Something profound happened recently: the Cassini spacecraft took a photograph of the Earth from a point in space not far from Saturn. This recalled an earlier photo memorialized by Carl Sagan when he talked about Earth as a “pale blue dot.”
This view sent to us by Cassini comes very close to what I have called in the past “the Copernican Perspective.” If the Overview Effect is an experience of the Earth as a whole system, the Copernican Perspective is the realization of the Earth as part of yet another system, the solar system. It is also a recognition that Copernicus was right, in that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of that system.
When I was writing about this phenomenon some 35 years ago, I imagined a photo of the solar system taken from outside of it. While composites of such pictures have indeed been constructed, I don’t believe that the definitive photograph has yet been created. However, this Cassini picture is certainly moving in that direction.
Like the Overview Effect, the Copernican Perspective is a shift in our identity, in our “centeredness.” It causes us to ask what is central to our worldview, and what is peripheral?
In 1987, I wrote in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution:
"The Overview Effect is the essential insight needed to create a planetary civilization. The Copernican Perspective is the essential insight needed to create a solar civilization." (p. 65)
A civilization is built on a center, an identity, and a worldview. The Romans said that “all roads lead to Rome” because the city was the center of that civilization, key to its identity and defined its worldview.
Human beings have long known, intellectually, that the Earth is not the center of the universe or even of the solar system. Now, as more and more humans go into orbit and to the moon, we are coming to know that this is the case experientially.
Seeing the Earth from near-space (orbit and the moon) is triggering the motivation to begin building a planetary civilization. As we begin to view the planet from a greater distance (Mars and Saturn, for example), we will begin to feel the tug to begin building a planetary civilization.
Evidence of the impetus for this second wave of civilization-building is found in the response of 100,000 people to Mars One’s offer to send them to Mars on a one-way trip to begin a human settlement there.
It is truly remarkable that, as in the days when people began moving West in wagon trains, by horseback, and even on foot, individuals are willing to give up everything (possibly including their own lives) to be pioneers in spreading the species to other planets.
Those who actually follow through on Mars One’s plan will have the Copernican Perspective as a daily experience. Earth is very small from Saturn, but it is also pretty small when seen from Mars. Many may call them Martians. I will go along with that, but I will also call them “Copernicans.”
When I first heard astronaut Ron Garan use the term “fragile oasis,” I immediately thought of it in ecological terms. Many astronauts have echoed Ron’s thoughts, focusing in particular on the thin atmosphere that is the only barrier between us and the vacuum of space.
However, I had another understanding of the term recently, when two extraordinary events took place on the same day. First, there was a meteor strike that hit Russia, shaking buildings, shattering glass, and injuring more than a thousand people. Then, there was the too-close-for-comfort flyby of an asteroid that passed within the orbits of many of our own communications satellites. (Another one came through just about a week ago.)
The asteroid encounter was expected, the meteor strike was not. Both engendered excitement and fear, though, as scientists let us know how lucky we were that the meteor did not explode closer to the ground and the asteroid was not in a slightly different orbit. We heard a lot about the dinosaurs and why they are no longer with us.
The asteroid, named 2012 D14, is actually the more serious problem. Meteorites crash into the atmosphere every day, most of them burning up harmlessly. The danger of asteroids is that there are so many out there, and we don’t know where all of them are. The media talked at some length about mitigation strategies, which sounds plausible, but you need to have advance warning before you can try to nudge these space rocks away from our home planet.
After the excitement died down, what occurred to me is that the Earth really is a fragile oasis, in more ways than one. It’s not just an environmental issue; it’s also the fact that a collision with something the size of a small car could be the end of life as we know it.
As one who has long been interested in the Overview Effect, it also brought to mind something those of us at the Overview Institute have been trying to communicate for some time: we are in space, we have always been in space, and we will always be in space.
We are traveling through the universe in a natural spaceship at a high rate of speed, and there are lots of other things rushing about as well: comets, asteroids, meteors, and even a rogue planet or two.
It is not surprising that astronauts like Rusty Schweickart and Ed Lu are interested in figuring out how to save the planet from an asteroid hit. They have been out there and they’ve seen the Earth not only from space but also in space. They know that you can hold up your thumb and blot out the past, present, and future of humanity and all life. They know, in short, how precious this fragile oasis really is.
