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Finite Earth Visionaries: Economics, Time and Environmental Crisis in the United States, c.1945-1980



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Van Hensbergen, Hester 


The thesis traces the emergence of a discourse of ecological political economy in America during the postwar decades. It explores the work of three economists, Kenneth Boulding, Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen, and Herman Daly, and one political theorist, William Ophuls, as they attempted to come to terms with the prospects for human life on a finite earth. Each of them developed their own unique vision of a desirable future for political economy. In the 1950s and 1960s, Boulding integrated entropy – the physical law of dissipation and decay – into his understanding of economic development. He envisaged a spaceship earth economy as an alternative to dominant discourses of militaristic modernization and as a model for global social science to guide the human future. By the start of the 1970s, the mounting environmental crisis made the problem of reconciling human industrial society with the limits of the earth’s ecosystems a more widespread concern. At Yale University, a multidisciplinary group including Daly and Ophuls developed the model of a steady state society, seeking escape from the encroaching tide of environmental apocalypse. For Ophuls, the steady state marked the end of American liberal democracy, while for Daly, it offered a possible salvation for existing market and democratic institutions. Georgescu-Roegen, strictly opposed to the steady state metaphor, and concerned to make sense of entropic economic development, envisaged a wholly different future: a distant condition of global, egalitarian agrarianism. While these theorists framed their work as responses to ecological necessity, they each brought their own political commitments and desires to bear on their visions of the future. In the early 1970s, the urgency of creating a collective research agenda was clear and led them to articulate a shared vision of oikonomic globalism, but the project soon collapsed as the incompatibilities of the theorists’ different visions became clear.





Bell, Duncan


ecological economics, environmental crisis, environmental politics, history of political thought, history of economic thought


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Arts and Humanities Research Council (1970487)
Arts and Humanities Research Council Duke Center for the History of Political Economy