Whole Earth Rise

Images of the Earth from space hold a profound ability to illicit philosophical reflection. They lead us to position ourselves within the vast timeline of the universe and to question our place within it. They force a big-picture view of humankind’s achievements and contributions, and prompt speculation on the future of our species. These images contain a radical power to shape our collective consciousness, acting as a mobilizing force for the shared beliefs and moral attitudes of society.

So far this collective consciousness has been shaped for the better. Although only a small handful of individuals have witnessed these sights first-hand, the widespread dissemination of these images of the Earth from space has variously been credited with catalyzing the environmental movement, global action on policy, and spurring transnational collaboration.

The most influential of these images is Earthrise, an ‘unscheduled’ photo taken by the astronauts of NASA’s Apollo 8 mission in 1968 while scouting for landing sites on the Moon. It was the first time our planet was seen to rise above the horizon of another. Commander Frank Borman later recalled the moment as ‘the most beautiful, heart-catching sight of my life, one that sent a torrent of nostalgia, of sheer homesickness, surging through me’. The tiny, solitary blue sphere, surrounded by darkness, spoke of the fragility of Earth and the need to nurture it. It adorned the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog where it was described as having ‘established our planetary facthood and beauty and rareness’ and became the icon of Buckminster Fuller’s concept of ‘Spaceship Earth’, a call for international cooperation on issues of global importance. [1]

In his 2008 book Earthrise: How man first saw the Earth, Robert Poole reflects upon the almost-instant effect this image””and the similar Blue Marble photograph released in 1972””had in forging our collective conscience for the environment. ‘As soon as the Earth became visible [”¦] it began to acquire friends, starting in 1969 with Friends of the Earth. The years 1969-72 saw no fewer than seven major international environmental organizations come into being.’ Released at a time when knowledge and awareness of the harmful effects of pollution on our atmosphere was rapidly spreading, these images of the Earth from space gave the environmental movement a tangible symbol to fight for.

Another NASA photograph, known as the Pale Blue Dot, inspired one of the most reflective and deeply moving passages on our position within the Universe. Voyager 1, having completed it’s primary mission and upon leaving the Solar System, turned its cameras around and directed them back to Earth from a record distance. Within the image, Earth takes up 0.12% of a single pixel, set against the vastness of space. The astronomer Carl Sagan, who requested the photograph, wrote of it in 1990:

From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again 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. [”¦] Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. [”¦] To me, [this image] underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known. [2]

Despite Sagan’s insistence that ‘this is where we make our stand’, images from space increasingly offer us the possibility of another home. Neil Armstrong’s stirring ‘one small step’ moonwalk in 1969 collapsed the science fiction idea of colonizing other planets and demonstrated it as a scientific possibility. But even more tellingly, when NASA returned to the Moon in 1971, they brought with them the ultimate symbol of home and American independence: the automobile. The photos of the lunar lander, with a flag firmly planted and the rover parked outside, made the potential of colonizing space a future we could grasp and relate to. This was the lunar equivalent of the proud suburban homeowner, standing outside, with the American flag adorning the porch and the Chevy in the driveway.

Colonization of the Moon did not take place; instead, our sights are set on the next frontier. Obama’s cancellation of the Constellation program to return to the moon reveals a renewed focus for NASA directed toward sending a man to Mars. Russian cosmonauts are currently in a replica living module for two years, while doctors and scientists monitor the physical demands required for the long journey to the red planet. China, India and the UK have each established their own space agencies to cooperate on this ambitious undertaking. Current estimates suggest humans could walk on Mars in the 2030s.

While much of the same 60s-style inspirational rhetoric of a brave new era of scientific discovery is being used to galvanize voters and justify the costs – the reasons for going today are vastly different. We are building the ark. With the recent development of the capacity to wipe ourselves out””through either global epidemic, nuclear apocalypse, or environmental revenge brought on by human-driven climate change””the single frightening reason to colonize other planets is to ensure the survival of our species. As Stephen Hawking said in the Telegraph, ‘I don’t think the human race will survive the next thousand years, unless we spread into space. There are too many accidents that can befall life on a single planet.’ [3] While evoking the spirit of Russian space visionary Konstantin Tsiolkovsky’s oft-quoted justification for space exploration of 1911””‘the Earth is man’s cradle, but one cannot live in the cradle forever’””Hawking’s version is deeply pessimistic, and tantamount to giving up on the Earth.

The habitation of Mars demands we prepare for the possibility of a negative impact upon our collective consciousness, rolling back the effects of the recent period of image-driven planetary enlightenment. Demonstrating that we can live on Mars shows that we have another home, and may give cause for carelessness here on Earth. Carl Sagan’s inspirational text accompanying the Pale Blue Dot comes unstuck, as his reasons for nurturing Earth are based on the absence of an alternative.

While not exploring space for fear of discovering evidence of an alternative ‘home’ that may be detrimental to our worldview would be shortsighted, we need to prepare for this possibility and challenge it with new images. But what kinds of images can compete with the inspirational power of a glimpse at the new frontier? In the last issue of Volume tech guru and former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog Kevin Kelly gave a surprising answer to this question, asserting ‘one of the biggest agendas we should have is to get a picture of the whole Earth.’ [4] Now hang on, surely we already have one of those. Stewart Brand’s famous campaign of badges asking ‘why haven’t we seen a photo of the whole Earth yet?’ led to the publication of the Blue Marble, a definitive picture of the whole Earth if ever there was one.

