Here’s looking at you, Earth.
Can we change people’s mind about the environment by changing their mind-set?
“An optimist believes we live in the best possible of worlds. A pessimist fears that this is true.” — James Branch Cabell
Imagine that you’re a quarter of a million miles away from home. Farthest than anyone’s ever been away from home. And you look out of your window and there it is — Earth — rising above the horizon.
Luckily, you have your camera with you, so you snap.
You’ve just taken “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”.¹
You re-enter the atmosphere having survived the hazardous vacuum of space, having gone the distance of 30 Earths, gone around the Moon 10 times, and came back again. You show everyone the picture and you tell them — “We set out to explore the Moon and instead discovered the Earth.”
That picture, aptly titled Earthrise, will prove pivotal in launching the environmental movement and mark “the moment when the sense of the space age flipped from what it meant for space to what it means for Earth.”²
Your name is Bill Anders and more than 50 years ago you and two Apollo 8 crew mates orbited the Moon - the first time humans had made that perilous journey.
And what you brought back with you was a new perspective of a fragile planet, so solid and vast from down here and yet so vulnerable and puny from up there.
What you showed us shocked our ecological conscience and sparked the impetus and sense of urgency to clean after ourselves.
It’s ironic that we launched a space program to explore space, to reach the Moon, and to potentially and eventually colonize the solar system, only to discover how precious our little corner of the universe is.
While many argued against the astronomical budget required for the Apollo missions, it should be clear that at least Earthrise, and its ignition of the environmental movement which potentially will have saved all our lives, made the cost well worth it.
While the jury’s still out on whether the environmental movement will be able to save Earth as our habitable home, it is safe to say that environmentalism is our only chance. And this monumental picture, like an Earth selfie that went viral⁴, kicked it all off.
What makes this picture so impactful?
I believe it has to do with the distance and the composition.
Here we see Earth so small and yet so recognizable⁵. It’s right there, virtually an arm’s reach away, and yet so easily missed were you to try and descend back to it (which is why the mighty NASA had to work so hard to get those astronauts back).
It is a view of our planet with magnificent balance of near and far. Near enough to almost hear its happenings as slight whispers; far enough to have a quiet moment above it all.
Here we see Earth juxtaposed with the barren surface of the dead Moon, like a cautionary tale, like a dystopian flashforward.
It is the point of view of an unfortunate sinner banished to the desert, cursed to witness an oasis forever beyond their grasp. There it is, lush and teeming with life, with such blue that makes you thirsty and vibrant swirls that make you want to take a forbidden bite. And here you are, stuck in purgatory while the celebration goes on without you.
Talk about FOMO.
It’s no surprise that so many astronauts returned to Earth with a stark sense of care for our environment, for our little capsule of life, shielded by a paper-thin atmosphere, so vulnerable amongst the inconceivable vastness and void of space. “The thing that really surprised me was that [Earth] projected an air of fragility… I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile,” stated Michael Collins of the Apollo 11 mission, whereas Ron Garan⁶, who was stationed on the International Space Station, described “a profound sense of empathy, a profound sense of community, and a willingness to forgo immediate gratification and take a more multi-generational outlook on progress.”
Scott Kelly, who spent 520 days of his life in space, reported that by being up there, “you definitely have a heightened sense of empathy and also you notice the effect of our presence on the planet… It makes you somewhat — if you weren’t already — an environmentalist."
According to José Hernández, who was a mission specialists aboard the Space Shuttle, “you see the sun rays that hit the earth at the right angle when you’re able to see the thickness of the atmosphere… And let me tell you, that was a scary thing. I became an instant tree hugger.”
And it’s not just our effect on the environment. All human affairs tend to receive a dolly-zoom-like shift in perspective when viewed from space. Edgar Mitchell, who not long after Earthrise was taken had his turn to travel to the Moon, said this about seeing Earth from way up there:
“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that...’”
Thomas Pesquet is yet another astronaut who had a glimpse of this ‘Overview Effect’, this Orbital Perspective⁶, this cognitive shift in awareness where “you just realise, very strongly, how much we all share the same problems, how much we are, all of us, almost identical.”
Notice how these space explorers are trying to replicate the vision they experienced in us, by telling it in the second person. They want to invoke in us, as much as possible using words, the same feelings and insights that came over them.
Like ancient prophets who were gifted a fantastical vision by a mythical deity and devoted themselves to preaching what they learned, these astronauts might be regarded by coming generations as the arbiters of our survival, who brought back an oh-so necessary awe from the heavens.
But this time not with mystical and delusional mumbo jumbo they conjured in their delirium, but with fact-based messages from a superior vantage point. Messages that’ll lead to real impact, not futile crusades.
Psychologists actually looked into the phenomenon of the Overview Effect experienced by astronauts. Is it something that humans can only experience in space or can we recreate something similar here on Earth? If we can induce this mindset change in world leaders, wouldn’t that be worth a thousand Earthrise pictures?
In a 2016 study published in the journal Psychology of Consciousness, researchers identified two factors that contributed to the Overview Effect — the experience of awe, and self-transcendence (how we relate to the rest of our species and the rest of the universe). Both are experienced here on Earth but often are associated with religious experiences.
Interestingly, we are now seeing growing movements and initiatives of alternative spirituality and transcendence that does away with the dated, irrelevant and sometimes damaging religious aspects of mind expansion.