For some, the message is clear: if we are to survive, we must become a multi-planet species, and that is likely to happen, perhaps sooner than we think. For others, it is asteroid mitigation to protect the planet. For me, it is both. Our true environment, as the asteroid and meteor reminded us, is the solar system, and we need to learn as much about that new environment as we can if we are going to survive and thrive.
At first glance, the Boston Marathon bombings and the Overview Effect have little or nothing in common. Terrorism uses a rigid ideology to justify attacking others, while the view of the Earth from orbit or the moon tells us “we are all in this together.” On closer examination, however, there is a connection that offers real hope for the future.
In 1983, I ran the Marathon, and it was one of the peak experiences of my life. Well, I should say that I finished the Marathon, because I walked half of it and ran half of it, and—as far as anyone could tell—I was the last person on the course. It took me seven hours and ten minutes.
I had taken up running only the year before for a variety of reasons.
When I decided to participate in the Marathon, I had never run anything longer than a 10K race, and I knew I would have to do it in my own way. Walking half of the course and running half of it seemed possible.
A friend who drove alongside me the whole way and provided me with water ran up to a TV crew and said, “Do you want to interview the last person to finish?” They said, “Yes,” and I was on TV that night, and on the radio the next day. I have sought notoriety in the past without success, but this time, when I did not expect to generate anything other than funds for the cause of world hunger, I got more attention than I ever expected. I was reminded of the saying by Jesus in the Bible that “the last shall be first, and the first shall be last.”
Like many of those who ran this year, I did so for a cause, and I loved it. At a meeting that took place after the race, the leader asked all the runners in the group to rise and we received a standing ovation. I knew, in a small way, what it was like to be a hero.
An Overview Moment
The feeling of the Marathon at the beginning of the race is amazing. Except for the elite runners, it is not a competition, but a great cooperative venture among people who care about the world. For me, it felt like an “Overview moment,” where the spirit of oneness among the runners and spectators overcomes any feelings of separation. Having people cheering you along the route is also very special. Runners and spectators—all are one.
Many people have their own Marathon stories, and I’m not unique in that regard. Like them, I love the Marathon because of the feelings it evokes.
The runners go right through the center of the town where I live, and on the day of the bombings, I walked down with a houseguest to watch them pass through. As always, I was inspired by the many different runners, from a guy in a business suit to a soldier in camouflage, to an older man about my age, who seemed to be doing well. Many were charity runners. It was around 12:30 pm.
A lot of the runners that I saw at midday were likely crossing or approaching the finish line when the bombs went off. Right away, relatives from Mississippi called to tell me what was happening and ask if we were all right. As with 9/11, the world suddenly changed and it was hard to do anything other than watch television. I canceled everything except an interview that with a reporter for New York Spirit magazine. It was important to speak to the fact that our work on the Overview Effect is an ongoing way to respond to this kind of violence and hatred.
Curiously, I was more sad than angry. Something deeply important to me and to my city had been stained forever. I wasn’t sure how to get that Overview feeling back again. I mourned the victims, who were simply enjoying a special event that means to much to all of us.
This question of what to do permeated the lives of everyone in the Boston area during that week. I decided that not being distracted from the Overview work was the best way to counter the terrorism, and I participated in events that had been put together in response to the bombings as best I could. I also communicated with my Extension School class about it. I suggested to them that everyone working for a nonprofit is doing something about the bombings because we are trying to make the world a better place.
A troubling insight
I also shared with a number of people a troubling insight about my own reaction to the bombings: I realized that I was shaken by the events because they happened locally. However, I read in the paper every day about bombings in Baghdad and Kabul, and I don’t react because I don’t know the places or the people.
This directly contradicts the philosophy of the Overview Effect, which is that we are all connected. The first question everyone asked on Monday was, “Did you know anyone who was killed or hurt?” And all of our friends and relatives were emailing and texting to find out if we were all right. This is a natural human response, and I am not judging it. However, I realized that I needed to change how I looked at it, and that I ought to be just as sad and outraged when bombers kill people in faraway places as when they do it in Boston. The level of violence around the world is simply unacceptable.
At this point, though, something good began to emerge from the evil we had seen on Monday. The people of Boston and surrounding communities began to say things like “We’re all in this together,” and we felt that the Marathon spirit of oneness and cooperation was going to get us through it. The authorities who were involved in the investigation also seemed to have a high level of cooperation rather than competing for the limelight. Instead of being angry and vowing revenge, we focused on comforting those who had lost loved ones and those who were injured. We told and retold the stories of those who risked their own lives to help others on that day.
