The Tragedy of Spaceship Earth

Masterplan, Masdar City, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates

In the 1909 short story “The Machine Stops,” EM Forster imagined a future where the atmosphere had become poisonous, leaving little life at the surface apart from a few ferns. Humans had all moved to a network of vast subterranean cities—the Machine—where they lived physically isolated from each other but digitally linked via an internet-like device to communicate with friends, listen to short lectures, and play music. Few bothered to ramble at the surface with a respirator or fly to other colonies via airship, for civilization was structured on “bringing things to people” rather than “people to things.” One of the denizens of this sedentary future, Vashti (“a swaddled lump of flesh […] with a face as white as a fungus”), recalled “those funny old days, when men went for a change of air instead of changing the air in their rooms!” Vashti and her peers abhorred intimacy with others or communion with nature, and preferred their utter dependence on the Machine. Vashti’s son Kuno was unusual in his desire to escape, but he could not venture far from the Machine given his need for its artificial air. 

Twenty years after Forster’s story, JD Bernal, a British communist and scientist, and one of the founders of science and technology studies, speculated on the possibility of space travel in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil. To live beyond the Earth, he wrote, humanity would create a planet in miniature. He thought that “globes” ten miles across could house twenty or thirty thousand people. Their operation, he argued, would not be so different from a submarine’s, and to reduce costs, they could mine nearby asteroids. This system would rely on solar power, leading Bernal to describe a globe as “an enormously complicated single-celled plant.” The machine would mimic the organic. He conceded that biodiversity within these giant fish bowls would be less than the “smallest and most isolated country on earth.” Cultural wealth would make up for natural poverty, for his inter-planetary polis would boast the sophistication of “ancient Athens.” Bernal’s vision is remarkably similar to Forster’s, but arranged in an optimistic key. Unlike Forster’s dead planet, the Earth in Bernal’s schema could “revert to a very much more natural state” because the bulk of humanity would live in the celestial globes. The difference between utopia and dystopia, it appears, lay in whether our dependence on artificial biospheric systems would be a choice or not. 

Both of these stories delve into the tensions of the “Spaceship Earth” concept avant la lettre. The term was coined in the early 1960s by the military designer and architect Buckminster Fuller, though it only reached a wider audience when it was popularized in 1966 by The Economist journalist Barbara Ward and neoclassical economist Kenneth Boulding. Over time the concept has taken different forms, oscillating between two separate meanings: in the first, Earth itself is the spaceship we must take care of, and we are all passengers; but this idea of Earth as machine gives rise to the second, anticipated by Forster and Bernal, in which a spaceship or another artificial container attempts to replicate the Earth’s life-sustaining processes. The former conception hints at the unity of humanity and the fragility of nature, but the latter signifies that the biosphere can be made mechanical and replicated. In this way, epistemology marks the ultimate dividing line in the debate over Spaceship Earth: is it possible to understand and replicate the Earth, or not? One’s answer to this question dictates one’s approach to a range of environmental issues. Bernal and Forster can be seen as proto-participants of this debate. Bernal’s globes operate with little mishap and promise a good life for humanity while letting the Earth rewild. Forster’s Machine is a refuge on a despoiled planet, but eventually, as the title indicates, it “stops.” 

From here, participants in the Spaceship Earth debate argue over whom exactly the spaceship is meant for. Fuller said everyone is now an “astronaut” but others built new Spaceship Earths for paying customers, or those of only a certain race. These are the issues that crop up again and again as ecologists, economists, entrepreneurs, and bureaucrats have crafted their own planetary vessels to articulate their vision of nature and society. It is a debate, however, where the Left has rarely forcefully intervened. As Bernal’s example shows, it has long harbored an affinity for inter-planetary luxury, but it rarely troubles itself with epistemic difficulties of creating such a society or its relationship to nature back on Earth. 

We are still living in the age of Spaceship Earth, a metaphor that will endure as long as the environmental crisis does. Jeff Bezos, for instance, while charting the expanse of a new interplanetary empire, looks to Gerald O’Neill, a nuclear-weapons scientist and space-station designer from the 1970s. Blue Origin, a firm funded by Bezos’s play-money, plans to build giant rotating cylinder spaceships based on O’Neill’s vision (and unwittingly quite similar to Bernal’s). These colonies will include animals, forests, and replicas of well-known architecture, like a Las Vegas casino. Eventually, Bezos hopes that “a trillion” people will live on such ships, which, like Bernal’s globes, will rely on solar power and extraterrestrial mining to relieve environmental pressures on Earth itself. 

A genealogy of the Spaceship Earth debate reveals how three actors have vied to captain the ship. The first was social movements, which oscillated between emphasising peace and environmentalism. Social mobilization and political education would create a cosmopolitan public, and thus world unity. The second potential pilot of Spaceship Earth was scientific technocracy, a group of experts who could diagnose and treat what ails the Earth. Their right to rule would be predicated on a disinterested outlook and technical expertise. The last contender for the global cockpit was a group of entrepreneurs guided by the market. They sought to foster science within the private sphere and even dreamt of building interplanetary cities similar to Bernal’s globes. While the market lacked the legitimacy of a mass movement or the expertise of the republic of science, its advantage was that it did not have to wait for world unity; it just needed to develop a profitable market segment. After six decades of debate, none of these groups have budged Earth from its precarious trajectory even as its life-support systems have begun to fail.

