“Problems cannot be solved with the same mindset that created them.” (Albert Einstein)
“I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of...100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivision, presenting a united facade that would cry out for unified treatment.” (Michael Collins, Apollo 11 Astronaut)
Astronauts tell us how deeply meaningful it is for them to see Earth from Space. They tell us that there are no borders, and that the atmosphere that shields us from deadly radiation and the vacuum of space is precariously thin, time is not experienced the same way as on Earth. There is awe witnessing Earth against the backdrop of the vast cosmos. And when looking down on Earth they experience a sense of oneness of all life.
Crucially, they experience all of this rather than just knowing it intellectually – and it changes them, their outlook and what they do back on Earth. The philosopher Frank White calls the experience the ‘Overview Effect’. After interviewing dozens of astronauts and writing a book on the topic, he concedes that the experience is ‘really hard to convey […] because all you have is words’.
And so he and others are exploring different ways to convey this experience:
- Actually getting people to space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX is actually shooting for the moon (and beyond) and plans to send billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, joined by a group of artists, on a trip around the moon by 2023 (https://dearmoon.earth/). What the artists will create from this will certainly add new facets to existing accounts of the Overview Effect.
- Near Space. Other projects attempt to soon send tourists on a suborbital flight or just to the edge of space (e.g. with a space balloon).
- Virtual Reality. For example, using VR the Dutch project Spacebuzz wants “every child in the world to experience the Overview Effect and inspire them to become ambassadors of plane Earth”
I ask myself: What if we really sent politicians to the moon or space, as actual space tourists or through VR? How would their outlook change? Once back on Earth, what impact would it have on their policies? How would it affect the way they do politics?
If Michael Collins is right, and political leaders look beyond divisions and tackle those global challenges that ‘cry out for unified treatment’, then that idea is worth pursuing further. What if…
- emerging political leaders went through that experience before taking up political office, either as part of the curricula of their political parties or as an official program of the public institution they are joining?
- political officials regularly went through that experience, perhaps as part of a next conference, summit, retreat – why not skip a fancy dinner or a panel discussion on ‘global responsibility’ for an experience of the Overview Effect? Or negotiate climate action plans while orbiting Earth in Virtual Reality?
- there was a cross-partisan community of space travellers (real or virtual) who work together on global issues, injecting a fresh perspective?
It’s also worth investing in that as society. While billionaire-sponsored projects are laudable and we can only hope that early space tourists – most of whom will be wealthy – will use their wealth for the global good, enabling our political representatives to take a new, fresh perspective on the challenges facing us is not their job. It's the job of democratic societies.