I began to feel that the Overview Effect was actually at work after all, in how the people of Boston were responding to the tragedy. There was another way inwhich this was true, which was the use of social media to involve everyone in solving the crime. We don’t normally think of it this way, but Facebook, Twitter, and other online communications capabilities exist because of the “technological Overview Effect.” Without satellites, they would not be able to link us into one cooperating entity, reflecting the unity seen by the astronauts from orbit and the moon.
At the request of law enforcement, amateur detectives began pouring over pictures of the finish line, trying to help authorities find the perpetrators. Others shared their pictures to build up the database in an unprecedented “crowdsourcing exercise.”
Of course, we did not know it, but there was a second act to follow that first, horrific one. Once the pictures of the alleged bombers were released, tips began pouring in, and the brothers bolted, which eventually led to their death and capture.
Throughout the day on Friday, we were again glued to our television sets as the police hunted down the perpetrators and gun battles erupted in locales extremely familiar to us. Once again, everyone came together, working with the law enforcement agencies during an unprecedented lockdown of the metropolitan area. An alert homeowner spotted something suspicious going on with his boat, and the rest is history.
Vigilant, but not vigilantes
When it was over late Friday night, the spontaneous celebration and applause for those who had finally captured suspect #2 was genuine and focused more on thanking the first responders than on a prideful chest-thumping, and I was pleased to see that. As one commentator on the radio said, “We were vigilant, but we were not vigilantes.” Most people in the area wanted the remaining perpetrator to be captured alive, so that he could be interviewed and we could understand what more completely what had happened. There was no lynch mob mentality.
It all came together as an “Overview moment” at the Red Sox game on Saturday. The idea of “We are one,” and “Boston Strong” was everywhere. The Sox put together a moving ceremony honoring the law enforcement personnel who had been involved in the situation and had had little rest for a week, as well as the victims and heroes of the bombing.
Our brothers and sisters…
Then, the announcer said something to the effect that “we have appreciated the messages of support for us from around the nation and the world,” and “In the spirit of the moment, we also want to express solidarity with our brothers and sisters in West, Texas, and in Sichuan province in China, who have suffered through a devastating earthquake.”
There! That was the feeling of unity not only in Boston but with people around the world who were suffering. I emailed a friend in San Francisco that it would have been hard to imagine, even a couple of weeks earlier, Red Sox fans reaching out to people in China and thinking of them as their brothers and sisters! This was the compassion and sense of oneness that is the essence of the Overview Effect, and it was wonderful to see it emerge in another Boston treasure, Fenway Park.
One of the insights we get from the Overview Effect is this: even though we see great diversity and even chaos on the surface of our planet, all of this is taking place in a context of beautiful unity. Chris Hadfield, current commander of the International Space Station reminded us of this when, on the day of the bombing, he tweeted out a lovely picture of Boston at night. He included a message to the effect of “A somber spring night in Boston.” This image went up on the Overview Institute’s Facebook page, and we shared it with many others.
Chris Hadfield’s picture comforted many of us as we saw, once again, that there is a wholeness to our world, even when it seems fractured. As astronaut Ron Garan has said, the Earth is a “fragile oasis” and we need to take the “orbital perspective” and try to make life on Earth as beautiful as it appears to be from space.
Patriots Day and Earth Day
It is a striking coincidence that the bombings took place on Patriots Day, a local holiday that marks the beginning of our nation’s fight for independence from Great Britain. Shortly afterward, we celebrated Earth Day, which calls to mind the wonderful pictures sent to us by the Apollo astronauts, and marks the beginning of a global awareness of our interdependence. These two days are not in contradiction to one another; each marks an evolution in human thought that was appropriate to its time.
In the end, terrorism—does not work if people come together and refuse to be terrorized. If our entire planet can unite the way Boston did in response to these bombings, we can make the most of the great adventure that awaits us—evolving into the universe.
If we can do that, “Boston Strong” will become “Earth Strong” and the Overview Effect will become the underlying philosophy of a new world built not on fear and terror but on optimism and opportunity.
The 1 to 100 Campaign
By Frank White
By training, inclination, and years of experience, I am a communicator. It should come as no surprise, then, that my work with the Overview Effect has focused on communicating its message. In most of my public addresses, I have therefore said that the Overview Effect is a message from the universe to humanity about who we are and our purpose in the universe.
