Spaceship Earth



I am reading a thought-provoking book: The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch.  As most books, it is one view, a seemingly narrow view or opinion, where other’s views are often referred to as “capital errors” and “mistaken”, but it is good to contemplate the ideas he presents of our entitlement or maximum potential as people, which is vast. (David argues that unless the laws of physics prevent it, there are few limits on human progress…. why couldn’t we, one day, stop a star from exploding, or create new stars, etc…)

In one passage, he addresses the “spaceship Earth” metaphor…

So says the metaphor:   “Just as the spaceship’s life-support system is designed to sustain its passengers, so the biosphere has the ‘appearance of design’: it seems highly adapted to sustaining us (claims the metaphor) because we were adapted to it by evolution. But its capacity is finite: if we overload it, either by our sheer numbers or by adopting lifestyles too different from those that we evolved to live (the ones that it was ‘designed’ to support) it will break down.”

As hinted in “claims the metaphor”, David seems to believe the metaphor is mistaken and not useful.

“To the extent that we are on a ‘spaceship’, we have never been merely its passengers, nor (as it often said) its stewards, nor even its maintenance crew: we are its designers and builders. Before the designs created by humans, it was not a vehicle, but only a heep of dangerous raw materials.”

In another passage:

“The Earth’s biosphere is incapable of supporting human life.” [ indefinitely, without tending from humans.]

However, I still like the spaceship earth model. Regardless of your opinions about weather we have been given gifts, or not given gifts in the biosphere, or weather the biosphere is, or is not inherently capable of supporting human life., I think it is still useful.   The fact of the mater is, out there in space, which is vast, as David Deutsch puts it “our blood would boil” and we would last but a few moments without some protective “technology” or “biosphere”.   Even if you subscribe to David’s view, that we built the earth that we know today, the fact is the Earth’s protective shell is thin and possibly fragile… and it is prudent for even the most industrious “builder” and “designer” to take care when playing with that shell that for the time being shelters us, because, in David’s own words:  “problems” and “mistakes are inevitable”.  Yes, I also believe that they are all solvable – with the right knowledge – but knowledge takes time to acquire, and if we puncture our protective shell, or destroy our biosphere, or punch a hole in spaceship earth (whether or not you call that spaceship man-made or nature made or a hybrid), we may not have time to find the knowledge… or in the very least not have time to avert suffering for many in a temporarily damaged “spaceship”, even if our species survives.

Sustainability is the knowledge of how to continue to grow, design, and construct our society without prematurely destroying our life support system, whether you believe that life support system is mostly provided by nature, mostly provided by humans, or a hybrid.


BP Oil Spill - NASA image

I am going to return to something of interest to me – sustainability and economics – listening to this week’s Planet Money podcast which covers the contrast between growth and sustainability, where they try to answer whether economic growth is bad for the environment.

GDP, or gross domestic product, is an asymmetric measure economic activity often used to measure growth – meaning that it only captures the positive, but not all the negative effects such as environmental degradation across the economy. For example, with the BP oil spill, the financial costs of cleaning up the spill – a negative impact on the environment  – is added to GDP and could actually have been good for the local economy.

BP estimated they spent +$40 billion in clean up (expenses in and around the Gulf…)

Oil lost in the spill: 5 million barrels x $100/bbl = -$500 million

Oil industry lost value: -$2.5 billion

Fishing industry in Gulf ~ -$600+ million, and 2/3 remained open…

Tourism losses:  -$20 billion ?   (probably a high estimate… especially since occupancy at hotels was very high in some areas for clean up crews)

The net effect is that the BP oil spill may have added to the economic activity in the Gulf, as measured by GDP, as JP Morgan reported a few months after the spill, illustrating plainly how economic growth could be bad for the environment. (This excludes possible long term effects from degraded environments and health considerations).  Essentially, GDP, and often the price of many products (such as oil or coal), do not capture all of the “costs” to society and the world, such as quality of life losses, health losses, environmental damage, and so on.  These are called “externalities“.

Planet Money interviewed Robert Mendelson, an economist at Yale University and Hermann Daly. Mendelson argues that economic growth is good for the earth and for society as long as we quantify the major externalities and price them into the cost of the good or service.   Hermann Daly argues that pricing in all the externalities for a product is too complicated and difficult, so we should abandon our focus on growth.  It appears from the interview that abandoning growth may leave large parts of the world without the means to increase their standard of living (health, food availability, shelter) – and since this is not desirable – the conclusion of the podcast seems to be our best choice is Mendelson’s. We need to continue to work to price into products the full costs of a product in resources and in environmental impact.    As these costs are slowly added to product costs over time, the value of sustainable design will increase.


The Bresslergroup, a Philadelphia based design firm, produced an interesting webinar in August on Sustainable Product Design.  One of the key thoughts in their production, was Incrementalism.

Small Systematic Steps = Incrementalism

Systematic x All Projects x Production Volumes = Large Impact

 I found this quote interesting too:

Maybe an overgeneralization, but designers probably tend to be embracers, while the people running the company, product managers and the like, are likely cautious adopters.

I’d agree from my experience.  I also agree with their conclusion that the most tangible aspect of sustainability is cost reduction.   Economic drivers are intertwined with sustainability drivers, especially as raw materials become tight in supply, and costs increase.  

The biggest change comes from changing user behavior.  This is often very difficult to accomplish…     …so we make incremental changes that save money must to have, and bigger changes nice to have.

The tools that enable incrementalism is Life Cycle Analysis.  They describe two types of tools: full LCA tools, and simplified design tools.  We’ve explored some of these ideas in other posts. (1)

Awesome. Two students. Carnegie Mellon University. More: http://surg2011.tumblr.com/


I picked this up on The Big Picture Blog (a favorite on economics and the forces that move the world) and thought it was neat.

Screwed Up is a love story and a story of not knowing a good thing until its gone.  After a short honeymoon period monotony and arguments settle in. One deserts the other, but regrets that very decision soon after and embarks on a search for the missing other half.

dir. Kris Hofmann
sound and music. Alexander Zlamal

animation. Kris Hofmann & Ulrika Axen
lighting. Mirko Beutler & Tobias Eiving
edit. Tobias Eiving
setbuild. Zain Aziz Setdesign

Thanks to David Cecil, Joe Giacomet, A Can of Gas and the Butchers

Screwed Up was kindly funded by the
BMUKK Austria and Land Niederoesterreich

*Repost from my old blog*

SUNDAY, MAY 17, 2009 AT 6:46AM

NaturevHumans by you.

Paul MacCready, presented at TED 2003

“10,000 years ago at the dawn of agriculture, humans plus livestock and pets, made up less than a tenth of 1% of the vertebrate mass on the planet… only yesterday in biological terms.  What is it today: 98%”

I heard this on TED Talks in a speach by Dan Dennett on Religion (@ 11:30 in therecording). Dan was quoting this from Paul MacCready from TED 2003.  Paul’s 2003 speech is still online at TED Talks.  Paul talks about nature and humans starting at 9:00 minutes.

“This chart [above] is one of the most important ones any of you will see… …well, ever.”

“2 billion people” … student’s estimate of the equilibrium population for the planet.

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