[This article was taken from the magazine’s World Issue]
This magazine is a celebration of the world and of the people in it. It is also an opportunity to reflect on our place within it and on our effect upon it, and there is no more effective means to gain perspective of our place in the world than through the overview effect.
It is Valentine’s Day, 1990. NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft is hurtling through space somewhere in the vicinity of Neptune when, at the instruction of the late Carl Sagan, it captures a “family portrait” of the planets of our Solar System. What results is the infamous image after which this piece is named: The Pale Blue Dot. Can you see it? The blueish-white speck halfway down the brown band to the right of the photo? That’s us. You, me, everyone you’ve ever known and everyone who’s ever lived, all contained in less than a pixel from a camera six billion kilometres away.
As soon as you think at that scale it strikes you with the folly of wars, of international politics. Every mass murder, genocide, river of blood – all for corners of a blue speck without borders.
Bludgeoned with Perspective
December 24th 1968 saw Apollo 8 cross the far side of the moon. For the first time in the history of mankind, the crew witnessed an awe-inspiring sight: The Earth rising above the Moon.
This same crew described what has now come to be known as the overview effect. They described the cognitive shift experienced after witnessing our planet ‘hanging in the void’. Reported by most of the few, fortunate people to have visited space, this state of mental clarity is said to bring about total awe of the fragility of life on our planet with its paper-thin atmosphere. NASA astronaut Ron Garan explained in his book The Orbital Perspective:
It was as if time stood still, and I was flooded with both emotion and awareness. But as I looked down at the Earth — this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space — a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction. In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we have been given. I couldn’t help thinking of the nearly one billion people who don’t have clean water to drink, the countless number who go to bed hungry every night, the social injustice, conflicts, and poverty that remain pervasive across the planet. Seeing Earth from this vantage point gave me a unique perspective — something I’ve come to call the orbital perspective. Part of this is the realization that we are all traveling together on the planet and that if we all looked at the world from that perspective we would see that nothing is impossible.
Space Race 2.0
With the Space Race 2.0 currently underway, it is only a matter of time and money before space access is opened up to more and more people. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether or not these pioneers will experience the overview effect, but since among the first to go will be the world’s most rich and powerful, I believe it may well have a meaningful impact on mankind. We have been seeing the potential for incredibly wealthy philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg to dramatically improve living conditions for millions of people worldwide for many years now. While this is nothing new, perhaps more would-be-philanthropists will be inspired by experiencing the overview effect first-hand.
There are, of course, numerous issues worldwide which threaten the stability of the planet. From international relations between China, Russia and the USA, to mounting tensions between groups in society in the wake of the refugee crisis, which may well worsen in the decades to come: Though it is far from certain, climate change may displace many millions of people living in some of the poorest areas on Earth. Perhaps all of these issues would benefit from a dose of humanitarian perspective.
The power of the overview effect to unify people and to inspire greatness is a force for good whose possibility is immensely exciting. People often question the need for funding space programs, and beyond all of the technological advances, beyond the sheer adventure of reaching into the expanses of the void, there is the perspective of humanity that we stand to gain. At the heart of all this is the chance to truly grasp just how important our tiny blue jewel and its inhabitants, the only life we know about, are. Hopefully that counts for something.