In 2017, Jamie Wheal⁷ and Steven Kotler, in their bestselling book Stealing Fire, exposed a revolution of altered states of consciousness, pioneered by “Silicon Valley executives… Special Operators like the Navy SEALs… and maverick scientists.” These altered states, for which Wheal and Kotlet use the term Ecstasis, are fueled by four forces — psychology, neurobiology, pharmacology and technology — which have now come of age enough to allow their practitioners to use deliberately, effectively and responsibly, in order to reach new levels of performance, interconnection and wellbeing.
In one example, the Boom Festival, one of the most famous transformational festivals in the world according to Rolling Stone, features the Dance Temple, a sound constellation which according to one of its designers, “is a piece of tech to disintegrate peoples’ egos en masse.” In another example, Mikey Siegel, an MIT- and NASA-trained roboticist, has co-founded the Transformative Technology Conference to explore such new fields as “enlightenment engineering.” According to Siegel, “more and more it’s looking like we can retune the nervous system of the entire planet.”
From microdosing psychedelics to sensory deprivation tanks, from God Helmets to AI therapists, groundbreakers all over the world are crafting or discovering new ways of experiencing the world and ourselves. Ways that are proving more productive while at the same time more altruistic and inclusive. These early adopters are bettering themselves by bettering their state of mind. And they are doing it to better the world.
In our modern world of sensory overload, where we’re likely to keep swiping when presented with yet another image of Earth, how can we not just grab people’s attention to the pressing challenge of global warming, but get them to feel deeply about it, if only a fraction of what astronauts get to feel?
The Spacebuzz project by the Overview Effect Foundation is attempting to do just that. By utilizing virtual reality (VR) they have developed a simulation of hovering above Earth, giving children the opportunity of the overview experience, with the goal of inspiring them “to become ambassadors of planet Earth”.
Similarly, researchers at the University of Missouri (as well as the startup SpaceVR) aim to reproduce the overview experience with an isolation float tank and a VR headset. Steven Pratscher, a principal investigator of the study, claims one of the goals of the trial is to have an impact on “a lot of division and polarisation and disconnection between people.” There’s some irony in using an isolation tank to connect people, but Pratscher is looking to see whether these engineered experiences “have persisting effects, for example on people’s values and behaviours, especially with respect to how people view the Earth and the environment, and the things they do that may impact the environment.”
In another (literally loftier) attempt to give people a glimpse of Earth’s singularity, Japanese billionaire and art collector Yusaku Maezawa, who intends on being one of the first space tourists to circle the Moon for the first time since the Apollog missions, purchased extra seats on SpaceX’s Big Falcon Rocket for a crew of artists, in an initiative called “Dear Moon”, in the hope of collecting not inert Moon rocks (the scientific significance of which notwithstanding), but new dreams for humankind. Maezawa literally banks on this contributing to world peace (his words). This unique philanthropic space cruise, which has become more of an artistic expedition in contrast with the scientific one of the Apollo missions, echos the words of Frank Borman, who was one Apollo 8 with Bill Anders when Earthrise was taken:
“What they should’ve sent was poets because I don’t think we captured, in its entirety, the grandeur of what we had seen.”
“Dear Moon” already influenced at least one person, but not just any person. Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX and someone setting his sights for making the colonization of Mars possible within our lifetime, said Maezawa’s investment to gift the experience of spaceflight to artists helped restore his own faith in humanity.
As we go about our daily lives, as non-astronauts nor space conquering entrepreneurs, we tend to forget that our life, and the lives of everyone else on Earth, is possible only on a miniscule sliver of air on a pale blue dot in a vast ocean of hostile vacuum. And that air is getting dirtier and hotter and more inhospitable by the day.
We forget because of our limited point of view.
And even though we were given visions from beyond our stratosphere, of which we should take heed more often, they don’t sit on our desks or stare at us when we look out the window. They don’t tap on our shoulder when we trash instead of recycle. They don’t whisper in our ear when we leave the AC on. They don’t follow us to the voting booth.
We’re getting electric vehicles and greener household appliances. We’re working on carbon capture and our cattle’s farts.
All well and good. We’re developing technologies that can literally save the world. But as far as policy and adoption, can we develop more technologies and experiences that open minds and hearts to the plight of nature?
While some of us might keep working remotely well after COVID has been eradicated, and feed our newfound gardening hobby with compost of our own making, can we be convinced to do more? Can we compel more of our leaders to take real courageous measures?
We need sobering journeys to come back from. While not all of us can take a trip to space, and while a single picture might not cut it anymore, there might be other ways to give us the privilege of being grabbed by a gripping sight or sensation that will make us truly see what’s at stake.
Let’s find these ways. Let’s build them. And then come back and tell everybody else!
1. Galen Rowell in Life’s 100 Photographs that Changed the World.
2. Robert Poole, “Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth.”
3. Interesting fact — the original picture was taken when Earth was to the side of the moon, not above it. The famous image is in fact a tilted version, and one that was also cropped to make Earth seem larger.
4. I mean, Life magazine printed the photo on a double-page spread. How much more viral can you get in 1969?
5. As opposed to another iconic picture — Pale Blue Dot — which shows Earth as an insignificant dot, yet has its own moral not dissimilar to Earthrise.
6. Check out The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles, by Ron Garan
7. Wheal is also one of the founders of the Flow Genome Project, which is worth checking out if you’re interested in peak performance.