However, the Blue Marble is a photograph, and nothing more. Its impact on our collective consciousness was driven by aesthetics alone, and therefore its usefulness beyond that of an icon is limited. As the estimated threat of global warming becomes larger, our need to thoroughly understand our planet’s climate system becomes increasingly critical. Kelly is not asking for a photo, but a global atmospheric monitoring system.

Such a system was once almost realized. As Stewart Brand explains, Al Gore as US Vice President in 1998 proposed DSCOVR, ‘a space camera that would provide a constant real-time, high resolution video of the Earth turning in the sunlight, both for inspiration and for science.’ [5] Although ridiculed by Congress as ‘Al’s screensaver’, the project found support in the National Academy of Sciences who proposed loading up the satellite with instruments to measure ‘variations in the Earth’s ozone levels, aerosols, water vapor, cloud thickness, and the reflected emitted radiation””the total energy budget””of the whole planet.’

The module was built and ready for launch in 2001, but was blocked by the incoming Bush administration who were hostile to Gore and climate science in general. If ever launched by the Obama administration, as promised, the information it generates could lead to a new understanding of the interconnectedness of our global ecosystem. More importantly, it could expose the hollow ignorance of climate change denialists and drive a more constructive convergence of global efforts to head off catastrophic global warming.

When it comes to generating new images, architects too can help. We are the image-makers for Earth, but rarely do our images inspire shifts in collective consciousness. We need to work on creating compelling images of our future here, to ‘sell’ our planet back to ourselves, by creating visions that both allow and invite us to stay home and care for our planet. Like the hoped-for composite data relayed from DSCOVR, we need to produce images with depth; multiple layers that both offer inspiration and enable a path toward a tangible solution.

Some projects reach for this illusive objective by simultaneously capturing a future narrative and providing the infrastructure to achieve it. What most architectural propositions lack is a global perspective, a barrier most famously transgressed by the quintessential global thinker Buckminster Fuller. Fuller’s Whole Earth Game and global energy grids examine the crises we face on the scale required to deal with them. This spirit has been most recently evoked by OMA/AMO in the Roadmap 2050 plan for a distributed energy creation and transmission network stretching across Europe between Norway and North Africa.

OMA’s plan assigns specific regions to be equipped with the infrastructure best suited for local renewable energy generation – such as wind turbines in the Netherlands, tidal generators in the North Sea, hydroelectric dams in the French Alps, and solar power plants in North Africa. The energy generated is subsequently shared based on seasonal demand, an infrastructural collaboration that would transform Europe from the collection of nations with competing interests it is today into an integrated organism. It is Spaceship Earth in practice, deployed to head off one of Earth’s greatest challenges.

One need not have global reach to convey a global perspective. A single building, MVRDV’s Dutch pavilion for expo 2000 in Hanover, offered a compact, stacked ecology of diverse landscapes and inhabited spaces. This mini-ecosystem is an optimistic sign for the capacity of architecture to recast itself as a generator of sustainable energy and agriculture rather than merely a drain on resources. Despite its limited size and impact, it is clear how such a prototype could be expanded. What unites both these projects by MVRDV and OMA is the capacity to exploit the narrative potential of the image to reinforce their claims.

Yet projects of this sort are difficult to spot among the wasteland of excess and consumption, leading to the question of whether architecture really is up to the task. Perhaps, as Stewart Brand has argued, we need a new kind of designer, one who transgresses disciplinary boundaries to look for the shortcuts to action and results. A planetary architect, who can bridge the worlds of image making and global thinking; to create images with the instrumental and inspirational depth to convince and enable us to stay here on Earth.

[1] Buckminster Fuller explored this concept most substantively in Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1963). Although published five years before Earthrise, the photo was subsequently used on the cover of later editions.
[2] Carl Sagan, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (Westminster: Ballantine Books, 1994).
[3] Roger Highfield, ‘Colonies in space may be only hope, says Hawking’, Daily Telegraph, October 16, 2001.
[4] ‘Infinite Faith’, Kevin Kelly interviewed by Yukiko Bowman and Julianne Gola, Volume 24: Counterculture.
[5] Stewart Brand, Whole Earth Discipline: An Ecopragmatist Manifesto (New York: Viking Penguin, 2009), p. 279.

This piece first appeared in the Moon issue of Volume magazine.

Posted: December 5th, 2010
Comments: 2 »

2 Comments on “Whole Earth Rise”

  1. 1 Tweets that mention RORY HYDE PROJECTS / BLOG » Blog Archive » Whole Earth Rise -- Topsy.com said at 10:01 pm on December 5th, 2010:

    [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Ethel Baraona Pohl, Rory Hyde. Rory Hyde said: Whole Earth Rise – my contribution to the @ArchisVolume Moon issue. http://bit.ly/gyXdVJ [...]

  2. 2 Rory Hyde Projects / Blog » Blog Archive » Potential Futures for Design Practice said at 8:48 pm on December 3rd, 2011:

    [...] AMO, the think tank of the Office of Metropolitan Architecture, was established precisely to focus on this type of work, by applying ‘architectural thinking in its pure form to questions of organisation, identity, culture and program’. [9] The project Roadmap 2050: A Practical Guide to a Prosperous, Low-Carbon Europe, commissioned by the European Climate Foundation, delivers on its title with a radical scheme of integrated green power generation stretching from North Africa to Norway. By not being constrained to any particular building commission, this research can operate at a scale that holds the potential for real global impact. (I have discussed this project further in an earlier post Whole Earth Rise.) [...]