It’s a small world, after all

It seems amazing, but until recently I never really stopped and thought about the fact that earth is a biosphere, and what that means.  It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but there it is.  When you think about it, whatever is here, stays here.  If you don’t want to believe me, think about the law of conservation of matter.

The author Kenneth E. Boulding came up with a handy metaphor to explain what it really means to live in a biosphere: he calls it the spaceship earth.  As he explains it, in a spaceman economy, any technology which leads to less production and less consumption is an advantage.  Seems obvious, right?  On a spaceship you have limited resources, so use as little as possible.  So why are we still stuck with a cowboy economy (again, thanks Kenneth E. Boulding for the metaphor), where everyone pretends that we have infinite reservoirs of raw materials and infinite reservoirs for pollution?!

To me, the spaceship metaphor neatly summarises the way in which everything interacts.  The economy only exists in the context of a society, and society is constrained by the environment.  It might be tempting to think we can compensate for environmental degradation by improving the economy, but logically that is just not possible.  Infinite growth cannot be possible in a finite world.  Ultimately we need to stay within the bounds of our biosphere’s capacity to provide for and absorb the effects of our activities.

But perhaps you are inclined to the view that the problems of the future can be left to the future?  In that case, let us eat, drink, spend, extract and pollute, and be as merry as we can, and let posterity worry about the spaceship earth.  Let’s just hope that spaceship doesn’t catch up with us…



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