Saturday, April 22, 2017

Spaceship Earth Day

More than once, George Takei has described Gene Roddenberry's vision of the Enterprise as a Starship Earth, its crew reflecting the human diversity of the whole planet.

It's not clear if Roddenberry himself ever used that name, but "Spaceship Earth" was a concept popularized by economists Barbara Ward and Kenneth Boulding in the mid 1960s, and by Buckminster Fuller perhaps earlier in speeches, but in book form in 1968.  These of course were long before the Epcot attraction.

Ward and Boulding used the term to emphasize that the resources of the planet are limited, thus combining economic and environmental concerns.  "The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the 'spaceman' economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship," Boulding wrote, "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."

Fuller, a popular visionary in the 1960s and 70s, had both a more comprehensive and more specific approach.  A lifelong sailor and Navy veteran, he used the metaphor of the ship with the practicality of direct knowledge.  The survival of the ship's crew completely depends on the resources aboard the ship--everything from food and water to the tools and materials necessary to make repairs and meet emergencies.  Those resources include knowledge and skills.

This may seem simplistic or even simply common sense.  But the idea flies in the face of standard practice through the centuries, of waste and destruction as if resources would never run out or become poisonously polluted.  As if trees could be cut down without consequence to land,  water and animals, and ultimately to human populations.  Modern economics right up to this moment does not figure in as costs the destruction of natural resources or pollution.

There's another aspect to the Spaceship Earth concept included in a 1965 speech by Adlai Stevenson, US Ambassador to the United Nations appointed by President Kennedy.  He told the UN Economics and Social Council:

"We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave—to the ancient enemies of man—half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all."

Buckminster Fuller, with uncharacteristic economy, put it more simply:

"We are not going to be able to operate our Spaceship Earth successfully nor for much longer unless we see it as a whole spaceship and our fate as common. It has to be everybody or nobody."

Once again economics and ecology are combined in this example, involving the contemporary issues of poverty and income inequality, and implying the Star Trek ideal of a base line of sufficiency for all.

But the idea of the Earth as a spaceship predated the name by at least a century.  In a poem collected in the 1891 edition of his Leaves of Grass, American poet Walt Whitman wrote:

"One thought ever at the fore— 
That in the Divine Ship, the World, breasting Time and Space, 
All Peoples of the globe forever sail, sail the same voyage, are 
bound to the same destination.”

Whitman adds yet another meaning to the concept with that final line: "all...bound to the same destination."  Whether that destination is the afterlife or death, it implies the need to see the planet and life with an ethical sense, and the search for meaning.  Diversity, ecology and equality are necessary to the planet, and to the individual humans alive with it.

One of the slogans of today's Earth Day--written on signs carried in the day for Science demonstrations around the world-- adds contemporary emphasis: "There is no Planet B."

It rebuts the viral idea that once the Earth is ruined, humans can find another planetary home--or, if the frontier ethos is to be repeated, another planet to plunder.  If this is even possible in the near future, or possible at all--both increasingly questionable assumptions--it does not excuse ruining the exquisite planet we've got.  And clearly, not everybody would be able to make that voyage.

Star Trek offers a template for a better future--not just a starship that reflects the diversity and accumulated wisdom of Earth, but an actual Earth with a healthy ecosystem, baseline sufficiency and opportunity for all, and diversity that is not only honored but valued.  Such an Earth, some have argued, is itself essential for humanity's ability to explore the solar system and perhaps beyond.

Meanwhile, the concept of Spaceship Earth also reminds us that, while few of us will leave the planet to explore space, all of us already explore space aboard our planet--our amazing planet whizzing through this vast mysterious universe.  The Earth takes care of us, if we take care of the Earth.

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