From Cowboys to Astronauts - Towards a Circular Economy

From Cowboys to Astronauts: Towards a Circular Economy

Imagine you're on a spaceship travelling thousands of miles above the earth. You have a limited amount of resources, on which you depend for your survival.  Given the scarcity of your resources, you need to think of ways to manage them wisely, and consider minimising waste and re-use.

In 1966, economist Kenneth E. Boulding wrote an essay on ‘The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth’. In this, he envisioned the need for a movement away from what he termed a "cowboy economy“, based on the assumption of apparently boundless resources, to a "spaceman economy". He made the analogy that  "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".

The concept of “Spaceship Earth” conveyed the message that we are rapidly using up limited resources such as fossil fuels, some of which have taken billions of years to form - and creating  serious waste problems along the way.  

From Cowboys to Astronauts was a project between artists and the Centre for Alternative Materials and Remanufacturing Technologies (CALMARE), a business technology centre based in the University of Exeter.  The project was part-funded by the ERDF.

The process began with three knowledge exchange workshops run by the CALMARE team in the autumn of 2014, entitled ‘From Trash to Treasure.’ The workshops highlighted, among other things, how much is being sent to landfill, and what opportunities there are for industry to change this.

One of the themes discussed was the circular economy, and this inspired the title of the exhibition. All the artists who attended the workshops were invited to take part, and 25 of those took up the challenge to produce a piece for an exhibition in Spring 2015.

The artists worked with recycled materials to highlight the value of reusing, reducing and recycling materials used by both business and domestic consumers - and, in particular, the benefits of the circular economy – a regenerative economic system where materials and energy from products are recovered and put back into the system instead of simply being disposed of.

Along the way, waste materials were sourced from a number of places, including the University itself, and from other locations around Devon, including Exeter and Plymouth Scrapstores, Peninsula Waste Savers in Okehampton and the Devon County Council landfill sites managed by SITA.

The artworks were exhibited in the very pertinent setting of the showroom of Devon Contract Waste on the Marsh Barton Industrial Estate, and after this event some artworks were then shown at a further exhibition in Teignmouth, to support their forthcoming Sculpture Trail, which is in its 11th year. 

The exhibition was entitled ‘From Cowboys to Astronauts: Towards a Circular Economy’.  You can view the exhibition catalogue and find out more about the Circular Economy here.

Artists used waste materials to demonstrate what can be achieved when we move away from the throwaway mind-set that is endemic in our society, and it is hoped that, along with further work being produced and the use of new a new medium by the artists involved, it inspired others to consider the way in which they work.

In recent years as resource prices have risen and waste problems increased, there has been greater interest in developing a "Circular Economy" – and the opportunity has been widely promoted by the Dame Ellen MacArthur Foundation founded in 2010 by the former professional yachtswoman.

Watch the film about the From Cowboys to Astronauts project here


Exhibition Gallery