The Scientific Sovereign

Thinkers have long presented alternate visions of Earth as either organic and infinitely complex, or else mechanic and comprehensible. In the Theogony (“birth of the gods”), Hesiod used biological reproduction to explain the “virgin” birth of the world (“parthenogenesis”). In the Timaeus, Plato challenged this creation myth with a hyper-rational but unnamed god who created order from a universe of chaotic matter according to “form and number” as if it were a set of geometric problems. Just as Fuller would alight upon the geodesic dome as the perfect shape to embody his philosophy, Plato espoused the sphere. Drawing directly on Hesiod and Plato in his Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion, David Hume entertains the notion of the world as a machine (“a watch or knitting loom”), animal, and “vegetation,” before concluding that the universe will take on infinite forms over time. Yet, what was really needed to understand “cosmogony” was to get beyond Earth and travel “from planet to planet, and from system to system, so to examine each part of this mighty structure.” More recently, in the early 1970s, Lynn Marguis and James Lovelock articulated the “Gaia” theory to argue that the Earth may not literally be an organism, but its interwoven animate and inanimate systems were “best regarded as alive.” 

In the twentieth century, the concept of Spaceship Earth emerged from convergence of environmental and military sciences, the discipline of economics, and international diplomacy. New weapons, especially nuclear bombs, created novel environmental problems and required apparatuses able to detect them on a planetary scale. Either or both the Bomb and environmental deterioration, some thought, would unite humanity as a community with a shared interest of self-preservation for the first time. The question of how a community is formed, and who in the end is empowered to make decisions, influences early discussions around the concept of Spaceship Earth among the three competitors: social movements, a technocracy-inclined sovereign, and the market.

In 1953, the RAND Corporation began Operation Sunshine to trace the distribution of strontium-90, a radioactive isotope produced by fission bombs. This required a global monitoring network of unprecedented proportions, with forty-four stations in the US and forty-nine abroad. As the anthropologist Joseph Masco observes, studying the Bomb allowed scientists to trace the links between “human cells, plants, animals, landmasses, water systems, jet stream patterns, and the atmosphere with increasing precision.” As Rachel Carson wrote in Silent Spring, “released through nuclear explosions into the air, [strontium-90] comes to earth in rain or drifts down as fallout, lodges in soil, enters into the grass or corn or wheat grown there, and in time takes up its abode in the bones of a human being, there to remain until his death.” The Odum brothers, widely considered the founders of modern ecology, were hired in the 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission to study the fallout of a bomb-test on a coral reef in the Eniwetok Atoll. Nuclear weapons thus not only catalyzed the development of environmental sciences, but those sciences showed that the shared wounds of nature and society had been sutured together. This was the fragile, double-edged unity of humanity that seemed to beckon in the post-war period.

The military roots of ecology make it fitting that Spaceship Earth was coined by Buckminster Fuller, a quixotic designer who maintained close ties to the US Navy after his service in World War I. As the historian Peder Anker shows in his wonderful 2010 study, From Bauhaus to Ecohouse, Fuller closely followed the US military’s research on “cabin ecology” in the 1950s. Scientists sought to create viable living conditions in restricted spaces like submarines, bomb shelters, and spaceships. Anker notes that “their research into the ecological ‘carrying capacity’ for a given number of astronauts within a spaceship subsequently was used to analyze carrying capacity aboard Spaceship Earth.” 

In the 1960s, Fuller began lecturing about Spaceship Earth. One such talk greatly influenced an economist in the audience, Kenneth Boulding, who went on to write “The Coming Economics of Spaceship Earth” (1966), which heralded the true flowering of the concept. In that essay, Boulding divided history into two periods, the “cowboy economy” founded on the seemingly limitless resources of the frontier and the “spaceman economy,” which was a “closed economy of the future […] in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution.” Whereas the cowboy was untroubled by waste because he could always go further west, the spaceman could no longer externalize his costs onto nature. Boulding argued that the end of externalities meant economic growth was no longer viable. What was needed was not more stuff, but rather a reduction in the economy’s material throughput to limit its impacts on a fragile biosphere: “what we are primarily concerned with is stock maintenance, and any technological change which results in the maintenance of a given total stock with a lessened throughput […] is clearly a gain.” With his short essay, Boulding helped inspire the blossoming of the nascent field of ecological economics. Boulding may have used a mechanical metaphor for Spaceship Earth, but that did not mean he thought it was a machine that could easily be replicated. Indeed, his point was that one does not treat a space capsule for granted if there is no other ship to dock onto. This strongly environmentalist message became diluted by the later, more dominant stream of thought that claimed Spaceship Earth could be made modular and easily replicated, and thus was dispensable.

