In the early 1990s a large-scale and very expensive experiment was conducted in Arizona call Biosphere 2 in which scientists attempted to create, under giant sealed greenhouses, a biosphere that replicated the self-regulating life support systems of Planet Earth. It was completely sealed from the earth’s natural support systems and was lived in for two years by eight researchers to see if humans might in the future be able to design such a biosphere for self-sufficient living that might allow escape from our evolved planetary biosphere. In this TED talk, Jane Poynter, one of the eight inhabitants of Biosphere 2 tells of her experiences and what the experiment discovered. here (for both the video and the transcripts in a number of different languages). The story and controversies of the experiment are detailed in Wikipedia here.
There are many serious attempts by individuals and groups to take action, whether personal or communal, on behalf of sustaining Spaceship Earth, as is the case with our CASE initiative whose blog offers links to many of them. The long-established Context Institute is one of these driven by Robert Gilman a former astrophysicist’s passion for community action . Here is an extract from its website:
Context Institute is an independent non-profit organization, founded in 1979 by Robert and Diane Gilman, devoted to helping all of us create the best possible 21st century we can — for each of us, for our communities, and for all of life. We are one of a handful of organizations that have focused on sustainability as a central theme for more than 30 years, and we are internationally recognized as an authority in this area.
Robert Gilman has recently posted a clearly presented, free-online, video presentation entitled “What time is it?” that provide a splendid historical context for how we need to shift our cultures from what he calls the ‘Empire Era’ to the emerging ‘Planetary Era’ –
- Part 1 – System Domains and 1900 To The Present
- Part 2 – Outline of History and Tribal To Empire
- Part 3 – Empire Era and Empire To Planetary
- Part 4 – Planetary Era
- Part 5 – Working with the momentum of history
Each of the five videos lasts between 16 and 23 minutes and all are particularly relevant to the ‘big picture’ thinking that is needed about Spaceship Earth and its prospects. Slides used in the presentation can be downloaded to be used in one’s own teaching. Gilman is still positive about the prospects for a sustainable future: “The reasons our society deals so poorly with the issues we are facing today are a matter of changeable culture more than fixed human nature. The key to understanding the core challenge of our times is to realize that we have inherited most of our institutions, values and concepts from a very different time in history. However well they worked when they were created, they no longer fit today’s contexts: population, technology, economic and environmental . They aren’t working to solve today’s problems because they weren’t developed in or for today’s context. Transforming our cultures to fit our new reality is the core challenge of our times.
Exponential growth of human impacts is the greatest threat to Spaceship Earth. The world GDP is currently growing at close to 4% per annum. To find out how many years that it will take the total global GDP to double at this rate of increase, you simply divide the percentage rate into 70. Thus, if the 4% rate continues, the GDP value of all human activity will only take seventeen and half years. This means a doubling of all the stuff that we produce on Spaceship Earth in this time. It took the whole of human history to arrive at our current loading of the planet! This blog from Jeremy Williams elaborates with two excellent links here. The videotaped lecture by Prof. Albert Bartlett is a remarkable feat of undergraduate teaching and one of the best answers available to the question posed by this post. For a 6 minute video that shows how exponential growth is speeding toward limits to growth on Spaceship Earth see this lesson from Chris Martenson’s “The Crash Course”. This free online course for self-study is well worth watching in either its 45-minute or 3-hour version.
A fascinating glimpse at how editorials in leading newspapers see what they (and their readers) want to see is offered here in a look at the reaction of five leading US newspapers to the IPCC’s latest report on climate change. The massive IPCC report maps the almost total consensus of climate scientists about climate disruption on Spaceship Earth arising from human activity, and emphasises the need to ‘adapt and mitigate’ given that emerging changes appear inevitable. But still, the editorial in the Wall Street Journal editorial manages to conclude: “The best environmental policy is economic growth. The richer you are, the more insurance you have, and wealth pays for prudent environmental regulations”. Of course, the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media (here) is, by exposing editorial bias, open to accusations of bias! But the short article would be an instructive exercise for older students on bias detection of mainstream press coverage of an extremely important issue for our planet and one of its most crucial life support systems.
George Monbiot, the formidable campaigner against the corporate invasion of political life that is perhaps behind the Wall Street Journal’s biases, offers a much more extensive critique (here) of how corporate interests permeate much of public life and even institutions purporting to promote a sustainable future for our planet. even his own liberal Guardian newspaper!
Think tanks are a major source of news used by journalists. Jeremy Williams comments in this blog on their lack of transparency and offers links to sites that evaluate how open they are in revealing the interests that fund them.
Paul Kingsnorth was the co-founder of the Dark Mountain project, a crowd-sourced initiative of writers and artists in the UK who seek to make a creative response to the dark future that they see for Spaceship Earth. In this interview (link here) Rob Hopkins, the founder of the Transition Movement, also in the UK, explores with Kingsnorth why environmentalism and the ‘green movement’ still cling to the hope that large scale global transformations can be controlled by reasonable policies and action. The conclusion is that local action is worthwhile, but that trying to mend a decaying system premised on unsustainable growth will not prevent its collapse. Although the notion of ‘glocal’ action – linking local action to global thinking, action and transformation – is not used in the discussion, Kingsnorth argues that this is false hope. Thus he would probably see the longer-term purpose of this CASE website as unattainable, while still encouraging us to expose what is really happening to Spaceship Earth so that, at least, we can help the next generation face the future with open eyes.
