The History of Spaceship Earth Science


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The History of Spaceship Earth Science

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

New York University - The Humanities Initiative

Why did scientists and lay people alike in the 1970s talk about the Earth in terms of a Spaceship? And in what way did this frame the environmental debate? With a point of departure in the famous earthrise image, this lecture reviews the history of "spaceship earth". The photo came to represent a dream of a globe in ecological harmony, yet it was taken by a crew of astronauts sent out in space to demonstrate the superiority of the United States in a world divided by Cold War tensions. Spaceship earth was not a vague analogy or metaphor, but that it reflected instead efforts to build a closed ecosystem within the spaceship in order to secure the health of astronauts. In other words, the Earth was literally understood as being construed as the spaceship and the environmental havoc was caused by humans not behaving like astronauts. Environmental ethics became an issue of trying to live like astronauts by adapting space technologies such as bio-toilets, solar cells, recycling, and energy-saving devices. Technology, terminology, and methodology developed for spaceships became tools for solving environmental problems onboard Spaceship Earth. Spaceships came to represent the rational, orderly, and wisely managed contrast to the irrational, disorderly, and ill managed environments on Earth.


Peder Anker

New York University

Peder Anker's teaching and research interests lie in the history of science, ecology, environmentalism, and design, as well as environmental philosophy. He has received research fellowships from the Fulbright Program and the Dibner Institute and been a visiting scholar at both the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science and Columbia University. He is the author of From Bauhaus to Ecohouse: A History of Ecological Design (Louisiana State University Press, 2010), which explores the intersection of architecture and ecological science, and Imperial Ecology: Environmental Order of the British Empire, 1895-1945 (Harvard University Press, 2001), which investigates how the promising new science of ecology flourished in the British Empire. Professor Anker's current book project explores the history of ecological debates in his country of birth, Norway. Links to his articles and up-to-date information about his work are available at