The economics of Spaceship Earth may have been manifest to Boulding, but its politics were vague, and obvious questions left unanswered. Who exactly is the pilot of the ship? One could find a possible answer in an earlier essay of his that relied on the spaceship metaphor to discuss another global question. In “The University, Society, and Arms Control” (1963) he argued that the arms race was not only dangerous but also asocial for ignoring how every human belonged to “the crew of this overcrowded spaceship.” Because “mankind as a whole” was collectively threatened by nuclear weapons, the species now had a shared interest, the basis of a cosmopolitan world society. This could be cultivated in part by universities, “the only agency in society […] committed to mankind as a whole.”

Yet, not everyone was convinced that the post-war world, let alone the coming space age, had fundamentally changed the logic of politics. The same year that Boulding lectured on arms control, the Nazi jurist Carl Schmitt gave a series of talks in Francoist Spain published as The Theory of the Partisan (1962). Schmitt marvelled at the “technical-industrial progress [that] makes possible the journey into cosmic spaces,” but “despite all further progress, things will remain as before.” He speculated that the superpowers would compete to appropriate the cosmic realm. Interstellar states, he ventured, would be accompanied by “cosmopirates” and perhaps even “cosmopartisans,” but the relationship between states, partisans, and outlaws would continue as before. Shared vulnerability to nuclear weapons was not enough to usher in a world society; by Schmitt’s logic, this could only be achieved by a world sovereign.

George Kennan was a conservative thinker who, unlike Schmitt, shared Boulding’s vision of world unity for the space age. He had first come to prominence as the “Mr. X” of the reactionary “Long Telegram” (1947) which set out the policy of containment, and thus Kennan and personally contributed to the bifurcation of the world along ideological lines. Yet, by the early 1970s he became an ardent environmentalist and believed that solving such issues could bring the Cold War to an end. Whereas Boulding thought universities would play a crucial role, Kennan took an eco-Schmittian approach even if the master himself did not believe in it himself. In “To Prevent a World Wasteland” (1970), Kennan argued not only that externalities were the root cause of the environmental crisis, but that only world unity could solve such problems. He was most concerned with the despoliation of the “great international media of human activity: the high seas, the stratosphere, outer space, perhaps also the Arctic and Antarctic—media which are subject to the sovereign authority of no national government.” The solution was to create a “single entity” that would police these externality hotspots, a sort of European Coal and Steel Community for the environment. He attacked the “flags of convenience” that allowed lax shipping practices and argued for a global authority to control overfishing. Kennan’s sovereign would derive its legitimacy from scientific expertise, which would allow it to transcend the petty rivalry of the superpowers. He was confident that the Soviet Academy of Sciences would join such an endeavor, comporting itself with the “integrity and a seriousness of purpose worthy of its great scientific tradition.” Kennan’s ideas were not far-fetched at the time. He wrote his essay concomitant to the Third United Nations Conference on the Law of the Sea, which was to create a new legal regime to safeguard the oceanic commons. Fabien Locher, a historian, notes that this meeting kindled “the hope that such a regime could pave the way for a world government of the entire biosphere.” 

Fuller himself didn’t put his ideas on Spaceship Earth into print until the end of the 1960s, years after his lectures had inspired Boulding. Fuller is a familiar figure in both the history of design and environmental history, yet one suspects that he is cited more than read, because his Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969) is bizarre, sounding like a lobotomized Schmitt. The prime movers of history, he declares, were the “Great Pirates”—masterless men who roamed the seas and were beyond the reach of terrestrial sovereigns. Yet, in Fuller’s telling, these pirates became “extinct” by World War I because they were generalists unable to compete in a specialist’s world. Instead of a green sovereign or pirate Übermensch, Fuller developed a solution to the environmental catastrophe that approximated fully automated luxury communism. This was to be achieved by a union between visionary entrepreneurs (e.g., himself) and state technocrats (e.g., the naval planners he admired). Renewable energy could provide huge quantities of energy and this, combined with “omni-automated” production, would produce “unlimited wealth […] without spoiling the landscape.” In this way, Fuller came closest to predicting the eventual victor in the competition to pilot Spaceship Earth. Whereas Boulding thought that vulnerability and the peace movement could create a global community, and while Kennan sought a scientific sovereign, Fuller believed that abundance could solve the environmental problems the market had created in the first place. 

How the United Nations Built Spaceship Earth

Perrin Selcer recently published The Postwar Origins of the Global Environment: How the United Nations Built Spaceship Earth, an insightful history of the global conservation movement that spans the end of World War II to the 1972 Stockholm conference. Selcer is at his best subtly tracing the relationship between the first two pilots of Spaceship Earth: social movements and technocrats. He does this by clicking through different lenses, which he calls the “view from everywhere”, the “view from above”, and the “view from the middle of nowhere”.