Many on-line teaching resources are available to stimulate classroom discussion and further research on big issues relating to Spaceship Earth and its future. One website worth examining is ourlandourbusiness.org Here are two examples:
Global Wealth Inequality – This video reveals the shocking concentration of Global Wealth that shifts far more wealth from the poor countries to the rich than is provided in foreign aid. See the 4 minute video here.
Corporate Land-grabbing – A shorter cartoon video highlights the role of the World Bank in concentrating wealth in the hands of rich corporations by means of land-grabbing which dispossesses millions of small scale farmers of their livelihoods. The 1 minute 40 second video is here.
There are too many websites for any single person to follow that relate to promoting the well-being of Spaceship Earth and its existing web-of-life passengers. Our website is just starting up hoping to attract more followers. Meanwhile the non-profit on-line community of 80000 followers – Wiser Earth – has announced that it will close and archive its materials in April 2014. It issued this message with several links to similar sites:
“We have been working with partners who will help re-purpose parts of Wiser.org’s content and support our community. Once our site is closed, the following partners have offered to build upon our data set:
- Guidestar – “Revolutionize philanthropy by providing information about non-profits”
- TechSoup Global – “Leverage technology for social change”
- Founding Family – “Evolving American democracy”
- Earth Deeds – “Transforming carbon footprints”
- Amp – “Find and share best sustainability resources”
For members who would like to continue to network, build collaborations and take action on the ground, we are recommending the following networks:
- Idealist – “Connect with 90,000 organizations to help build a better world”
- Bioneers – “Revolution from the Heart of Nature”
- The Pachamama Alliance – “Educates, inspires and empowers committed people everywhere to bring forth a thriving, just and sustainable world”
- Transition US – “Building Community Resilience through local grassroots actions”
- Netsquared – “Connecting People for the Common Good’
- Women’s Earth Alliance – ‘To invest in grassroots women’s leadership to drive solutions to our most pressing ecological concerns’
Many fruitful collaborations have taken place and Wiser.org members have hosted over 184 WiserLocal gatherings in 38 cities across the world”.
Three countries are rather surprisingly breaking new ground in broadening their national development goals beyond the crudely economistic metric of GDP. Jeremy Williams here has featured them in his blog that constantly offers excellent substantive material that is relevant to the future of Spaceship Earth. Unfortunately the much richer, high-environmental-impact OECD nations seem less inclined to incorporate a broader measure and vision of human and planetary well-being into their national goals for the future.
Many eminent scientists are telling us the same messages about the challenges facing Spaceship Earth and its crew. This lecture (link here) was given on 6 February 2014 at the Institute for Policy Research, University of Bath in England by Sir John Bennington (see biography below). Thanks to Bill Scott’s blog (here) for the link.
Abstract: Change in the 21st century is both fast and dramatic. Yet in many ways some problems for the next few decades are both predictable and inexorable. Significant challenges exist driven by population growth, complex demography, urbanisation and increasing prosperity, all with a background of significant poverty. Climate change is happening, will continue and is a major risk multiplier. The lecture will cover these issues and examine some of the ways in which these challenges can be addressed.
Sir John Beddington was from 2008 until 2013 the Government Chief Scientific Adviser (GCSA) reporting directly to the Prime Minister. As GCSA, he led on providing scientific advice to Government during the 2009 swine flu outbreak, the 2010 volcanic ash incident and the emergency at the Fukushima nuclear power plant in 2011. As GCSA, he was also responsible for increasing the scientific capacity across Whitehall by encouraging all major departments of state to recruit a Chief Scientific Adviser. In 2008 Sir John raised the concept of the ‘Perfect Storm’ of food, energy and water security in the context of mitigating and adapting to climate change. He continues to work in the area. During 2011 he chaired an International Commission on Sustainable Agriculture and Climate Change and recently took on the Co-chairmanship of an International Commission on Agriculture and Nutrition. He is the Senior Adviser to the Oxford Martin School and Professor of Natural Resource Management at Oxford University. Amongst other activities he is a Non-Executive Director of the Met Office, a Trustee of the Natural History Museum and President of the Royal Agricultural Society of England.
The Wikipedia entry on “Spaceship Earth” (here) is a good starting point for tracing the early use of the metaphor. It cites the first use of the concept as 1879. But it was in the 1960s that the term gained widespread currency at a time when I was starting my teaching career. As a geography teacher, then teacher educator, I was significantly attracted to thinking at the global scale about human-natural world interaction, by three writers in particular – Barbara Ward, Kenneth Boulding and Buckminster Fuller. All three had a wide influence at the time leading up to the Club of Rome’s “Limits to Growth” and the first UN Stockholm Conference on the Human Environment, both seminal events happening in 1972. Biographical background and some key ideas of these three influential figures is provided here by means of edited extracts from Wikipedia with hyperlinks to articles in the Encyclopaedia of the Earth.