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The ‘Overview Effect’ is a concept birthed by astronauts, one where the individual realises that our problems are quite small in the greater scheme of things. Perhaps we should take a lesson.
There’s a quote I’d like to share, spoken by astronaut Edgar Mitchell, that perfectly encapsulates a documented phenomenon.
“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, you son of a bitch.”
It’s otherwise known as ‘the Overview Effect’, and was first coined by author Frank White. It’s the effect on human psychology of seeing the Earth from the outside, seeing it hanging in space, in all its glorious fragility.
It was Carl Sagan that spoke about us sitting on a ‘Pale Blue Dot’ when he was part of the Voyager mission. It was his idea to turn the probe back toward us and take a ‘selfie’ of Earth from the edge of visual range.
This was what he had to say in his book about the future of humanity: “Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.”
It has evolved, by necessity I’d imagine, to look no further than the closest horizon. But now that we’ve conquered the earth and spread to its far corners, able to travel from one side to the other within 24 hours, isn’t it time we thought about the next horizon?
So much of our lives are spent looking forward and down, the trees, the fields, the grass, our children. Then we look up and we see a field of either white or blue, seemingly the end of existence. It isn’t until night time that we’re able to pierce that veil and see out into the black void beyond. Even then, the only thing we can clearly see with the naked eye is the moon and a whole lot of bright dots. Knowing those bright dots are absolutely enormous balls of nuclear fire does nothing to give them any immediacy though. Humanity for all its abilities, has no sense of true scale.
Perhaps so much of our trouble stems from us trying to share the dirt we’re fixated on, we’re all stuck looking down and it’s become a zero-sum game. In Jonathan Metzl’s latest book, he documents the problems in the American South, as fears of lost golden ages and the fear of the finite ‘pie’ make people vote for policies that directly harm them, in an effort to do greater harm to those perceived as being parasites.
I wonder, how would we all benefit from the overview effect? Were we all to view Earth from space, would we change our mentalities to climate change and perhaps even how minute our relative differences are? Perhaps differences that seem enormous, are actually, relatively, minute.
Neil Armstrong said this was this thought when he stood on the moon; “It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.”