One forgets how millions enthusiastically embraced the cosmopolitan mission of the United Nations. As late as 1947, a Gallup survey found that a majority of Americans wanted to see the United Nations become a “world government with power to control the armed forces of all nations including the United States.” In 1950, during an important case on discrimination against Japanese-Americans, a Californian judge cited the UN Declaration of Human Rights as the “supreme law of the land.” UNESCO attempted to inculcate a cosmopolitan ethos amongst the world’s children, an effort enthusiastically embraced by many US educators in the 1940s and early 1950s. UNESCO’s report, In the Classroom with Children Under Thirteen, reminded teachers of their duty to purge children of jingoism, for it was “in the family that the children are infected with nationalism.” Tutelage was to be guided by the “universality of certain intellectual behaviour-patterns, precisely, those that constitute the scientific method,” which would ready pupils for their “membership in the world society.” Selcer multiplies these examples to show that for a brief moment it seemed that the community of Spaceship Earth could be conjured by the transmission of cosmopolitan culture from below. While Boulding thought the ivory tower would be the beacon of cosmopolitan virtue, Selcer shows that perhaps elementary schools had greater potential.

It was only when the United States and its vassals invaded Korea in 1950 that these weltbürgerlich sentiments were squashed. Anti-communists, especially in Los Angeles, attacked the UNESCO-based curriculum; one activist alleged that “our children are being trained not as citizens of America, but as faceless citizens of the world.” Groups like the Native Sons of the Golden West and the Women’s Republican Study Club tried to ban UN educational materials in US schools. “As a direct result of the Los Angeles controversy,” Selcer observes, “UNESCO ceased advocating world citizenship.” Furthermore, this row meant that “from now on, the United States would act through UN agencies, but the UN could not act upon the United States.” If UNESCO could not create a global community by indoctrinating schoolchildren, then perhaps it could be created through scientific expertise. Yet, the UN’s environmental technocracy never had the power that Kennan dreamt an environmental sovereign should have. 

Selcer maps a geography of knowledge to understand why this was the case. One approach was what Selcer calls “the view from everywhere,” as seen at the 1948 International Congress on Mental Health. This congress brought together experts to study the theme of Mental Health and World Citizenship, aiming to compile many instances of modest epistemic work, focused on studies of quotidian society in particular places, into a vaster, democratic pointillist canvas. As the Preparatory Commission Bulletin put it, “every speaker will as far as possible be presenting, not merely personal opinion, but the result of careful group discussion from multiple disciplines and from many nations.” In another episode during the 1960s, UNESCO tried to create a soil map of the world, which Selcer called a “view from above.” Through such “synoptic” approaches, “UN agencies forged bureaucratic autonomy and developed epistemic communities.” For Selcer, this synoptic view was not necessarily undemocratic, and he refuses to reject technocratic knowledge out of hand, as James Scott and his followers have done. The soil map, for instance, required input from scientists around the world, creating a “productive tension between the view from above and the view from everywhere.” 

The strangest perspective was what Selcer calls the “view from the middle of nowhere.” With aims not dissimilar to Kennan’s ideal of a pure science, the International Biological Program decided in 1968 to set up Global Environmental Monitoring Systems (GEMS) in extremely isolated areas to track the health of sensitive species with minimal intrusion. GEMS was to “turn the organosphere itself into the cockpit display of Spaceship Earth.” Reminiscent of Forster’s Machine, biologists working at GEMS sites were to enter “the station via tunnel […] live and work in underground quarters” for fear of contamination. Monitoring would be indirect, through “probes and sensors which must extend above the ground surface” and a “television/telescopic scan system.” Biologists’ living quarters would operate as a “closed system,” using technology from “polar exploration and manned space systems.” GEMS found that purely ecological knowledge could not be easily transmuted into political capital. “Located in the middle of nowhere, baseline stations might monitor the health of cosmopolitan species, but, like cosmopolitan intellectuals, they represented the interests of no one in particular—hardly the basis for an effective political coalition.” 

The climax of Selcer’s narrative occurs during the massive United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in 1972, when Maurice Strong, the oilman-cum-environmentalist-impresario, hosted a small meeting attended by representatives of competing environmental philosophies. Strong asked his guests to reflect on “the heart of the whole issue […] the relationship between the scientific and technological community and the political decision making process.” Aurelio Peccei, another wealthy industrialist like Strong, represented the synoptic view in his capacity as the organizer of the Club of Rome. His group had been the patron of Donella Meadows’ The Limits to Growth (1972), an unlikely best-seller based on advanced computer modeling that predicted the end of economic growth and the potential for civilizational crisis in the face of natural resource scarcity. Peccei told Strong that the best solution would be to rally a global elite comprising scientists, economists, and a few “enlightened Prime Ministers,” who could “see mankind as a unity.” In some ways, Peccei’s international elite was not dissimilar from Kennan’s dream of a global sovereign. As Kennan phrased it, “the interest and initiative will have to proceed from a relatively small group of governments; and logic suggests that these should be those of the leading industrial and maritime nations”: a sort of Holy Alliance to enforce a green peace. 

