by the most fateful change in its entire history. Modern science and technology have created so close a network of communication, transport, economic interdependence—and potential nuclear destruction—that planet earth, on its journey through infinity, has acquired the intimacy, the fellowship, and the vulnerability of a spaceship.
    In such a close community, there must be rules for survival. We have... a reasonable idea of... the rules... since we live by them inside our own domestic society. We abandon the "right" to settle... disputes by force and violence and hand them over to... impartial... courts of law. And... we expect... through the concept of "general welfare"—that misery, grievance, and injustice do not drive us to violence. ...These ...are what we have to seek in the world at large. ...The gaps in wealth [and] ideology ...make up the abyss into which mankind can fall to annihilation. It is on these disproportions that world policy has to concentrate... a reasonable balance of power... wealth... between the planet's developed... and underdeveloped... a reasonable balance of understanding and tolerance between... creeds.
    Then... there can be... hope of building the common institutions, policies, and beliefs which the crew of Spaceship Earth must acquire... to have... hope of survival.
  • Hugh Downs: We have harnessed the power of the atom. We have reached the moon. And yet we do not seem to understand our place on earth and the natural laws that govern us. It is in the understanding of these laws, and action in concord with them, that our salvation lies: the salvation of the earth and our own salvation. There is still time.
    Raymond Burr: Hopeful times are beginning to appear on the international horizon. The recent agreements signed between the United States and the Soviet Union on mutual environmental problems is a large step forward. Only through international cooperation can we hope to correct the crisis facing all mankind.
    Hugh Downs: Man inhabits two worlds, the natural one that preceded us by billions of years, and the world we have built from our technology using our machines and science to create an environment obedient to our purpose and directions. And now, as we reach the last stages of the twentieth century, there is a spreading sense of awareness that something fundamental and irrevocable is happening to man's relations between both his worlds. Our new knowledge of planetary interdependence demands a reshaping of our individual loyalty. We must develop a sense of planetary community and commitment. We must make our earth a center of rational loyalty for all mankind. Nationalistic loyalties must become secondary to our allegiance to earth. We can only hope to survive in all our prized diversity by achieving an ultimate loyalty and devotion to our single, beautiful, vulnerable planet, the earth. Alone in its life-supporting systems, powered by inconceivable energies mediated for us through the most delicate adjustments. Is this not a precious home for all us earthlings? Is it not worthy of our love? Does it not deserve all the courage and care of which we are capable, to preserve it from degradation and destruction? Now for the first time in the history of man an international movement is underway. The people of the nations, and the nations of the world, have joined together to find the answers. ...[T]he world's representatives hold the solution. We have seen what we've done to bring about the destruction of our earth. Is it not the time now now to cure the disease that we ourselves have created? The answer is in our own hands. In your hands. Don't let this moment in time pass, or we may never have another, not in our lifetime, not in anyone's lifetime.

"The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth" (1966)

