A year ago today, Chris Hadfield went to the International Space Station and started tweeting from there. It seems silly, given that there’s important research done there and all, but the tweeting was what drew me in. It was sort of a revival of my seven-year-old self’s fascination with space, but with an important twist. Back then I was obsessed with looking out, while these days my attention is much more focussed on our own planet, so what really kept me going were Hadfield’s photos of the Earth from orbit.
Sociologists have a word for what seeing Earth from space does to us: the Overview Effect. In short, nationalist and self-centred perspectives on the world start to seem awfully narrow when you’re hurtling by in a tin can that took unprecedented international cooperation to build, and watching your usual home from a perspective at which national borders are only visible if one side has screwed up. Astronauts report coming back from space with a freshly planetary perspective.
I am increasingly convinced that spreading this perspective to the the rest of us without the privilege of space travel is crucial to our ability to build a livable future. As long as we take narrow perspectives on the existential problems facing humanity, we’re doomed to keep fighting over ever-diminishing crumbs, even though most of our problems are surmountable. We need to understand the big picture and act with that understanding and our collective interest in mind to stand a chance, but with those prerequisites we’re entirely capable of giving everybody a decent quality of life without robbing future generations.
My own work has been moving in this direction for a while. Long story short: I dropped out of academia because the climate crisis felt too immediate to justify the very long term perspective of the highly theoretical work I was doing, so I took a job helping to train the people doing worthwhile environmental work today. After a few years, it had become blindingly obvious that we needed to change the underlying culture, not just do technical work around whatever fringes hyperconsumerism would let us tinker with, so I helped found the Happiness Initiative. I was often asked what this had to do with “the environment”, to which there are many answers, but the simplest is that environmentalism can’t achieve much without a revolution of values, and getting people to focus on happiness over material acquisition is part of that revolution.
I still think the happiness movement is doing something crucial, and I still do some work with the Initiative, but these days I’m spending more time on a bigger picture still. A lot of my work is itself rather small, but it’s worthwhile to the extent that it advances a planetary perspective. I provide admin support to Quinn Norton, whose writing advances the Overview Effect from an earth-bound perspective by undermining the old nationalist-authoritarian narratives and showing how powerful loose global networks of people can be instead. I do similar work for Eleanor Saitta, who in turn helps activists who are directly threatened by the old order keep themselves safe, and build new systems of organising that put humans front and centre instead of the outdated, toxic abstractions left over from the era of Imperialism. I help Chris Jordan get the word out about his amazing artwork, which encourages all of us to see the world in perspective and understand the scale problems of the status quo. Until it closed its doors last week, I provided tech support to Facing The Future, a producer of educational materials that promote global perspectives and sustainability together.
Recently I’ve started working for the Context Institute, which may be the organisation that’s been explicitly pushing the planetary perspective for the longest. More importantly, its founder, Robert Gilman, is particularly good at articulating what it means to take a planetary perspective, see the world as one set of interconnecting systems and take action on that basis. Robert’s been working on a set of concepts & materials he calls Foundation Stones, because between them they offer a solid grounding in the state of the world and the central challenge of bringing society to a state that can actually handle the 21st Century. They are a foundation for activists to build on, because as well as an uncompromising diagnosis of global problems, they are full of analysis of how to move past this, and where it’s worth us putting energy into. The beautiful thing about this framework is that it helps us move beyond the paralysing despair of realising that present trends lead to disaster, into actually seeing productive paths for action and doing something about it. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Robert is the most optimistic person I know whose worldview is grounded in deep understanding rather than sticking his head in the sand.
My main role with this project has been to help bring it out to the world so more people can engage with it. We’ve been quietly laying groundwork for a couple of months, and yesterday announced the launch of a presentation series about the Foundation Stones. The first will be in Seattle on February 12th, and I’ll be all over Twitter & Facebook with more details over the coming weeks. If you can make it to downtown Seattle on a Wednesday night, I hope you can join us for an evening of conviviality, clear thought, well-grounded optimism and practical action. If you can’t be there, we will also be putting videos online afterwards, in digestible chunks suitable for watching in installments.