Mohamed Kassas, an Egyptian botanist at UNESCO who appears repeatedly in Selcer’s narrative, told Strong that conferences like UNCHE were useless at dealing with environmental issues. He ridiculed “this rotten international tradition of running international conferences” inherited from “the white people.” The scientists from the global South believed that scientific expertise could only have an impact if it were married to the power of the sovereign. Francesco Di Castri, a Chilean biologist and soon-to-be head of UNESCO’s Man and the Biosphere program, exhorted Southern scientists “not to be outside or against, but to be really in” government. The Indian representative, Ashok Parthasarathi, argued against the naive conception of a “feed-back route [between] the scientist informing-educating the public” because “the reaction back […] does not function in perhaps 70 countries in the UN.” What was needed instead was greater assistance to the scientific institutions of the Global South to increase state capacity. Counterintuitively, Southern scientists believed that achieving a cosmopolitan community required strengthening national institutions, a strategy similar to the concurrent New International Economic Order (NIEO). Even though the NIEO was hardly environmentalist—inspired as it was by an oil cartel—one could make the argument that only a group like NIEO could facilitate the legitimate pooling of sovereignty into a new global sovereign. This social contract would be similar to Kennan’s coal and steel community for the environment, but it required economic and scientific equality amongst states. 

In the end no one at Strong’s meeting got what they wanted. The most notable result of the UNCHE was the creation of the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP), which was headquartered in Nairobi, thus becoming the first UN body hosted by a southern country. Strong stayed on to lead the UNEP, but wearied of bureaucratic brawling and returned to the sweet and light embrace of the oil industry only two years later. The UNEP, in Selcer’s view, was “a cheap knock-off” of the United Nations Development Programme, a flawed institution that still had fifteen times the budget of the UNEP. 

Selcer finds solace in that “the generation that constructed Spaceship Earth” made the global environmental crisis a matter of concern. One could add that the most astute thinkers in the environmental movement were the hard-nosed left-wing scientists from the Global South, who recognized the importance of marrying national state power with international science, and eschewed the elitism that seduced the likes of Kennan or Peccei. Yet, many of these post-colonial states would soon be crushed by neoliberal counter-revolution, starting first in Castri’s Chile the following year. The eventual destruction of the NIEO at the hands of the IMF, World Bank, and US military showed Southern environmentalists had good reason to be wary of their Northern brethren.

The UNCHE was also a reminder that another competing pilot for Spaceship Earth was Malthusianism, a creed that flirted with “final solutions.” In preparation for the conference, the UNCHE Secretariat had recommended a reading list of thirty-eight works to attendees that did not include not a single author from the Global South. It did, however, list Garret Hardin, a genetic biologist and white nationalist best known for “The Tragedy of the Commons” (1968). To exploit the buzz of the UNCHE, Hardin had expanded his essay into a book, Exploring New Ethics for Survival: The Voyage of the Spaceship Beagle (1972). In this strange pastiche of ecology and sci-fi, the plot begins with ecologists being rounded up and killed to rid society of pesky Cassandras. The technophiles triumph and launch an enormous spacecraft, the Beagle, but its passengers bifurcate into two races, the asexual Argotes, and the highly fecund Quotions. The book ends with the vast majority of Argotes arguing for a genocide of the Quotions.

Spaceship in the Desert

With the defeat of the Left in the global South, and the rise of Malthusianism as an ideology-that-dare-not-speak-its-name within the environmental movement, the path was clear for market forces to commandeer the bridge of Spaceship Earth. The most visible example of this shift was Biosphere 2, the self-proclaimed sequel to the Earth itself. Built in the small Arizona town of Oracle in the late 1980s, Biosphere 2 was to be a self-contained ecosystem capable of producing enough air, water, and food for eight astronaut-like “biospherians.” Like UNCHE, Biosphere 2 was headed by another petroleum-based millionaire, Ed Bass, but unlike Strong, Bass wanted to make a profit while saving the world. He believed there was a market in making self-contained ecosystems for space travel, especially after the US government announced its plans for launching the Freedom space station by 1992. Yet, government space programs would provide only part of Bass’ revenue. As Alyssa Battistoni notes in “A Repair Manual for Spaceship Earth,” Biosphere 2’s owners thought that such self-contained systems would also make excellent bomb shelters. This was a return to Spaceship Earth’s origins in 1950s “cabin ecology.” Tourism was another market Bass hoped to tap; Anker quips that this aim reduced the project to an “ecological Disneyland.” Several years later, Disney built a geodesic dome that encased a ride called Spaceship Earth. 

The presence of ecology’s crème de la crème at Oracle, many of whom acted in the capacity as Bass’ scientific advisors, reveals the profound ties between astronomical ventures, nuclear weapons, business, and ecology. Encompassing a bit more than a hectare, Biosphere 2’s gleaming ziggurat and geodesic domes contained a desert, coral reef, mangrove swamp, and rainforest. It looked like a space station on the moon or Mars, and that was no coincidence, as these were the long-term destinations of the project. Though Fuller died a few years before construction began, the facility’s angular design hinted at his influence. The Gaia duo of Lovelock and Margulis, as well as the Odum brothers, advised Bass during the construction of Biosphere 2. Lovelock himself showed how the organic and entrepreneurial strands of Spaceship Earth sometimes intersected. In the 1960s, he had made a small fortune inventing instruments for NASA to detect telltale signs of life in the atmospheric chemistry of other planets. The insight that organisms made their own climate would become foundational to Lovelock’s Gaia theory, which Anker describes as basically “postulating Earth as a giant space cabin.” Biosphere 2’s purpose was to reduce that giant space cabin to its smallest possible size to maintain self-sufficiency.

