If you’ve seen Gravity, you undoubtedly spent some of that time marveling at the views of Earth. Who cares if they were CGI? Even George Clooney’s astronaut Matt Kowalski, fully aware that he was approaching the end of his life, caught a glimpse of the Ganges and remarked over its beauty. People who have been to space report all kinds of effects that the experience has on their lives, and in the video called Overview, assembled by Planetary Collective, astronauts articulate how space changed their perspectives on the world.
In 1968, just before America put a man on the Moon, Apollo 8 astronauts circled the Moon and took photos of Earth, prompting the famous “Earthrise over the Moon” image. It was the first time people got to see Earth as a whole — not as countries delineated by boundaries and borders, not as people clashing over religion or other beliefs, but as one unified system. The astronauts in Planetary Collective’s short documentary Overview, which serves as a teaser for their feature-length documentary Continuum, talk about this pivotal moment and how their experiences in space changed their understanding of the world, themselves, and what it means to be human.
Such accounts comprise the short documentary and pave the way for the longer film, which received funding through a successful Kickstarter campaign in March. They describe the film as such: “The planet is in crisis. The root of the environmental and social crises facing humanity is the misperception that we are separate — from each other, the planet, and the cosmos as a whole. The solution to this crisis can be found in an emerging worldview that points to our interdependence.” Continuum then illustrates that worldview with interviews of a slew of scientists, writers, Buddhist teachers, and activists; timelapse video; and possible solutions to the planetary crisis. Overview is the space-centric appetizer for the film, as astronauts have a unique perspective when it comes to this comprehensive and interdependent worldview.
Planetary Collective takes a page (or many pages) from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s rhetoric in the development of their argument and worldview. In his incredible keynote speech “Space as Culture,” which he delivered to the National Space Symposium in 2012, deGrasse Tyson refers to the “Earthrise over the moon” photograph and the paradigm shift that resulted from that photo (at around the 22-minute mark). He argues that seeing earth as a whole prompted a slew of developments, including the establishment of the EPA, Doctors Without Borders, the banning of DDT, the establishment of endangered species acts, the invention of the catalytic converter, and other innovations that reflected Americans’ concern for their planet. Tyson points out that, during this period, we were still tangled up in Vietnam, but still found the time and resources to focus on our planet.
What Tyson’s talking about here is something he and his mentor Carl Sagan call the “cosmic perspective.” This is the realization of humanity’s smallness, about Earth’s smallness, when compared to the cosmos. Sagan and Tyson both talk about how Earthly differences fade the farther away one gets, and how humanity’s similarities become much more notable. And while they admit that feelings of smallness and insignificance can be disconcerting, they also link those feelings to ego — that insistence that each of us is, indeed, big and important. But understanding space, and our position relative to it, requires a checking of the ego and an admission that we are but participants in a great cosmic chain, rather than the leaders or masters of it. The cosmos isn’t hierarchical — no one’s at the top. We’re all fortunate to simply be a part of it, and to have it comprise parts of us. After all, “we’re made of star stuff,” says Carl Sagan.
Even though they are focused on the Moon, the astronauts in Overview say that looking back at Earth may have been the “most important reason [they] went.” Given that this moment happened in 1968, and that perhaps nothing quite as paradigm-shifting has happened since then, I’m happy to see Planetary Collective engaging this idea again and using it as a lens through which to view and address our global problems. The film is due out in February 2014, so we’ll soon find out whether this ambitious project can change the way those of us here on Earth view ourselves and the planet.