First, a quick note to subscribers: The Phoenix is back. We’re all moved in to our new house across town, I got my second shot this weekend, the kids are digging in the dirt in the backyard – things are looking up. Thanks for your patience for the past few weeks. Expect the post frequency to pick back up to 2-3x a week. I’ve got a lot of exciting stuff on the way.
Happy Birthday to our Beautiful Planet
One of my favorite concepts is the Overview Effect.
From far above, the Earth is instantly recognizable. Crystal blue oceans, turquoise coral reefs, dark green swaths of dense tropical forests, red clay deserts, and swirling white clouds. Standing on a mountaintop or gazing out the window of an airplane brings an unavoidable sense of connectedness, of awe, of inspiration and reflection. In this view from inside the sky, we can’t help but imagine what’s happening down there, on the ground—we are compelled to empathy. Being above the clouds transforms us into a better version of ourselves.
But most of us don’t spend very much of our lives at 30,000 feet—especially these days—and when we do, we often take it for granted. On a commercial airplane, you have about 70 percent of the atmosphere below you, by weight. Virtually all weather on our planet happens below that altitude. That’s a unique perspective to witness the vast footprint of humanity. Flying is also the single most energy-intensive act that any of us will ever do with any regularity.
So instead, we’re usually here, on the ground. Billowy white clouds occasionally pass overhead, sure, but most of our lives are spent mired in the joys and struggles of daily life. It’s easy to forget we live on a planet—a real one, that’s hurtling through space. It’s easy to forget that it’s probably a shorter trip (about 60 miles) from where you are right now up through our thin atmosphere to the edge of space than it is to the nearest major league baseball stadium or national park. It’s easy to forget that our atmosphere, our entire existence, is unfathomably fragile.
The “overview effect” is a common reflection upon returned astronauts that they see the planet as a single, interconnected entity. Astronauts’ experience of being in space causes them to see the planet’s atmosphere as a fragile blanket that gives us all life. Not just all human life, but all life. It's just such a stark contrast between the literally glowing blue and green and white thing in front of me, and black. You could travel at the speed of light for millions of years, and maybe not get to another place that has such a rich diversity as this right in front of us. That's the perspective that we almost never get here on the ground.
Astronaut Ron Garan’s goal is to get everyone to go to space and see that. He's created a balloon tourism company — the cheapest way to get the most people into space. We can do better than Elon Musk, and Garan has as good a shot at anyone at being that guy.
For the rest of us who still can’t afford the high price tag of space tourism, you don't have to see it by yourself in person — we have imaginations. We can empathize. We don't all have to become spacefarers to be able to do that. All of us have the capacity to do it.
A little more than a hundred years ago—during the lifetime of some of the oldest people alive today—the only way to leave the surface of the Earth (besides riding in a hot air balloon at the whim of the weather) was to jump. Now, humans traveling into outer space doesn’t even make the news. We think nothing of crossing an entire ocean in an afternoon aboard a shiny metal sky-tube packed with jet fuel.
The mountaintop experience—the grandiose perspective that you’re sitting at the very top of a planet—has inspired countless reams of poetry and core tenets of theologies of every culture. These days, that feeling is eclipsed only by leaving the planet altogether.
Whether it’s politics, justice, or technology, how we respond to climate change will be central to how we interact with each other for the next few decades. What we do next, what we do *now*, matters a huge amount in building a world that’s centered on justice. How we think of ourselves may also fundamentally change.
I realize this all probably sounds hopelessly naive—after all, I’m a meteorologist, not a community organizer—but my love of weather and the planet has brought me to this weird place. Studying and listening and learning to people from around the world for the last decade has convinced me that this radical change simply must happen. I don’t know what the best way is to get there, but I’m betting that together we’ll be able to imagine a human tipping point that is fitting for this new era of planetary thinking.
When the first pictures came back of our planet from space, they inspired the modern environmental movement.