Despite the hype and the vast resources invested into it, Biosphere 2 was a failure. Two hundred million dollars and the guidance of some of the world’s leading ecologists was not enough to build an ecosystem capable of sustaining eight people. In a strange twist of fate, Steve Bannon, then a 40-year-old investment banker, was hired by Bass to straighten out Biosphere 2’s finances in 1993. He implemented savage cuts with a focus on short-term revenue, but his high-handed treatment of the Biospherians led to a revolt, where the glass dome was smashed to let natural air into that poisonous workplace environment. Early on, oxygen levels dropped by a quarter and the carbon dioxide levels spiked because of over-vigorous soil microbes. The lack of oxygen left the eight biospherians weak with symptoms similar to altitude sickness. The atmospheric imbalance killed off fish and all of the pollinators, which meant that the plants were living on borrowed time. Indeed, the extinction rate was extremely high: some nineteen of the twenty-five vertebrates, and a majority of the insects, perished. The only creatures that seemed to thrive were invasive, leading to swarms of ants and cockroaches. Eutrophication poisoned the water. Biosphere 2 did manage to imitate the Earth system, in that it unintentionally encapsulated the environmental crisis in microcosm. As a rescue measure, a ton of liquid oxygen was pumped into the dome to revive the ailing biospherians and what little of nature that survived. Although the biospherians danced with joy at this deus ex machina, the intervention negated the project’s scientific value for studying self-contained ecosystems. Although the second two-year mission was more successful than the first, at no point could the biospherians support themselves independently. Sabine Höhler, a science and technology scholar, described the greenery of Biosphere 2 as “thin organic skin” stretched over the “surface of huge machinery […] A circuit of cables, ventilators, pumps, and turbines.” It cost $3 million a year just to condition the microcosm in the hot Arizona desert, a system dependent on a giant mechanical lung. Biosphere 2 may look like Forster’s Machine, but its narrative is inverted. Try as they might, humans could not escape the Earth, chained, as they were, to its irreplaceable air. 

The failure of Biosphere 2 revealed early on that the market would not be a better pilot for Spaceship Earth. Markets do not reliably invest in advanced technology if there are few short-term opportunities for profit. The attempt to price ecosystem services appears completely misguided in light of the short-sighted misadventure at Oracle. It makes little sense to say that nature is worth so many trillions of dollars; as it was impossible to replicate even a small natural system at a cost of $200 million for two years, what would be the cost for eight billion people and millions of species? In 1996, an article in Science parsed the Biosphere 2 debacle for lessons, concluding “no one yet knows how to engineer systems that provide humans with the life-supporting services that natural ecosystems produce for free […] despite its mysteries and hazards, Earth remains the only known home that can sustain life.”

Forster had a premonition that maintaining Spaceship Earth would be easier than building one from scratch. Near the end of his story, the Machine mysteriously breaks down. First the music system stops working, then the artificial fruit becomes moldy, and the bath water begins to smell. The lights dim, and the internet-like network ceases. Finally the lungs of the Machine fails and the foul air from the dead Earth above rushes in, suffocating the subterranean humanity. In these last moments the god-like narrator reflects from without: “Man, the flower of all flesh, the noblest of all creatures visible, man who had once made god in his image, and had mirrored his strength on the constellations, beautiful naked man was dying, strangled in the garments that he had woven […] until the body was white pap, the home of ideas as colourless, last sloshy stirrings of a spirit that had grasped the stars.”

With the Cold War over and with it the impetus for further space exploration, there remained few environmental projects in the new millennium that picked up from Biosphere 2. One of those exceptions, for a time, was Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City. Originally planned to be a large, modular, and sustainable urban space, Masdar was supposed to provide a proof of concept for the world at large. The Abu Dhabi government wanted to use Masdar City to attract environmental start-ups and talent by building an eco-city centred on a small university affiliated with MIT. The billions of dollars spent to design, build, and promote Masdar was to help the United Arab Emirates transition from their oil-based economy to the renewable energy future, an effort the president of Masdar compared to the founding of NASA. Masdar City opened its doors and welcomed its first students in 2010. Its buildings certainly are beautiful and futuristic, and one immediately notices the prevalence of geodesic domes. Masdar, more than any other project, exemplified Fuller’s utopia of abundance guided by entrepreneurs with support from far-sighted bureaucrats.

