1. The Challenge of Sustainability


Kenneth Boulding wrote in 1966: ‘Earth has become a space ship, not only in our imagination but also in the hard realities of the social, biological, and physical system in which man is enmeshed’2. The term ‘Spaceship Earth’,3 and the image of the earth like a ‘silver blue jewel’ in space,4 first photographed from the Apollo 8 spacecraft in 1968, became an enduring icon for environmentalists in the 1960s. The central argument of environmentalism at that time was that there was one planet, of finite size, and that human demands on it could not rise indefinitely.

People in space ships have to manage things very carefully if they are to survive. Boulding pointed out that almost everything we do is poorly adapted to that reality: our technologies focus on trivial things, our science asks the wrong questions, our society is not adapted to survival. But Boulding believed that things were changing. He wrote: ‘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’.5 To an extent, that transition has been happening, albeit slowly.

It began with the growth of environmentalism itself in the 1960s and 1970s, and evolved in the ideas of sustainability and sustainable development.6

We do not now tend to think of the Earth as a space ship, nor of its six billion plus human inhabitants as spacemen, or women. Spaceships do not work as metaphors in the twenty-first century as they did in the 1960s. It is 36 years since anyone flew beyond the earth's orbit, and satellites are commonplace, whether for global positioning, communications or remote sensing, and most people take them for granted. A whole generation has reached adulthood for whom human extra-planetary space flight is a remote historical achievement, perhaps better recorded than the building of Mayan temples, but just as distanced from everyday life.

‘in a space ship, there are no sewers’

But the uncomfortable environmentalist challenge of the 1970s remains as relevant as it ever did: there is one earth, and society is constrained by the capacity of its ecosystems and natural resources. In the 1970s, environmentalists feared that the earth was running out of resources. This proved not to be the critical problem. It is true that some resources are getting scarce and expensive to extract – in particular the era of cheap oil appears to be over.7 But it turns out that the most immediate limit to boundless human aspirations on a finite planet is not a shortage of things to dig up, but a lack of places to put the garbage. The accumulation of CO2 and other greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, of chlorofluorocarbons and other chemical pollutants that destroy the ozone layer, the spread of persistent organic pollutants in oceans, soils and human bodies: all these and other side-effects of technology and consumption threaten human life and the quality of that life on earth. As Boulding commented back in 1965, ‘in a space ship, there are no sewers’.8

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