The Cowboy Economy and Spaceship Earth

It is difficult to trace the concept of the circular economy back to a certain date or a single author. However, practical applications to modern economic systems and industrial processes date back to the 1970s.
Certainly one of the essays that laid the foundations of environmental economics is “The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth”, published in 1966 by Kenneth Boulding. In the essay, Boulding outlines two types of economy, identifying them with two figures, the cowboy and the spaceman: the cowboy merely considers the endless plains that surround him, driven by a continuous thirst for conquest and consumption; the spaceman, on the other hand, is profoundly aware of the system in which he lives, the great spaceship Earth, of its limits and the cycles that regulate its operation. “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 behaviour, 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.
Boulding was the first to consider the Earth as a closed system: only from the Earth, just as spacemen do in a spaceship, can Earthlings get the resources they need, and only on Earth can they discard waste and refuse. Energy stocks, therefore, can only be replaced by solar energy while water and raw materials can only be durable if they are reused and recycled. The myth of the expansion of consumption and the economies of individual countries and the world can only lead to a more or less rapidly approaching crisis, precisely because this model is based on a mistaken assumption, which is to consider the resources on our planet as unlimited.

Special reports

From the Multimedia section

  • energy

    Share of renewable electricity sources in total electricity sector consumption (2018)

    Look

    energy

    Per capita waste generation in EU, 2018

    Look

    energy

    Natural gas: the world top ten importers (2017)

    Look
  • energy

    Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) Global Capacity, 2020

    Look

    energy

    Oil, the world top 10 exporters (2018)

    Look

    energy

    Oil, the world top 10 importers (2018)

    Look
  • energy

    Percentage of electricity generated from nuclear sources (2019)

    Look

    energy

    World uranium demand

    Look

    energy

    Percentage breakdown of municipal waste management in Italy, 2015

    Look
  • energy

    Share of renewable electricity sources in total electricity sector consumption (2018)

    Look

    energy

    Per capita waste generation in EU, 2018

    Look
  • energy

    Natural gas: the world top ten importers (2017)

    Look

    energy

    Concentrating Solar Power (CSP) Global Capacity, 2020

    Look
  • energy

    Oil, the world top 10 exporters (2018)

    Look

    energy

    Oil, the world top 10 importers (2018)

    Look
  • energy

    Share of renewable electricity sources in total electricity sector consumption (2018)

    Look
  • energy

    Per capita waste generation in EU, 2018

    Look
  • energy

    Natural gas: the world top ten importers (2017)

    Look

Facts

  • 5 April 2022

    Recycling figures

    World Recycling Day is celebrated on 18 April. Where do we stand in Italy? According to the 2021 report of…

  • 11 April 2017

    New photocatalytic compounds

    The term "photocatalysis" refers to a phenomenon by which a substance alters the speed of a chemical reaction

  • 11 July 2016

    Hi-tech energy-storing flowers

    In the history of man, nature has always constituted an inexhaustible source of inspiration for the creation of technological systems...