The project was designed by Foster + Partners, an architectural firm headed by Norman Foster. Foster, as one of his partners remarked, “wants to be the Bucky Fuller of this century.” Foster met Fuller in 1971, when they collaborated on the designs for the Samuel Beckett Theatre for Oxford’s St. Peter’s College. This ambitious but never completed project envisioned the theatre as a subterranean submarine. Foster and Fuller collaborated on several other daring but rarely realized projects over the next dozen years. Most recently, Foster + Partners built Apple’s $5 billion headquarters in California, which looks like a cross between the Pentagon and a flying saucer. In 2015, Foster + Partners designed a Mars colony, which they imagine being built by previously dispatched robots before anyone’s arrival. When taking on the assignment for Masdar, Foster mused that building an isolated eco-city in the desert would be good practice for the eventual shift to extra-terrestrial architecture. Soon after Masdar City’s opening in 2010, a young American student in the eco-city blogged about her experience as a “spaceship in the desert.” 

Magpie-like, Gökçe Günel gleans this quip for the title of her recently published monograph, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi. Her brilliant ethnography of Masdar reminds us of the limits of the third pilot of Spaceship Earth—the market. The campus was supposed to have hundreds of sleek, fully-automated pod-cars running a 37km track with 87 stations, but in the end just a few machines made the jaunt from the entrance of the building to the parking lot. One pod burst into flames just before Masdar’s grand opening. A much-hyped energy currency failed to get off the ground because the city’s “brain” (the Building Management System) failed to deliver as an omniscient surveillance technology capable of tracking everyone’s energy use. The private sector lacks the state’s might, or perhaps its patience, to build either the “spaceman economy” at home, or to expand the “cowboy economy” to the stars. Günel, however, repeatedly refuses to declare the eco-city a failure. Instead, she finds the tension inherent in its promised but never quite realized potential to be grounds for fruitful investigation. 

Once, Günel shared a ride with a consultant, Marco, working at the eco-city’s CCS project, Masdar Carbon. Looking outside their car windows, they commented on the absurdly verdant lawns that lined much of the highway from Dubai to Abu Dhabi. Pastoral aesthetics were a luxury in a desert country, requiring vast quantities of desalinated water and new turf. Marco sympathised with the plants, saying clearly they did not want to be there. Ever since he had taken yage, a hallucinogenic drug used by indigenous Amazonians, Marco had gained insight into the interiority of the natural world, a revelation that he felt had been best expressed by Carlos Castaneda, an occultist novelist. Everything in nature had souls, Marco explained to Günel, a communion that not only included plants but also molecules of carbon dioxide. “He believed that a market-based system would be an effective mechanism for suspending the differences among humans, animals, plants and carbon dioxide: all beings would be redeemable in cash, made equivalent under a common denominator.” The combination of an entrepreneur’s eye with a hippie’s heart is as old as counterculture itself—Bass, after all, was an oil oligarch who lived on an eco-commune before he built Biosphere 2. What Marco offered was a consultant’s Hegel, the belief that Geist would infuse everything through commodification. 

Masdar Carbon was supposed to research and promote carbon capture and sequestration (CCS), a technology that can be traced to the “cabin ecology” of submarine ventilation systems from the 1950s. Abu Dhabi hoped to use CCS to greenwash its oil industry and gain the UN’s imprimatur for such projects during the lead-up to the 2011 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Brazil and Saudi Arabia sent employees from Petrobras and Saudi Aramco to the UN’s conference on CCS. “The oil industry not only influences policy making on climate change mitigation by lobbying and pressuring governments,” Günel estimates, “it also provides labor power for the emergent renewable energy […] Many of the policy consultants at Masdar Carbon had been headhunted from major consulting companies, including Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, PwC, Ernst and Young, or KPMG.” In this way, Günel’s monograph should be seen as a sequel to Selcer’s, as she traces how the UN itself has become hollowed out by corporations, as if the latter were parasitic wasps. Furthermore, borrowing terms from Selcer, one can see these negotiations as a contest between the “view from above,” of consultants who wanted to create a vague set of parameters that could underpin a global agreement, versus the engineers’ “view from somewhere,” as their guidelines drew on experience from specific projects with their own unique geologies. As an executive from the Abu Dhabi National Oil Company asked the consultants, “How could you generate policy without proof of concepts? We may be ignoring the key risks.” This concern reflected the paradoxical “unknowability of the sub-surface,” as the geological strata could be fairly well understood but only in particular instances, because such knowledge stubbornly resisted general applicability, no matter what the consultants wanted. 

Yet Günel’s study also shows how the scope of climate change demands administrative bodies beyond corporations and states. She found that attempts to broker a global market for CCS foundered on the instability of nation-states themselves. “The consultants at Masdar addressed questions not only about nation-states,” Günel notes, “but also about their potential disappearance […] the present, as manageable as it may seem, was not a strong enough temporal unit to work with.” If states were transient, so too were firms. The need to safeguard sequestered carbon for thousands of years meant that the liability for CCS projects need to be transferred “to an authorized body designated by the host country after the end of their short term liability period.” 

