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The Spaceman and The Cowboy

Last week, the Rappahannock River Basin Commission, working with Conserv, the Virginia Department of Forestry, and the George Washington Regional Commission, submitted a Greenhouse Gas Reduction proposal for federal funding. One of the novel ideas contained in the proposal is to tie Virginia Greenhouse Gas reduction goal to products and services listed on The Rappahannock Exchange, via eco-label indicators. We’ll post the abstract for the proposal in the coming weeks.

In preparation of the proposal, the project team considered the premise for what the Exchange is trying to accomplish. I found Herman Daly’s description of the thinking of economist Kenneth Boulding (1964), and his metaphor The Cowboy and The Spaceman, to be helpful. Boulding characterizes two extremes that we might consider – the cowboy and spaceman economies. The “cowboy economy” lives on the plain with limitless resources with no need to recycle anything. The “spaceman economy” has completely limited resources, thus the ecosystem has become the economy – everything is recycled, controlled, and measured, and the only problem is allocation – scale is irrelevant.

Daly notes (Beyond Growth, 1996)

It is only the middle ground between the cowboy and the spaceman that the issue of scale does not get conflated with allocation. But, as Boulding realized, the middle ground happens to be where we are. Between the cowboy and spaceman economies is a whole range of larger and smaller “bull-in-the-china-shop economies” where scale is a major concern. We are not cowboys because the existing scale of the economy is far from negligible compared to the environment. But, neither are we spacemen, because most of the matter/energy transformations of the ecosystem are not subject to human control either by prices or by central planning.

We need to manage ourselves more than the planet, and our self-management should be, in Orr’s words, “more akin to child-proofing a day-care center than to piloting spaceship earth.” The way to child-proof a room is to build the optimal scale playpen within which the child is both free and protected from the excesses of its own freedom. It can enjoy the light and warmth provided by electrical circuits beyond its ken, without running the risk of shorting out those circuits, or itself, by experimenting with the “planetary management technique” of teething on a lamp cord.

Our manifest inability to centrally plan economies should inspire more humility among the planetary managers who would centrally plan the ecosystem. Humility should argue for the strategy of minimizing the need for planetary management by keeping the human scale sufficiently low so as not to disrupt the automatic functioning of our life-support systems, thereby forcing them into the domain of human management. Those who want to take advantage of the “invisible hand” of self-managing ecosystems have to recognize that the invisible hand of the market, while wonderful for allocation, is unable to set limits to the scale of the macroeconomy. Our limited managerial capacities should be devoted to institutionalizing an economic Plimsoll line that limits the macroeconomy to a scale such that the individual hand can function in both domains to the maximum extent. It is ironic that many free marketers, by opposing any limit to the scale of the market economy (and therefore to the increase in externalities), are making more and more inevitable the very central planning that they oppose. Even worse is their celebration of the increase in GNP that results as formerly free goods become scarce and receive a price. For allocation it is necessary that newly scarce goods not continue to have a zero price – no one disputes that. The issue is that, for all we know, we might have been better off to remain at the smaller scale at which the newly scarce goods were free and their proper allocative price was still zero.

Conserv, working with an increasing number of partners, is now on course to launch the beginnings of the Rappahannock Exchange in November. May the project help us back away from the spaceman toward the wide open spaces of the cowboy.

And thanks to NASA for the International Space Station Image and to Pixdaus for the great cowboy image. Go to their site, they’ve got some cool stuff!

- Michael Collins


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