From the Series: Lexicon for an Anthropocene Yet Unseen
The supposed collapse of planetary and human processes into each other implies also the collapse of two fates: humanity and the earth, conjoined in their futures. This merger has a history, enabled by the possibility of a cosmic point of view gazing back at our planet floating in darkness. In their objectification of the so-called earth, the first planetary selfies said, “We are the planet, the planet is us.”
The most famous such image, Big Blue Marble (NASA AS17-148-22727), was taken from twenty-eight thousand miles away on December 7, 1972 by the crew of Apollo 17, the last moon mission. It made its way onto magazine covers and into advertisements. Four years earlier, NASA’s inaugural manned lunar mission, Apollo 8, had taken the first earthrise picture, considered one of the most influential photographs ever. With advice from the U.S. Information Agency, Apollo 8 mobilized a Christian symbolic arsenal in the production of a live cosmic utopian theater. As they entered lunar orbit on Christmas Eve, the astronauts broadcast images of the earth and read from Genesis, the book of creation. Addressing “all the people back on Earth,” William Anders started, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth . . . ” and Frank Borman ended with “And God called the dry land Earth; and the gathering together of the waters called he Seas: and God saw that it was good” (see Poole 2008).
Stewart Brand and his popular counterculture publication, The Whole Earth Catalog, did more than anyone to spread some love for the planet (see also The Overview Institute). Arguing that an image of the whole earth would unify people to overcome global problems, Brand led a campaign in 1966 demanding that NASA release its space mission images. A member of an experimental art collective, he designed a pin bearing the question: “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?” Thereafter, his Catalog carried an earth image on each of its covers, while the pages in between provided resources to utopians who wanted to set up alternative ways of life.
In 1970, we the people celebrated our first official Earth Day, and two years later the United Nations organized its first earth summit.
From the outset, the cosmic point of view framed utopian visions of the good earth. In contrast to the mushroom cloud, that iconic image of planetary doom, humanity’s dwelling place was projected as borderless, its differences appearing insignificant and its conflicts parochial. The whole earth was Kodachromed a well-oxygenated blue where life could flourish in the face of what the authors of Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972) called the human “cancer” eating it.
The planetary selfie repositioned the earth center stage, countering the post-Copernican metaphysics of the globe—at least until Voyager 1 zoomed out the cosmic point of view nine hundred million miles, transforming the Big Blue Marble into a Pale Blue Dot. Carl Sagan of Cosmos fame, who was on Voyager’s imaging team and clearly aware of the Pascalian terror of cosmic insignificance in the disenchanted universe, restabilized our dwelling through an existentialist stance against meaninglessness. From the imperial perch of NASA, Sagan (1997, 7) exposed what he saw as our imagined self-importance and underscored “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.”
This recentering project took its most blatant ideological turn when on Earth Day 2014 NASA urged earthlings to step outside to take a selfie. The agency then tiled thirty-six thousand of the submitted images into a mosaic that looked very much like the earth, literally conjoining people and planet in a world-image. NASA explained that “the project was designed to encourage environmental awareness and recognize the agency's ongoing work to protect our home planet.”
Needless to say, the planet needs protection from the species (or the countries, and the people) that call it home. After that first moment of self-objectification, which twinned the fate of people and planet in a unified blue utopia, we came to see the earth as damaged and sick because of us, each cloud formation the harbinger of a potential tsunami, the biosphere choking earth and humanity in an apocalyptic embrace.
The concept of the Anthropocene posits humans simultaneously as powerful agents of climate change and as utterly powerless to roll back its effects. This evokes longstanding technological anxieties about limits and limitlessness, autonomy and control: it is a particular version of the Golem, of Frankenstein, the nuclear bomb, the singularity. The more power we gain, the less control we feel we have over the consequences of that power. Parallel to this runs the secular tension of a cosmic ego toggling between overinflated selfiehood and existential insignificance.
Emptied of life and meaning throughout modernity, the cosmos, rather than the earth, is now infused with hope; culture has turned cosmic (see Valentine 2012; Battaglia 2014). NASA engineer and scientist Mark Lupisella (2010) has introduced the term cosmoculture, exploring the potential of a conscious, anthropogenic universe as human culture seeps out. Today, you can send your selfie into outer space aboard the 2016 LightSail mission, the world’s first citizen-funded solar sail adventure. In a contest called Message to the Milky Way, Diamond Sky Productions—owned by NASA imager Carolyn Porco, who worked alongside Sagan as well as Hollywood directors—is collecting pictures and songs to transmit to outer space via the Arecibo Radio Telescope in Puerto Rico. “This,” the Diamond Sky website explains, “will be a lonely yet hopeful, long distance call from humans to their fellow galactic citizens in which we announce our presence and describe us and our home planet.”
Before those unsuspecting citizens know it, some expatriate part of humanity will become the dominant force shaping not just planetary but cosmic evolution, and the Anthropocene will appear like a parochial event on a pale little dot. We might finally feel less lonely, and also less significant.
I thank William Scarlett for help gathering images, and Blair Bainbridge for additional research.
Battaglia, Debbora. 2014. “Cosmos as Commons: An Activation of Cosmic Diplomacy.” e-flux, no. 58.
Lupisella, Mark L. 2010. “Cosmocultural Evolution: The Coevolution of Culture and Cosmos and the Creation of Cosmic Value.” In Cosmos and Culture: Cultural Evolution in a Cosmic Context, edited by Steven J. Dick and Mark L. Lupisella, 321–59. Washington, DC: National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Meadows, Donella H., Dennis L. Meadows, Jørgen Randers, and William H. Behrens, III. 1972. The Limits of Growth. New York: New American Library.
Poole, Robert. 2008. Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press.
Valentine, David. 2012. “Exit Strategy: Profit, Cosmology, and the Future of Humans in Space.” Anthropological Quarterly 85, no. 4: 1045–67.