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The Flawed Metaphor of Spaceship Earth

We are not the passengers on the spaceship, we are the crew, the engineers, the designers.
The Flawed Metaphor of Spaceship Earth

"Spaceship Earth" is the idea that humans are passengers on a spaceship called Earth travelling through space. It's a poetic metaphor but also completely wrong.

The metaphor goes like this:

On the inside of the spaceship, everything is provided to us. We are lucky to be there! "Mother Nature" has given us all we need... On the outside, it's the dark cold space. It's simple: you step outside, you die.

But some people are ruining the spaceship by exploring it and exploiting its resources. Others cry out to stop it: "We should spare what we have so that future generations can enjoy it as well."

The only logical solution, they say, is to reduce the amount of resources used (degrowth) and the number of people (malthusianism).

But, of course, this is completely wrong !

The Earth does not give humans anything

Like all species, humans have to create knowledge to survive. For other species, that knowledge is encoded in their genes. Humans started the same, but now it's our ideas that enable us to survive.

Think about it. If you were dropped into nature today, how long would you survive? If you don't have the knowledge about what to eat, where to drink, where to rest, how to warm yourself. If you don't create that knowledge, you will die.

Not only the Earth does not give but it takes

In Nature, any ecosystem where a species becomes too dominant, will become more difficult for that species until the ecosystem comes back to an equilibrium.

What does that means practically?

Let's say there is a bountiful place where lions roam free. They have plenty of zebras to eat. Then their population will grow, while the population of zebras will decline. So over time, the ratio of lions to zebras will be unbalanced. The lions won't have enough to eat. They will have to go to less bountiful places. This means they will face more hardships, or stay and starve to death. Until their population decline and the ecosystem equilibrium is found.  

And so it is for humans. Under normal circumstances (i.e. without knowledge created by us), as our population grows, we would have less food per person, more disease, etc. We would die sooner and more frequently.

People provide for themselves

As we've seen, the Earth does not give. But there are indeed raw materials on this spaceship. People, through knowledge, transform those raw materials into resources. Food, shelter, medicine are not provided to us, but by us.

"Today, almost the entire capacity of the Earth’s ‘life-support system for humans’ has been provided not for us but by us, using our ability to create new knowledge." David Deutsch, The Beginning of Infinity

So the only reason humanity prospers is because of us. We are not the passengers on the spaceship, we are the crew, the engineers, the designers.


The Earth is not naturally a bountiful spaceship that we have to share carefully. It only appears to be that way because people, through knowledge, have found ways to make it livable and enjoyable. Now, that's not to say we should destroy the Earth and move on to another planet and make it inhabitable. It just means people are not the problem. They are the solution.

All credit for the good ideas to David Deutsch. If you are interested to learn more, read The Beginning of Infinity or listen to the podcast TokCast by Brett Hall.