We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent on its vulnerable reserves of air and soil; all committed for our safety to its security and peace; preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work, and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft. We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave—to the ancient enemies of man—half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the survival of us all.
~ Adlai Stevenson1. Adlai Stevenson - ECOSOC 9 Jul 1965<audio archive>
This was Adlai Stevenson’s, the fifth US ambassador to the UN, final address before the UN’s Economic and Social Council in Geneva on July 9, 1965. It is perhaps one of the most famous descriptions of Spaceship Earth, though the earliest know use of this imagery appears as early as 1879:
It is a well-provisioned ship, this on which we sail through space. If the bread and beef above decks seem to grow scarce, we but open a hatch and there is a new supply, of which before we never dreamed. And very great command over the services of others comes to those who as the hatches are opened are permitted to say, “This is mine!”
~ Henry George, Progress and Poverty
This last quote is especially insightful as it wasn’t until rather recently in human history that we’ve been able to get far enough away from the terrestrial surface to view the earth as a single object. The famous Apollo 17 snapshot of the earth, known affectionately as the Blue Marble, only celebrated its 40-year birthday earlier this month.
The ability to view the earth from this viewpoint is therefore something unique to our current generation. Even though this image has been widely distributed around the world (in part due to the public domain nature of solely NASA-produced images), those who have witnessed this view first hand still often refer to it as a life-changing event.
Author Frank White explored this phenomenon in his book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution. He writes of how externally viewing the earth can shift, sometimes dramatically, one’s perception of the earth, its people and the associated problems faced by both.
One thing mentioned by those viewing the earth is how beautiful it is. But, they also mention how fragile it appears. Here, in the vast, inky blackness of space hangs a blue marble alone in near-solitude. On this marble, a thin protective layer of gas shields all living things found thereon from the harsh, destructive environ of space. In fact, the boundary of space is generally accepted to be approximately 100km (62.14 miles) above the surface of the earth. If one was to shrink the earth to the size of an average basketball, the atmosphere would be a mere 0.075 inches in thickness.
Another thing mentioned by some the astronauts is how countries blend into other countries. Yes, in some areas “borders” are visible as man impacts the earth in different ways. However, seeing the earth from the outside reenforces the idea that we are all really one race, one family on a small, lonely spaceship. Some of the problems we face, when viewed thus, tend to devolve into the trivial. Perspective changes everything.
As we can’t all travel into space right now, maybe we need to seek other ways to change our perspective.
One individual who has been forced into such a change by nature is Neil Harbisson. Since birth, Neil has had a condition known as achromatopsia, or total color blindness. He has never seen color, but instead sees the entire world in grayscale. One may see this as a great tragedy, an unfair trick of nature. However, Neil has used it to conduct one of the most interesting experiments on how we perceive the world around us, as he discussed in his 2012 TEDGlobal talk.
By converting all color into sounds, he started to “view” the world in a way never before done, though one could argue those with certain forms of synesthesia experience something similar. That aside, Neil basically found his perception of the world changing. For example, beauty was being heavily influenced by the addition of this new sense. That which “looked” beautiful may not “sound” beautiful or vice versa. He was now, in one way, looking past only physical beauty.
One can argue Neil has only replaced one form of beauty bias for another. That may very well be true. However, what he has shown is humans are capable of changing their perspective, the lens through which they view the world.
So, I wonder, if all the inhabitants of the world could change their lens to be the porthole through which the few lucky astronauts and cosmonauts have viewed this small blue marble, this Spaceship Earth, how would the world change? Could it be as simple as needing to climb to new heights in order to view the world from new heights?