Spaceship Earth, Barbara Ward


“Pale Blue Dot,” Challenger 1 spacecraft, Carl Sagan. (Earth is halfway down the orange/brown band of light)

Can we not at such a time realize the moral unity of our human experience and make it the basis of a patriotism for the world itself?

One of the dangers of Bookstravaganza is that this whole scenario compels us to rush our way through texts which otherwise should be read with more patience, more attention to detail and context, more care. Every so often in our stacks we get stuck on a book that demands a far slower reading pace than the candyfloss novels we can read in a day. If I’ve been absent for a while, it’s only because I’ve been learning about the entirety of human economic history. Try reading that in a day.

Delivered as a George B. Pegram lecture at Columbia University in 1966, Spaceship Earth is British economist Barbara Ward’s rallying cry for increased supranational cooperation and organization. In its crudest terms, her thesis is this: human beings are addicted to nationalism at our own collective peril. We all know that borders and maps are, at a certain point, arbitrary. We all know that the Earth is singular, a tiny pale blue dot of life in an infinite sterile vastness. So why do we insist upon clinging to the archaic structure of the nation-state? Why do we invest so much of our identities in nationality—relishing the national stereotypes that we’ve inherited even though we might nominally discourage them?

Despite Ward’s forceful declamation against nationalism, she actually has a great deal of optimism that “in this new world order of technological and scientific change, the forces leading towards a certain unity of human experience are stronger than the forces leading to increasing difference and division.” The postwar advances in telecommunications and travel have brought us all into Marshall McLuhan’s global village, and there’s no going back from here.

Seen as an artifact of 1966, Spaceship Earth is both obsessed with the issues of its time—the Cold War promise of Mutually Assured Destruction, the burgeoning awareness that the Earth’s resources are not unlimited, the aftermath of the trauma of “postcolonialism” and the ongoing colonialism which has simply changed its officially administrative hat for an unofficial economic one—and eerily prescient of modern-day issues. The advent of social media since the beginning of the 21st century, the events of 9/11 and the pushback of militarily weak societies against the onslaught of global capitalism and American values, the growing gap between the wealthy north and the “developing” south it exploits—all of these are foreshadowed in Spaceship Earth, and reading it with this hindsight makes it equally depressing and enjoyable.

Curiously, one of the strategies I used for understanding this dense nonfiction text was comparing its message to The Hunger Games. The wealthy Capitol has divided the districts and pitted them against one another, literally making them fight to the death, so that they will never band together and solve their real problems. In many ways, the global north created all these false countries in Africa and South America and Asia, disregarding traditional tribal boundaries and instigating endless conflict. But even without some external malicious Capitolesque force, the analogy can apply to the whole world. “If we can all be destroyed, together, in two or three acts of grandiloquent incineration, then we are neighbours.”

The artificial boundaries of nation-states must be abolished. The roles of weak supranational organizations like the UN, the IMF, the WHO, must be increased. Why should I identify with a millionaire in Toronto more than a person of my age and class in small-town Croatia? As our daily social justice scandals teach us, there are already enough categories of division among humans along the intersections of race/language/class/sexuality. How stupid are we to add even more artificial ones. Especially on a host planet that we are parasitically consuming beyond all hopes of repair and replenishment…


“This space voyage is totally precarious. We depend on a little envelope of soil and a rather larger envelope of atmosphere for life itself. And both can be contaminated and destroyed. Think what could happen if somebody were to get mad or drunk in a submarine and run for the controls. If some member of the human race gets dead drunk on board our spaceship, we are all in trouble. This is how we have to think of ourselves. We are a ship’s company on a small ship. Rational behaviour is the condition of survival.”


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