Edward B. Barbier is the John S. Bugas Professor of Economics at the University of Wyoming
Fifty years ago, in March 1966, Kenneth Boulding presented his landmark essay, “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth” at a workshop in Washington, D.C. With its vision of the “spaceship earth,” this short treatise has had a profound influence on thinking about the global economy and sustainability over the past half century.
In the most famous passage, Boulding describes the open economy of the past with its seemingly unlimited resources and contrasted it with the closed economy of the future. He wrote:
“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 essay was influential for two reasons.
First, as Boulding emphasized in his opening sentence, creating a more sustainable economy requires humankind rethinking its relationship with nature: “We are now in the middle of a long process of transition in the nature of the image which man has of himself and his environment.” Boulding recognized that this change in worldview would be difficult, as “the image of the frontier is probably one of the oldest images of mankind, and it is not surprising that we find it hard to get rid of.”
Second, as an economist, Boulding recognized that the main impetus for change must occur in the basic production and consumption relationships of modern economies: “The closed earth of the future requires economic principles which are somewhat different from those of the open earth of the past.”
These central messages of Boulding’s essay are still relevant to contemporary debates over how best to reconcile global economic development with environmental sustainability.