Another view of Earthrise: Are Pictures of Earth Backfiring?

Public Domain NASA/IAU

After we published Earthrise: The photo that launched a movement, author and architect Lance Hosey pointed out that there is another way of looking at this picture. He writes:

This week marked the 50th anniversary of Earthrise, so in coming months the media certainly will publish many reflections on the legacy of these images, which cannot be overstated. Earthrise inspired Stewart Brand’s influential Whole Earth Catalog (1968) and the first Earth Day (1970), and Blue Marble influenced and appeared on the cover Donella Meadows’ landmark Limits to Growth (1972), the first use of the term “sustainability” in the way we use it now. Eventually the images became the philosophical background for the 1987 UN-commissioned Brundtland Report, Our Common Future, which made sustainability a household term. “In the middle of the 20th century,” that report began, “we saw our planet from space for the first time. Historians may eventually find that this vision had a greater impact on thought than did the Copernican revolution of the 16th century….”

Images of Earth launched the sustainability movement and became iconic of a growing awareness that humanity shares one home. Half a decade later, however, it’s easier to see that those images may also be undermining the very agenda they inspired.

From space, Earth doesn’t just look intact—it looks small. “Suddenly I knew what a tiny, fragile thing Earth is,” remarked Apollo 11’s Michael Collins, and seemingly every astronaut has commented on how they could blot out the entire planet with one thumb, a gesture Tom Hanks recreates in Apollo 13. In 1990, when the space probe Voyager sent back a photo of the earth from four billion miles out, astronomer Carl Sagan called it the “pale blue dot”: “Everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being that ever was, lived out their lives . . . on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Sagan meant to portray his reverence for the enormity of the universe; yet, to describe the entire planet as a “mote of dust,” a speck of space detritus, makes it seem both easier to control and easier to devalue—a thing visually and virtually under your thumb.

From the outside, the planet appears as an object, less a home than something we merely occupy. “The photographs of the Earth from space were a different kind of mirror than we had ever looked in before,” Brand has explained. “It flips you from the world that we are in, to a planet that we are on.” After Earthrise, the Houston Chronicle declared that space travel had established a new geographical unit—Earth. The world shrank, from an all-enveloping, immersive environment to a single unit of measure, a metric of distance, no more meaningful than an inch or a mile.

We speak of “the environment” in the singular, which suggests one unvarying continuum rather than an endlessly diverse series of unfolding terrains, peaks and plains, hills and haddocks, woodlands and wetlands. For early peoples and indigenous cultures, however, concepts of the universe arise from experience in a particular setting—their worldview depends on an actual view of the world. When we see the Earth as an object, we lose this. Every place is like every other, a point on a globe.

According to author Robert Poole, images of the Earth from the outside shifted the world’s view “from landscape to planet,” a fine ethical consequence during the Cold War era. Today, with economic globalization ruling all, our task is to return from planet to landscape, to rediscover the immersive, sensory experience of terrain. Traditional cultures defined themselves around the intimate commingling of people and place. For millennia, the Aboriginal peoples of Australia have passed along their intimate knowledge of place through storytelling whose characters are “songlines,” physical features in the land. The Aranda consider themselves and their entire ancestry inseparable from the terrain—their genealogy and geography are one and the same. “You see this rock?” goes an Aboriginal Dreamtime song. “This rock’s me!”

Clarke worried about nationalism’s extreme allegiance to political entities and imagined communities, but now we need a different kind of patriotism, one born from allegiance to natural environments and experienced communities. Patriotism, writes the geographer Yi-Fu Tuan, means “the love of one’s terra patria or natal land. In ancient times it was a strictly local sentiment.” In modern times, particularly in the culture of “America first,” few of us feel any kind of kinship to a natal land, only to a national interest. Patriotism now suggests attachment to large-scale nation-states, an unnatural condition too abstract to embrace easily, as Tuan explains. “The modern state is too large, its boundaries too arbitrary, its area too heterogeneous to command the kind of affection that arises out of experience and intimate knowledge.” While the sight of the entire Earth brought about a new perspective and helped expand humanity’s attention beyond national boundaries, today we’d benefit from telescoping inward and collapsing our point of view to what the eye actually witnesses and the body directly senses. Loyalty to the land can celebrate the diversity of cultures, the individuality of place, and the singularity of setting.

We are one Earth but many worlds.

Adapted from Lance Hosey, The Shape of Green: Aesthetics, Ecology, and Design (Island Press, 2012). The book was the first to study the relationships between sustainability and beauty, won a 2013 New York Book Show award, was a 2014 finalist for "Book of the Year" in the UK's Urban Design Awards, and has been Amazon's #1 bestseller for sustainable design. In 2017, BuildingGreen named the book among three dozen that "all designers should read." Currently Lance serves as Design Director with the global design leader Gensler. As of 2015, he was one of only thirty people in the world to be named Fellows with both the American Institute of Architects and the US Green Building Council.

Another view of Earthrise: Are Pictures of Earth Backfiring?
Photographs from space launched the sustainability movement, but they also could be undermining it.

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