A Distant Vantage

Take the grandest view of our world, the view from space, and consider what the future may hold for our species and our biosphere.

The Blue Marble: photographed by the crew of Apollo 17 on 7 December 1972.

The Blue Marble: photographed by the crew of Apollo 17 on 7 December 1972.

We sometimes suffer when our little problems and tasks distract us from the “bigger picture”.

While many people are toiling away at what they find to be unsatisfying careers, others among us have never had access to clean drinking water. While some of us are busy trying to gamify social media to bring in more likes and follows, many of our industrial activities are poisoning the ground beneath our feet. There certainly is a “bigger picture”. A bigger framework where we can take a step back and realize that our little problems pale in comparison to our bigger problems.

And yet, while forgetting not only to step back, we often forget to take a step out. To take a look at the truly bigger picture: the view of our world from space.

The image above is called The Blue Marble. It was taken by the Apollo 17 astronauts in 1972, as they were traveling toward our moon. The Blue Marble is one of the most reproduced images of all time, it became a symbol of the environmentalist movement in the 1970s, and it’s served over the years as a stark reminder that, from space, there are no national borders and our self-importance seems to fade.

This is the bigger picture.

Bruce McCandless, the first astronaut to experience space untethered to a spacecraft

Bruce McCandless, the first astronaut to experience space untethered to a spacecraft

Almost 600 human beings have travelled into space. And the astronauts who’ve had the experience of seeing our world from outside have reported over the years a noticeable shift in their own cognitive understanding of who and what we are.

Seeing our world alone, appearing to float in the void of space, they’ve reported a feeling of oneness with all other people and with the rest of our biosphere. The effect is so powerful, that it’s come to be known as The Overview Effect.

Coined by author Frank White in 1987, the term has come to signify the psychological impact of seeing our world from the vantage point of space.

Our planet is a fragile ball of material blanketed by a thin atmosphere.

The Overview Effect brings an awareness of our precarious position in the endlessness around us. The effect also reportedly causes astronauts to take on deeper views of the interconnected nature of life on Earth and to have a renewed sense of our responsibilities to take care of our environment. Sounds like the kind of thing that we could use more of, huh?

Overview Effect

Our species’ impact on the world around us has never been as great as it is now. Our global population is quickly approaching 8 billion people. We’ve observed rising global temperatures driven largely by human activities. And we are now moving more solid material at Earth’s surface each year than do rivers, glaciers, oceans, or wind.

Pyramid

The geologist Roger LeBaron Hooke has estimated that the amount of Earth moved by humans in the last 5,000 years could create a mountain chain some 13,000 ft. high, 25 miles wide, and 62 miles long. Such a mountain would have over 6 million times more volume than the Great Pyramid of Giza!

While we’ve come to be forces for geological change on the planet, we’ve also come to know more about our place in the cosmos than ever before. We now know that our sun is one of hundreds of billions of stars in our galaxy, and our little Earth is just one of the great many worlds here in our Milky Way. 

We’ve taken our first steps into space. We’ve orbited our planet and walked on the Moon. We’ve sent robot explorers out into the void to study nearby worlds, and even to leave our solar system.

One of these robotic explorers, the Voyager 1 spacecraft, is currently the furthest human-made object from Earth. It is the greatest extension of humanity into the depths of space around us, into the cosmic void.

Back in 1990, when Voyager 1 was half of the distance away that it is now, it took its last photographs. Knowing that we wouldn’t be using the cameras again and wanting to save some power for the spacecraft, we took one last set of photos before turning off the cameras for good. One of these last photographs was a picture of our Earth. This picture is known as The Pale Blue Dot.

Pale Blue Dot

Reflecting on this “bigger picture” of our little world, the late astronomer Carl Sagan said that “our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us.”

It is up to us. 

Seeing the bigger picture of our world from space, from a distant vantage, reminds of us of how little we are, but also of how connected we are. It reminds us that it really is up to us to do better for ourselves and for our world.

Edgar Mitchell, an astronaut who walked on the Moon as part of the Apollo 14 mission, pointed out that seeing the Earth from space made him feel “an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it.”

When I see images of the Earth from space, it reminds me to be a little kinder, to think a little more about my impact on the environment, and to wonder what might happen for our species if more people shared in this cosmic overview. What if more people thought about this truly bigger picture and felt that compulsion to do something about the state of our world.

Certainly, we need action to be better stewards of our environment and to be better neighbors to each other. But we also need awareness. Awareness of the bigger picture. Awareness of how our actions today create our future.

The next time you feel caught up in the mundane, you feel overloaded with information, or maybe you’re bummed that the awesome meme you shared on Twitter only got one like, remember the big picture.

We share one tiny, fragile rock, floating in the vast emptiness of space.

All we have is each other, and together we can work through all of those little problems.

Earthrise. Taken on 24 December 1968, by the crew of Apollo 8.

Earthrise. Taken on 24 December 1968, by the crew of Apollo 8.

Note: this comes from a speech that I’ve developed for the Boulder Speaker Symposium.

Graham LauComment