That initial short trip to space—first taken by a human exactly 60 years ago—can be seen as a turning point for how we view ourselves as a species that lives on a planet. Also, not a little thing, it helped inspire the realization that we must work together to protect it.
Carl Sagan called it the “Pale Blue Dot.” We live on a beautiful ocean world, and the fact that we are able to know of our own planet’s beauty is probably the single most amazing fact of humanity. But in the grand scheme of things, our planet is merely “a mote of dust, suspended on a sunbeam”. Without it, and without each other, we have nowhere else to turn. Mars is a hellhole, after all.
Since then, remarkable changes to our identity of ourselves as planetary citizens have defined the past few decades. We now have a permanently-occupied space station, which continuously broadcasts high-definition images of our planet from low Earth orbit. We have the United Nations—an institution tasked with planetary-scale governance. We take for granted that we can, at a moment’s notice, communicate with someone on the other side of the world. Even still, no human has ever left the immediate vicinity of Earth-moon orbit. We are Earth people. This planet is infinitely valuable to us.
It wasn’t always this way, of course. We didn’t always have a planetary perspective. (Arguably, we still might not, considering that we’re *still* having troubles agreeing on whether or not to slow down the rate of greenhouse gas emissions.) Thinking on timescales longer than a few years and acknowledging that our mundane daily actions directly affect others around the world is just not something our brains are built to handle.
Climate change has the potential to unite humanity in a way that has never happened before. We never had a completely human created atmosphere before in the sense that we are now sort of driving the increased risk for each other and for other species and just the way that we operate as a connected civilization is now modified by how we've modified the weather.
That, to me, is a hopeful takeaway actually because I think that it gives people a chance to walk outside on a 70 degree day in January and say, this is really weird, it feels weird and I don't know what to do about it, and then take the next step to say well, we're all connected here and that means that I matter and that I can do something to help the situation, because I can literally feel now that I'm connected to everyone else through this weird weather that we're all experiencing. The fact that we're all here sharing the same atmosphere sharing the same planet means we all have a role to play.
My chat with astronaut Ron Garan
The conversation below was lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Ron Garan: The most important thing I learned by going to space is that we're all interconnected. The only way we're going to solve the problems that we face is by working together.
It's profound in a lot of ways. I think we had 3 hurricanes on my six month mission. Big, big hurricanes that caused lots and lots of damage. It's pretty eerie to be flying over a hurricane looking down the eye and realizing that there's people being affected by what's going on down there.
I think our definition of the word ‘home’ has profound implications for how we problem solve, how we treat each other, how we treat our planet.
— Astronaut Ron Garan
The other thing is, when we see lightning storms on earth, we're only seeing a few mile radius around ourselves, right? When you're seeing lightning storms from space, you're seeing hundreds of miles at once. It looks like paparazzi flashbulbs going off. It's like a strobe light and you see the lightning just roll through areas and interact with itself and I mean it's just the most amazing light show you've ever seen and it's not like a flash and then you wait, 30 seconds later there's another flash. It's a constant. It's like this dance of lightning and it's just absolutely amazing.
Again, you're looking at this from a completely safe vantage point, from above, but you can't help but think of all of the people that are affected on the ground and the fires that are starting or obviously the rain and the wind and the flooding potentially, and everybody being affected by it.
Eric Holthaus: Did that ever make you homesick? Seeing the weather with your eyes and not experiencing it with your body? Was there-
RG: Yeah, I mean even before you get to space you realize, you know, I'm not going to feel the wind in my face. I'm not going to be walking in the rain. I'm not going to see mist on the lake. I'm not going to hear the birds fly over. I'm not going to hear the wind rustling in the trees. You realize you're going to miss all that, and then in fact you do miss all that because you're in a very sterile environment on a space station where the only sounds are pumps and fans and the crackle of the radio, and that's about it.
EH: Is there a moment that stands out, I know from your first space walk, the one that I think you've said that that was a really powerful moment for you, was that the moment where you started to sort of see the planet in a different way? Or was it before that?
