Boulding, Kenneth Ewart

August 26, 2010, 5:18 pm

Kenneth Ewart Boulding (1910-1993), an American economist famous for his emphasis on the social, moral, and ecological implications of economic growth. Boulding coined the term “spaceship earth” to emphasize the energy, material, and environmental limits to economic growth. He compared the economy to biological systems in terms of its need to use energy to transform materials, which in the process produces wastes. Boulding suggested that the current “cowboy” economy, defined by the wasteful use of nonrenewable resources, must ultimately be replaced by a “spaceship” economy, powered by renewable energy and characterized by efficient recycling of materials. Boulding was a founding intellectual in the field of ecological economics.

His essay The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth (1966), with its vivid metaphors of the cowboy and spaceman economies, can be credited with energizing the field of environmental economics in the late 1960s and then ecological economics in the 1990s. Boulding described the open economy of the past with its seemingly unlimited resources and contrasted it with the closed economy of the future. He wrote, ‘I am tempted to call the open economy the "cowboy economy," the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the "spaceman" economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system which is capable of continuous reproduction of material form even though it cannot escape having inputs of energy."

Raised a Methodist, Boulding became an active Quaker and a committed pacifist. In 1942, he composed a circular opposing World War II, and in 1965 he helped to organize the first anti-Vietnam War teach-in. However, merely witnessing against war was insufficient. Boulding believed that war could only be eliminated by understanding why it occurs. Conflict and Defense (1963), his major contribution to peace research, combined the theory of oligopoly with game theory and models of international conflict to analyze several different forms of conflict. Boulding’s object was to demonstrate that conflict processes are not random or arbitrary or incomprehensible. An understanding of conflict is necessary for its control. He also was instrumental in the founding of the Journal of Conflict Resolution.

Boulding was awarded honorary doctorates by thirty-three universities; he was nominated at different times for the Nobel Peace and Economics prizes, his prizes also include those for political science, peace research, and scholarship in the humanities. He received the John Bates Clark medal in 1949, awarded every other year by the American Economic Association to an economist under the age of forty who has made a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge. He was president of the Society for General Systems Research (1955-9), president of the American Economic Association (1968), president of the International Peace Research Society (1969-70), president of the Association for the Study of the Grants Economy (1970-89), president of the International Studies Association (1974-5), president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (1979), and president of the section on economics of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1982-3). He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences (elected in 1975), the Institute of Medicine, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Select Bibliography of Kenneth Boulding

  • Boulding, K. E., Collected Papers, Volume 1, Boulder: Colorado Associated University Press, 1971.
  • Boulding, K. E., Economic Analysis, New York: Harper and Row, 1966, 2 Volumes.
  • Boulding, K.E., ‘Professor Knight’s Capital Theory: A Reply’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1936, 50: 524-31.
  • Boulding, K. E., ‘The Application of the Pure Theory of Population Change to the Theory of Capital’, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 1934, 48: 645-66.
  • Boulding, K. E., ‘The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth’, In H. Jarrett (ed.), Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy, Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1966: 3-14.
  • Boulding, K. E., The Organizational Revolution: A Study in the Ethics of Economic Organization, New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953.
  • Boulding, K. E., The Structure of a Modern Economy: The United States, 1929-89, New York: New York University Press, 1993.
  • Boulding, K. E., Towards a New Economics: Critical Essays on Ecology, Distribution and Other Themes, Hans, England: Edward Elgar, 1992.
  • Mott, T., ‘Kenneth Boulding, 1910-1993’, Economic Journal, 2000, 110: F430- 44.


Cleveland, C. (2010). Boulding, Kenneth Ewart. Retrieved from


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