(Originally published at Post Carbon Institute back when LiLo was still a thing.)
“The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved.” Psalm 96:10
Some years ago, I strapped on a parachute and jumped out of a plane. I can’t say that I’m a thrill seeker or that the event itself did much to get my blood pumping. After all, there was an experienced jumper strapped to my back who took care of everything, including most of the risk and, therefore, the excitement. But I wasn’t after an adrenaline rush.
I was looking for a new perspective.
And at 12,000 feet that’s exactly what I got. With the wind pushing my face around like putty, I enjoyed 90 seconds of observing the earth from an entirely new place. The clouds, the curvature of our beautiful planet, and the winding ribbon of the Sacramento River — these are things I’d seen in photos, or observed comfortably from inside an airplane, but never directly, never physically, never for real. Since this single jump, my sense of place on the surface of our planet has been subtly, but powerfully recalibrated.
I used to move around a lot (life of a carny — different blog post), and what would help me get settled each time was to immediately seek the highest point around. Whether it was a mountain peak, a skyscraper or, as was the case in Woodland, California, the roof of a shopping center, wasn’t important. What was important was that I got a view, from some distance, of my new home and where it rested in relationship to the world — natural and manmade — around it. I’ve had to trespass into farmer’s fields and bluff my way past security guards, but I’ve managed to gain this “up and away” vantage point time and again. This effort brings me a sense of place and security. When I close my eyes at night, I know where I am. I think this sense of place is critically important for all of us. And in a world that spins far faster than it revolves, this sense can be harder to develop than a crush on Karl Rove.
Perspective is the key to solving any crisis.
Remember the old joke about Galileo? Galileo walks into a bar and yells out “Copernicus was right, the earth revolves around the sun!” I forget the rest, but the punchline is that the Catholics have Galileo hauled out of the bar and condemned to house arrest until his death. It’s a riot, really. Best joke ever.There are versions of it involving Darwin, Bruno, Descartes, Eugene Debs, Lenny Bruce and others. They’re all the same kind of funny with the same message: New perspectives are dangerous.
But we all know they’re not. New perspectives are the stuff of life, of love, of beauty. When Copernicus (and others) figured out that the earth isn’t at the center of the heavens, but is instead one small cog in the glorious machinations of the universe, most of humanity enjoyed an incredible perspective shift. The weight of the heavens, some would say, was lifted, and in a few short years the Dark Ages gave way to the age of Enlightenment. Yes, I’m playing a bit fast and loose with my historical periods, but I trust you get the point: Copernicus ushered in a perspective shift that continues to profoundly shape civilization. As did Newton and a bunch of other super-smartypants all over the world. The reason they’re lauded as visionaries, and the reason they were persecuted, is that they changed the way we think about ourselves, our place in the universe, and our future potential.
In discovering truths visionaries change our perspective, sometimes against our will.
In the United States, a fundamental perspective shift is underway. Just as it was a slow, painful process for Roman Catholicism to give up on the earth as the center of the universe, it has been very hard for many in the United States to see their country as something other than the guiding beacon for all human endeavors. Where once we led the world in literacy, health, scientific knowledge, income and a raft of other quality of life and culture indexes, we now most often rank in the middle of the second tier nations. We’re witnessing what may be the death throes of an empire as the very richest gobble what little is left of the country’s resources and do their best to blame the poor for…well, for being poor. We should expect increased polarization, more warfare, a spike in suffering. Beware the spasmodic kicks of the dying beast. But, if we can learn from history and embrace our new perspective quickly, perhaps this descent can be a rich experience. Perhaps we can find a new, slower, more fulfilling quality of life while the rest of the world can enjoy the sight of rare blue skies free from our shadow. Beauty, after all, can be found in the unraveling of things.
Did the man fall down or did the earth rush to meet him? Depends on your perspective.
