Blue planet consciousness

Haven’t posted here for ages, but this review just published in Public Understanding of Science seemed worth reposting. The book is a nice complement to Poole’s Earthrise, and a good way into varipous strands of thinking about the Anthropocene, a current preoccupation of mine (and lots of other people…)

Spaceship Earth is a metaphor that has to be looked at the right way to read its significance. A ship allows outward bound voyages, trade and exploration. It can be also a safe place afloat on a stormy sea: a small, fragile refuge, an Ark or a lifeboat. A spaceship offers the same possibilities. But Spaceship Earth typically evokes the latter kind. It is a blue bauble in the centre of immensities, a home for humanity in an otherwise hostile, lifeless universe.

As Sabine Höhler argues, following Foucault, it is also a vessel, thus a place of confinement, of both constrained geospace and limited biospace. She argues that for roughly 20 years, centering on 1970, Spaceship Earth was emblematic of an era weighing the dream of spaceflight against concerns about the future, and especially the environment, while facing Cold War tensions, rising awareness of global inter-dependence, and the potential, good and bad, of science and technology. The Earthly spaceship had a supposedly definable carrying capacity, but might also be remade, enhanced, or even added to by visionary application of technology.

Her book essays a particularly demanding kind of cultural history, tracing a discourse which was prominent in the recent past, while having deeper roots, and that has resonances that are still apparent in many different places. The period focus is well-chosen. One does not necessarily have to agree that Spaceship Earth was entirely displaced by globalization and sustainability after 198o, as she asserts, to see sense in examining the previous two decades. That accommodates detailed reading of diverse sources, including Buckminster Fuller and Kenneth Boulding, systems ecologists, and the planners and builders of Biosphere Two, as well as key fictions and films.

The book is organised around various attributes of the Ship – such as capacity, containment, circulation (internally) and storage. Each is carefully unpacked in an analysis that usefully conjoins science and technology studies and environmental history. The range of reference is wide, and the results are a rich resource for anyone seeking insight into how humans, nature, environment and planetary existence were configured in this period. It will illuminate these decades for readers who came to these questions after the 1970s and deepen the recollections of those, like me, who lived through them, and who remember the “Earthrise” photos from Apollo 8 as fresh images.

This is a scholarly history with much to offer for anyone thinking about attitudes to science, technology and the future in the post World War Two era. It will also be good to have to hand while considering discussion of human life on the planet further into the 21st century, as we come to grips with the Anthropocene and debate the merits and demerits of geoengineering as a possible response to global enrivonmental change. Do we now find ourselves aboard a spaceship that, like Neurath’s ship of scientific theory, must occasionally be repaired or even rebuilt while staying afloat all the while? Perhaps the Spaceship Earth metaphor won’t stretch quite that far, but Höhler’s book is still a convincing reminder of its enduring power.

Spaceship Earth in the Environmental Age, 1960-1990. By Sabine Höhler.

Pickering and Chatto, 2015. ISBN 9781848935099

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