The Overview Effect

May 8, 2014

A literal new perspective can lead us to a figurative one.

The International Space Station recently deployed a 24-hour live video feed of its view of Earth. From anywhere on the planet with an internet connection, you can now see what we look like from space. In an age where this is possible, it’s hard to imagine that just half a century ago, there simply didn’t exist images of the whole Earth from space.

That changed in 1968, when the Apollo 8 crew did something extraordinary. Author Frank White tells the story:

I was watching it on television and at a certain point, one of the astronauts casually said, “We’re going to turn the camera around and show you the Earth,” and he did, and that was the first time I had ever seen the planet, hanging in space like that, and it was profound.

An image of the Earth from behing the Moon, taken by the Apollo 8 crew in 1968
Still from Overview of footage from the Apollo 8 mission. Film by The Planetary Collective

White is best known for his book, The Overview Effect, about how this literal new perspective—seeing Earth from space—often gives one a figurative new perspective on our relationship to our planetary home. From Wikipedia:

It refers to the experience of seeing firsthand the reality of the Earth in space, which is immediately understood to be a tiny, fragile ball of life, “hanging in the void”, shielded and nourished by a paper-thin atmosphere. From space, the astronauts tell us, national boundaries vanish, the conflicts that divide people become less important, and the need to create a planetary society with the united will to protect this “pale blue dot” becomes both obvious and imperative.

The image above is from the short film Overview, in which you can see the original footage from Apollo 8 as well as interviews with astronauts about their experience of the overview effect. And if that’s not enough, the some friends of the folks behind the film made a website, Daily Overview, where you can see a new, often breathtaking satellite photo of a different place on the Earth each day. Similarly to Stochastic Planet which I’ve highlighted before, I think we’d probably all be a bit better off with a daily dose of the overview effect.