The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth | Kenneth E. Boulding | 1966

In parsing the ideas of the regenerative, and ecologies, one place to start could be in the foundations of ecological economics, with Boulding.

Boulding makes the case for economists to differentiate between living systems on the Earth as open, as opposed to a closed spaceship Earth.

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[1] in that it implies that some kind of a structure is maintained in the midst of a throughput from inputs to outputs.

[1] Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Problems of Life (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1952).

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. Some isolated primitive societies may have approximated to this, but even these had to take inputs from the environment and give outputs to it.

All living organisms, including man himself, are open systems. They have to receive inputs in the shape of air, food, water, and give off outputs in the form of effluvia and excrement. Deprivation of input of air, even for a few minutes, is fatal. Deprivation of the ability to obtain any input or to dispose of any output is fatal in a relatively short time. All human societies have likewise been open systems. They receive inputs from the earth, the atmosphere, and the waters, and they give outputs into these reservoirs; they also produce inputs internally in the shape of babies and outputs in the shape of corpses. Given a capacity to draw upon inputs and to get rid of outputs, an open system of this kind can persist indefinitely. [p. 5, editorial paragraphing added]

On the way to describing entropy, Boulding makes distinctions between classes of systems.

Systems may be open or closed in respect to a number of classes of inputs and outputs. Three important classes are matter, energy, and information. [p. 5]

I personally might criticize this view as too rooted in Western philosophy from the 1960s (whereas Classical Chinese Medicine is based on the waxing and waning of matter and energy). In any case, let’s continue on with the focus on energy.

In regard to the energy system there is, unfortunately, no escape from the grim Second Law of Thermodynamics; and if there were no energy inputs into the earth, any evolutionary or developmental process would be impossible.

The large energy inputs which we have obtained from fossil fuels are strictly temporary. Even the most optimistic predictions would expect the easily available supply of fossil fuels to be exhausted in a mere matter of centuries at present rates of use. If the rest of the world were to rise to American standards of power consumption, and still more if world population continues to increase, the exhaustion of fossil fuels would be even more rapid. [p. 8, editorial paragraphing added]

Boulding makes a distinction between views that economists might take.

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. [p. 9, editorial paragraphing added]

Towards pursuing greater depth in “regenerative ecologies”, it is the “reproducible resources” that Boulding mentions that we might explore.