RG: I think, well, I've always felt a responsibility to the planet. I've always felt that everything was interconnected, but it becomes undeniable and it becomes concrete when you see the planet from that vantage point. I think a lot of those things get reinforced. I think what did change was my definition of the word "home". Home expanded to encompass the entire planet and when I returned to earth after my six month mission, and we landed, I thought, I'm home. What was really interesting about that was that I was in Kazakstan.
I think our definition of the word ‘home’ has profound implications for how we problem solve, how we treat each other, how we treat our planet. It's important to note that we, by expanding and broadening your definition of the word home to encompass the planet, that doesn't come with a requirement that you give up where you're from, or you forget about the town you were born in, or anything else. It's just a broader definition of home that includes all those things and I think makes it richer.
I am hopeful that we're going to figure this out and we're going to realize that these problems can't be solved on a national level alone. I'm hopeful that more and more people will realize that climate change is not a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese. That it's real and that it has real, credentialed, peer reviewed, concrete, solid, scientific data supporting it. I'm hopeful because we have to. If we don't, then we're on the path of destruction. That's obviously unacceptable. We have to, in everything we do, and this is what I strive to do in everything I do is I try and tell the story through every medium that I can. Whether that's writing or film or speaking or art. Everything I can possibly do to tell that story and to try and shift people's perspectives and broaden their perspectives. See the bigger picture.
EH: Has there been a time where you feel like you've really gotten through and felt yourself sort of making change in the way that you want to?
RG: Yeah, all the time, because I speak in a language, I try when I speak to groups, whether it's in writing or public speaking or in an interview or whatever I'm doing. I try and speak in language that's undeniable and not too provocative, right? To give you an example, we gave a presentation to about 1,500 people once, and I would characterize the audience as probably 80 to 90% Republican, right wing, conservative audience. We spoke about climate change. We spoke about immigration. We spoke about social systems. We spoke about a whole bunch of really hot button issues, but we never used those terms. We talked in undeniable terms of how we are interconnected and that molecules don't have passports and things that you couldn't deny, and when we were finished speaking we got a 15 minute standing ovation.
I think, for that audience, I think some of their opinions were changed. Although I don't know if we ever said the words "climate change", we certainly talked about the effects of climate change and talked about what dumping tons and tons of pollutants and greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere does, and how obvious that is in space that we don't have the great blue sky that we see from the ground. That's an illusion. What it really is is a paper-thin wrap of our planet where it, and I showed pictures of fires, of crop burnings on the Sub-Saharan African continent where the smoke encompasses the entire southern part of the continent to the limits of the atmosphere. I showed them pictures of it. I say, see how easy it is to completely change the composition of the atmosphere and we talked about what that did and how that changed the local temperature and how over time that changes the aggregate temperature, and what effects that has.
There's no argument. There's nothing you can say about it. It's right in your face. I mean, I guess you could argue with it, and you know, the people who argue the flat earth. It's hard to argue with people that are not being rational, but I think most people are rational.
The problem is that there are sides. The problem is instead of looking at severe weather patterns that are increasing in severity and the danger is increasing, we're parking ourselves into camps and we're trying to, we've gotten to the point where we refuse to accept any merit whatsoever in the opinion of the other side. That we've formed sides. I said, which is worse, to assume that there's nothing we can do about these severe weather patterns, and continue to pump millions of tons of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, which there is no argument, increases the temperature of the planet. That's a simple basic scientific fact that if you pump greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, the atmosphere is going to heat up.
You can argue the extent to which it heats up, but you can't argue that it doesn't heat up. Because it heats up, it has a known proven effect on weather patterns which are more severe, so instead of trying to find ways to mitigate the danger and the impact of increasingly dangerous weather patterns, we're just fighting each other. That's the problem. When I put it in those terms, I can get agreement, which is amazing.