Astronaut Scott Kelly has returned to Earth, and my Twitter feed is the poorer for it. Over the course of the last 340 days, Kelly has delighted us with images of our planet from his perch aboard the international space station: mountain peaks and jungle rivers, sandstorms and city lights, aurora and the most unique, and frequent, sunrises seen by human eyes. If you haven’t seen them, take a moment to look at his #EarthArt and #ColorsofEarth images, and be awed. (He also played ping-pong with water, grew zinnias, and chased co-workers in zero gravity wearing a gorilla suit. Just like your days at work, no doubt.)
Many of Kelly’s posts helped to remind us of the fragility of our little blue marble, with incredible images of pollution, environmental destruction, and severe weather. Kelly has even said that his time in space has made him “more of an environmentalist”, as he watched climate change-fueled storms grow in the atmosphere, and smog pool against the Himalayas in Asia. Seeing that thick layer of haze bump against the mountains makes my lungs hurt.
While the International Space Station that was Kelly’s home for so many months provides an exceptional vantage point for viewing the Earth’s large-scale processes, there is also something lost in the view: people. We may see large storms and clouds of smog, but do we feel more or less connected to the human side of these events– both the anthropogenic causes and their real outcomes for communities, families, and individuals? For example, does the impressive spiral of Cyclone Winston obscure the human toll for children in Fiji?
The image of a fragile blue Earth as seen from space has been the emblem of the environmental movement in the United States and elsewhere for decades. Images of “Spaceship Earth” and the “little blue marble” were available for the first time in the 1960’s, just as concern for environmental problems began to grow. “Give Earth a Chance” became an anthem of the fledgling movement, and the founding of “Earth Day” brought attention to issues of sustainability, pollution, energy, and endangered habitats and species. But if the face of environmental change is a blue globe, do we still see ourselves in the process?
The use of the Earth’s image from space has been critiqued by environmental anthropologists among others for its obfuscation of the intimate, iterative relationship between humans and the environment, riefying “nature” as an element separate from people. The serene image of the blue globe presented “not just a view of the world but a world-view” (Bryant and Lewis, 1995:44). This view is reinforced by positivist scientific approaches that theorize a fully empirical world; yet, research into the diversity of human experiences, knowledges, and conceptualizations of the environment demonstrates the inextricability of culture from our understanding of the “natural” world. It also privileges the global over the local and brings our attention to intangible ideals rather than to the places we inhabit and are engaged in shaping (Ingold 2000): we focus our gaze on a distant “environment”, like Amazon rainforests or melting glaciers, while overlooking our more immediate environmental relationships, like urban pollution and access to clean water. Much current research acknowledges these ties, but it is still easy to forget their importance when the scale becomes as large and coarse as the view from above.
Our planet is obviously an inspiring sight from space– here’s one more image of the Bahamas from Kelly’s photo album to prove that. As research on our neighboring planets and the rest of the universe have shown, it is also a very precious and unique home that we undoubtedly should do more to conserve. But to address the pressing issues of climate change, environmental degradation, and other anthropogenic effects, foregrounding humans in our view– especially indigenous peoples, communities in the global south, and others who are too often erased from view while they suffer the most immediate consequences of our global environmental problems– is an important step in visualizing our place in the environmental story. Hopefully, in doing so we can also bring forward the issues of social inequality and justice that are sometimes problematically uncoupled from environmental research and policy.
People are much more than the “problem”, we are very much part of the solution as well. Like Scott Kelly– his time in space was really all about how our human bodies deal with a new physical environment, and his experiences will hopefully improve our understanding of physiological and psychological processes. But more than that, I believe he is an example of how we can perhaps do more to include people in that view from space. In his Twitter posts, Kelly often acknowledged the people in the pictures he shared, in a way linking the scales of the global picture with the individuals who followed him. Perhaps this is a small way in which we can integrate our views and our actions, with a multiscaled vision: images from space linked to images, stories, and experiences within our human landscapes. In any case, the gorgeous pictures Kelly took will be there to bring us all some inspiration anytime we need it.
Bryant, W., & Lewis, C. S.. (1995). The Re-Vision of Planet Earth: Space Flight and Environmentalism in Postmodern America. American Studies, 36(2), 43–63. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/40642725
Ingold, T. (2000). The Perception of the Environment: Essays on Livelihood, Dwelling, and Skill. Routledge, London.