Unfortunately, following nearly a century of staggering U.S. ingenuity and explosive growth, the developing world seems to be blindly following in our boot steps. The toxic effects of hyper-consumption mottle our national visage, and while many nations openly jeer at our discomfort, they’re swallowing the same poison pills of consumptive commerce and resource depletion. If we, as a species, don’t bring about an epic shift in how we see and value our planet, we’re headed for a truly dark future, in very short order.
Just as I found my sense of place by sneaking onto a mall roof, humanity benefited from an elevated point of view. The first photographic evidence of our blue planet as seen from space blew our global consciousness. As Stewart Brand said about the publishing of NASA’s first images, “The sight of the entire planet, seen at once … would make a point that Buckminster Fuller was always ranting about: that people act as if the earth is flat, when in reality it is spherical and extremely finite, and until we learn to treat it as a finite thing, we will never get civilization right.”
And low and behold, the environmental movement kicked into high gear within months of the release of these iconic images. Where Muir, Fuller, Leopold, Carson and others had labored so mightily to get people to truly grok the native value of our nest, a few snapshots by astronauts changed perspectives across the world in a flash. The “Overview Effect,” which is kinda sorta the very same thing I seek to find comfort in new surroundings, shifted our global perspective.
But this newfound love of planet didn’t last long. By the middle of the 1980s, we were gorging ourselves on nonrenewable resources like Lindsay Lohan on a post-court appearance coke binge. That’s the tricky thing about perspective; like Lohan’s sense of dignity, it can get lost in a hurry. Fortunately, both are recoverable. LiLo can seek and receive therapy. They have the technology. They will rebuild her. But what about the global therapy needed to stop the consumption, demolish the devastating myth that economic growth is as necessary to a quality life as water and exercise, and rebuild our way of interacting with our home planet?
For that, we may need some help from outer space.
What we need is an overnight revolution of thought on the scale of the Copernican introduction of heliocentrism. God only knows people have been trying to foment this revolution for a long time. Enough educated people have been presenting enough good science for enough decades that all of human society should have long ago been disabused of the notion that we can go on treating the earth like an inflatable sex toy.
To do this in a hurry, we’re going to need help. From on high. From the heavens above. That’s right, I’m thinking the only thing that can possibly save us now is E.T. Viewing our planet in its correct location was a big step. Figuring out how it got and stays there (gravity) was another advance. I’m convinced that all we need now is to learn that we’re not alone to develop a much deeper appreciation for our ever-giving earth.
“When we finally make the discovery of another planet out there that we believe has life on it, that will change humanity’s view of our position in the universe.” — NASA’s Doug Hudgins
Whether our alien saviors have glowing fingertips, gray skin, or look like overturned bowls of spaghetti, what matters is that they show up and make an undeniable appearance on the global stage. Imagine it. Just imagine the instantaneous recalibration of our place in this universe. The audible clicks would start avalanches in the Himalayas. Are you imagining it? Don’t worry, I have some special visioning help in store below. I’m telling you, a whole lot of folks would suddenly see the value of their home planet in a new way. Sadly, it could be that an aggressive alien species would be best suited to give us the serious kick in the ass we need. Valuables don’t seem quite so valuable until you feel you might lose them to someone, or something, else.
And so, in all seriousness, will you please join me, in a call for occupants of interplanetary craft to visit our planet — and shift our perspective — before we annihilate ourselves? All you have to do is click the following link and let interstellar muse Karen Carpenter channel your willpower into the ether:
The trick is to pass this call to action along to at least 100 friends. Pass it on and urge them to do the same. If you think this is just a trick to make this article go viral, you’re wrong. This is a fact-based, earnest effort to change the course of global history. It has worked before. So, let’s do this!
Calling occupants of interplanetary, quite extraordinary craftAnd please come in peace, we beseech you
Only our love we will teach them
Our Earth may never survive
So do come, we beg you
Please, interstellar policeman
Oh won’t you give us a sign
Give us a sign
That we’ve reached you