by Kenneth E. Boulding, Environmental Quality In a Growing Economy (1966) Essays from the Sixth Resources for the Future Forum (March 8,1966) ed., Henry Jarrett, Ch. 1 Resources Development and the Environment, pp. 3-14. Alt source.
  • Systems may be open or closed in respect to a number of inputs and outputs. Three important classes are matter, energy, and information. The present world economy is open to all three. We can think of the world economy or "econosphere" as a subset of the "world set," ...the set of all objects, people, organizations [etc.] This total stock of capital is... an open system... it has inputs... being production which adds to the capital stock, [and] outputs being consumption which subtracts from it. ...[W]e see objects passing from the noneconomic into the economic in... production, and... products passing out of the economic set as their [monetary] value becomes zero. Thus we see the econosphere as a material process involving the discovery and mining of fossil fuels, ores, etc., and at the other end... effluents... are passed out into noneconomic reservoirs—[e.g.,] the atmosphere and the oceans—which... do not enter into the exchange system.
  • [T]he econosphere involves inputs of... energy... In advance societies this is supplemented very extensively by the use of fossil fuels, which represent... a capital stock of stored-up sunshine. ...This supplementary input by its very nature exhaustible.
  • We can think of the stock of knowledge, or as Teilhard de Chardin called it, the "noosphere," and consider this as an open system, losing knowledge through aging and death and gaining it through birth and education and the ordinary experience of life. ...A machine ...originated in the mind of man, and both its construction and... use involve information processes imposed... by man... The cumulation of knowledge... is the key to human development... especially economic development. ...[W]here the material capital has been destroyed by war, as in Japan and Germany... knowledge was not destroyed, and it did not take long... for most of the material capital to be reestablished...
  • One of the great puzzles... is why the take-off into science... an "acceleration," in the... growth in knowledge in European society in the sixteenth century, did not take place in China, which... was ahead of Europe... Perhaps the most significant factor... is the existence of "slack" in... culture, which permits a divergence from established patterns and activity... not merely devoted to reproducing the existing society but... to changing it.
  • I am tempted to call the open economy the "cowboy economy," ...symbolic of the illimitable plains and... reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior... characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might... 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...
  • In the cowboy economy, consumption is regarded as... good... and production likewise; and... success is measured by the amount of throughput... If there are infinite reservoirs from which material can be obtained and into which effluvia can be deposited... throughput is... a plausible measure of... success... The gross national product is a rough measure of... total throughput.
  • It should be possible... to distinguish that part of the GNP... derived from exhaustible and that... 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...
  • [I]n the spaceman economy... any technological change which results in the maintenance of a given total stock with a lessened throughput ([i.e.,] less production and consumption) is... a gain. This idea that both production and consumption are bad... is very strange to economists...
  • It is always... hard to find a convincing answer to the man who says, "What has posterity ever done for me?" ...[A] society which loses its identity with posterity and ...its positive image of the future loses also its capacity to deal with the present problems, and soon falls apart.
  • [T]omorrow is not only very close, but in many respects it is already here. The shadow of the future spaceship... is already falling over our spendthrift merriment. ...[T]he fouling of the nest which has been typical of man's activity... on a local scale now seems to be extending to the whole world society... [O]ne... cannot view with equanimity the present rate of pollution... atmosphere... lakes... oceans.
  • We are all familiar... with the wastes... in planned obsolescence... competitive advertising... poor quality of consumer goods. ...[N]o serious attempt has been made to assess the impact ...of changes in durability ...[W]e have underestimated ...the gains from increased durability of the places where the price system needs correction through government-sponsored research and development.
  • The problems which spaceship earth is going to present... are not all in the future... Many of the immediate problems of pollution of the atmosphere or of bodies of water arise because of the failure of the price system, and many... could be solved by corrective taxation. If people had to pay the losses due to the nuisances they create, a good deal more resources would go into... prevention...
  • The law of torts... is inadequate to provide for correction of the price system... There needs, therefore, to be special legislation to cover these cases... If we were to adopt in principle a law for tax penalties for social damages, with an apparatus for making assessments... a very large portion of current pollution and deterioration of the environment would be prevented.
by Buckminster Fuller
  • [W]e are endowed with ...intuitive and intellectual capabilities as ...discovering the genes and the R.N.A and D.N.A. and other fundamental principles governing systems as well as of nuclear energy and chemical structuring as part of the of the Spaceship Earth ...It is ...paradoxical ...that ...we have been mis-using, abusing, and polluting this ...system for successfully regenerating all life aboard our planetary spaceship. ...We have not been seeing our Spaceship Earth as an integrally-designed machine which to be persistently successful must be comprehended and serviced in total.
  • [W]e can make all of humanity successful through science's world-engulfing industrial evolution provided that we are not so foolish as to continue to exhaust in a split second of astronomical history the orderly energy savings of billions of years' energy conservation aboard our Spaceship Earth. These energy savings have been put into our Spaceship's life-regeneration-guaranteeing bank account for use only in self-starter functions. ...Thereafter , our "main engine," the life regenerating processes, must operate exclusively on our vast daily energy income from ...wind, tide, water, and direct Sun radiation energy. The fossil-fuel savings account... for the exclusive function of getting the new machinery built... to be sustained exclusively on our Sun's radiation's and Moon pull gravity's tidal, wind, and rainfall generated pulsating and therefore harnessable energies. The daily income energies are excessively adequate for the operation of our main industrial engines and their... productions. The energy expended in one minute of tropical hurricane equals the combined energy of all the U.S.A. and U.S.S.R. nuclear weapons.

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