Everything does have an endpoint, and it seems to end in shopping or entertainment, just as the last geodesic dome built during Fuller’s lifetime is in Disney’s Epcot Center. At one point in Spaceship in the Desert, Günel rides a pod-car, chatting with Salim, a student at Masdar. He expresses little faith in Abu Dhabi’s commitment to the project, reflecting that “when they stop building it, and finally give up on the clean technology cluster, Masdar City will probably transform into an amusement park, don’t you think?” Masdar had already scaled down its ambitions soon after its opening in 2010 and by the decade’s end it was clear it would not be the modular, world-saving city it was meant to be, but little more than a green-washed office park for some eco-startups. In 2019 an “eco-friendly” mall opened up nearby, and there are also plans for “eco-villas.” Hilton built a hotel next door, less because of Masdar City’s eco-flair than its proximity to the airport. After the moments of promise charted by Selcer, especially the flashes of brilliance of the Southern delegates at the UNCHE, to see Spaceship Earth end as a suburban mall is a particularly grotesque example of history occurring first as tragedy, then as farce.

Schumpeter in Space

The concept of Spaceship Earth has always been ambiguous. Was it supposed to instruct us on how to treat the planet and devise post-capitalist economies? To treat the Earth as a machine that could be studied, replicated, and duplicated? To build artificial worlds underground, like Forster’s Machine and GEMS, or in outer-space like Bernal’s globes? Despite its poor track record, the market remains ensconced in the cockpit of our planetary vessel, where it will remain until it is ejected by either a Boulding-esque Left or Hardin’s fascist Argotes. The market’s advantage lies in entrepreneurs’ ability to act without global unity, needing only to promise salvation to paying customers rather than all passengers of Spaceship Earth. Yet, debacles like Biosphere 2 and Masdar City show that fixing the original Spaceship Earth in any form is likely beyond the market’s reach. In the unlikely event that they ever work, one hopes that Bezos’ space-cans will be raided by Schmitt’s cosmopirates. 

When the Left has directed its sporadic attention to humanity’s ultimate relationship to the Earth, it tends to make arguments in the same timbre as Bernal did in 1929. Many socialists, especially those adhering to “fully automated luxury communism” (or as it is more playfully known, “fully automated luxury gay space communism”) are keen to dominate the biosphere and venture to the stars. The fiasco of Biosphere 2—let alone the current SARS-CoV-2 pandemic—should make clear how little we understand the Earth. We are not getting off this rock anytime soon, but the catastrophes of climate change, epidemics, and extinction are already here. Yet, even the haziest sketch for what a Boulding-esque socialism could be still does not exist. While the environmental movement is doomed as long as it relies on technocratic expertise without mass mobilization, the Left needs to be more engaged with environmental science if it is to make an impact. Spaceship Earth needs a world sovereign, but its best hope, as Southern scientists recognized at UNCHE, was for strong states in newly liberated countries to increase their scientific capacity and to confront the Global North as equals. It is not a coincidence that Cuba, one of the great survivors from the era of national liberation, is the most biodiverse country in the Caribbean, has large well-protected preserves, a deep scientific establishment, and is considered by the WWF to be the world’s only sustainable country. The first Black person in space, Arnaldo Tamayo Méndez, was Cuban. 

Boulding lacked a realistic sense of politics, as a contrast with Schmitt shows, but he more than anyone else provided the most persuasive interpretation of Spaceship Earth. Boulding never thought that the Earth’s systems could be controlled, substituted, and manufactured. What mattered to him was reducing pressure on nature by minimizing the “throughput” of the economy’s physical metabolism. He recognized there was not much time to recalibrate our relationship with nature. “Tomorrow is not only very close, but in many respects it is already here,” he warned. “The shadow of the future spaceship, indeed, is already falling over our spendthrift merriment.” Remarkably, he observed that “it seems to be in pollution rather than in exhaustion that the problem [of Spaceship Earth] is first becoming salient.” Generations later, we still inhabit Boulding’s ratio of plentiful enough natural resources but too much pollution—just think about the relationship between fossil fuels underground and carbon in the atmosphere. The other Spaceship Earths that have existed parallel to Boulding’s⁠, vessels like Bernal’s globes and Biosphere 2, were never going to get off the ground.

While Boulding’s counsel for a “spaceman” economy may seem prescient, perhaps he did not go far enough. For the Earth is less a spaceship, less a knowable machine designed and operated by us, than an ancient living thing that will remain forever beyond our ken. Its operating systems we can never fathom, and for this reason it is wisest to allow the ghost in the shell to pilot the ship. Tampering with the controls will only result in a crash. The Earth is not something mechanical like a spaceship or Plato’s geometry, but more like the living, breathing entities described by Hesiod, Lovelock, and Margulis. The natural world will likely never be fully knowable, and thus any attempt to reproduce it is doomed. To ensure the functioning of Spaceship Earth, the natural realm must be expanded at the expense of factory farms, forest plantations, and suburban malls. If half the Earth is rewilded, as some ecologists now call for, then extinctions become less likely and plants can sequester carbon at a vaster scale and more safely than anything Marco and his peers at Masdar Carbon imagined. A new ecological socialism along such lines is needed to overthrow a feckless market, and to ward off Malthusian eco-fascism.

Author of the article

is a post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University's Weatherhead Center. He studies energy, animals, and neo-liberalism.