Our planet is one interconnected place. That's the central tenet required to think about climate change, either by the negotiators who struck a deal in Paris last week or regular joes trying to wrap their heads around how burning coal here melts ice caps there. But it's hard to think about the world this way, to really comprehend that we're trapped on this big ball in an environment we are constantly changing.
But some of us occasionally escape the ball, and when it happens, it's a momentous, perspective-changing experience. When humans are launched in a rocket into space, there's a moment when they turn around and stare back at their home world—this blue jewel in the blackness of space—and feel for the first time what it is like to be apart from that jewel. What happens in that moment is often called the overview effect.
Seeing the Earth like that changes a person, as astronauts have discovered. Many say it makes them recognize that life, all of it, is connected and important. Down on Earth, maybe it’s not clear how burning coal one place might hurt fish in some other spot, but up there, it’s obvious: Earth is one single, interconnected place.
Here are five astronauts on how space changed the way they felt about Earth and life, as recounted in the book, The Overview Effect:
Apollo 14 astronaut Edgar Mitchell:
“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.'”
Space tourist Anousheh Ansari:
“The actual experience exceeds all expectations and is something that’s hard to put to words … It sort of reduces things to a size that you think everything is manageable … All these things that may seem big and impossible …
We can do this. Peace on Earth — No problem. It gives people that type of energy … that type of power.”
Cosmonaut Oleg Makarov:
"Something about the unexpectedness of this sight, its incompatibility with anything we have ever experienced on earth elicits a deep emotional response…
Suddenly, you get a feeling you’ve never had before… That you’re an inhabitant… of the Earth."
Astronaut Ron Garan:
“I was flooded with both emotion and awareness. But as I looked down at the Earth—this stunning, fragile oasis, this island that has been given to us, and that has protected all life from the harshness of space—a sadness came over me, and I was hit in the gut with an undeniable, sobering contradiction.
In spite of the overwhelming beauty of this scene, serious inequity exists on the apparent paradise we’ve been given. I returned to Earth after that first space mission with a call to a action. I could not longer accept the status quo on our planet.”
Astronaut Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space:
“My response when I went into space is that I was connected to everything. I felt much more connected to everything else in the universe, and sometimes on Earth I felt much more separate from the rest of the universe. I felt like I had as much right to be in space or in this universe as any speck of stardust. I was as eternal as that."