When people ask those of us at the Overview Institute what we are trying to do, we might say something like, “We are trying to communicate the Overview Effect message to as many people as we can.”
When you get right down to it, “as many people as we can” is a bit vague. Fortunately, we have some established communications theory to guide us to a more exact number.
I discussed the diffusion of innovation theory at some length in my book, The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution and it keeps coming to mind as we pursue the mission of the Overview Institute. The basic idea is simple: innovations, whether they are ideas or products, are adopted by society in stages. Nothing new is taken on right away, and that is because different people approach the world in different ways and have varying attitudes toward anything new.
For example, Innovators (2.5 percent of the population) will rush forward to use anything that has just emerged on the scene as soon as it is available. They are followed, over time, by the Early Adopters, (13.5 percent) who take on the innovation and move it toward becoming commonplace. Diffusion of innovation theory suggests that once these two groups (16 percent together) take up a new product or idea, it is well on its way into the mainstream. Of particular interest is the finding that once 20 percent of a population adopts an innovation, it becomes virtually unstoppable.
This means that we do not have to transmit the message of the Overview Effect to everyone on the planet if we want to have an impact. Our mission, then, could be stated as eventually having that vital 16-20 percent of the population adopt a philosophical innovation we call “the Overview Effect,” or “overview thinking.” Rather than being a product or service, it is an attitude of mind, or worldview.
In the near term, our task can be much more specific, which is to reach the 2.5 percent of the population known as the Innovators.
The question then becomes, “Which population are we considering?” Let’s assume it is the world population of 7 billion. If we are aiming for 2.5 percent, that would be 175 million. If we limit our pool to adults, it might be about 150 million.
Could we possibly expose 150 million people to this idea, and if so, how?
Regarding how to reach that many people, we can examine a few common media experiences. For example, more than 111 million people watched the Super Bowl in 2012. That is a huge audience, and close to our goal. By comparison, some 900 million people watched at least a portion of the recent London Olympic Games’ opening ceremony. Closer to the topic at hand, an estimated 500-600 million viewers saw Apollo 11 land on the moon back in 1969.
Perhaps even more relevant to our purposes is the fact that a music video called “Gangnam Style” has had more than one billion views on YouTube! That is, in fact, just under 20 percent of the global population.
The television figures tell us that an event with widespread interest can draw an audience of 100 million to 900 million people. In theory, we could find a way to mount such an event and achieve our awareness targets in one fell swoop.
However, it seems more likely that we will use the power of the Internet, as did “Gangnam Style,” to reach our goal.
Diffusion of innovation theory also provides us with an encouraging finding, which is that people are more influenced by what their family members, friends, and neighbors say than by what the mass media says. This means that a one-to-one approach, which is the only one we can afford, will work best for us.
To see how far we have come and how much farther we need to go, let’s look, first, at the history of the diffusion of this innovation in the pre-Internet phase.
Phase One: 1987-1990
The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution, the book that first spread the term “Overview Effect” widely, sold about 8,000 copies in hardback and has sold about 1,000 copies in paperback in the English editions. The book was translated into German, but I do not know how many copies were sold. For the purpose of this exercise, let's imagine that it sold 1,000 copies in the German language.
That gives us a total of 10,000 copies of the book sold. I was also interviewed about 40 times on the radio and television when the book first came out. For the purposes of estimating listeners and viewers, let's assume 10,000 people heard each of these interviews. That adds a total of 400,000 people to the number who heard about the Overview Effect as a result of the publicity surrounding the book. This is probably a conservative estimate, since radio and television stations have audiences in the millions.
We now have a total of 410,000 people who were exposed to the idea of the Overview Effect in the initial years after the book came out, from 1987 to 1990.
Phase Two: 1991-2005
During the years after the book was published and initially promoted, it garnered very little attention. As a conservative estimate, let’s assume that 1,000 people a year heard or read about the Overview Effect from 1991 to 2005. That would be a total of 14,000 people. Adding it to our previous number, we have 424,000. This is not bad, but certainly not enough to make the Overview Effect a mainstream idea.
Phase Two: 2006-2012
From 2006 to 2013, much more effort and energy was put into promoting the Overview Effect. This took place largely because I came to know David Beaver, who was working hard on his own to promote the importance of the view of the Earth from space. When we first talked on the phone, he had not read The Overview Effect, but once he did, he felt that using this term was a good description of what all of us were advocating. He and I joined forces, and David put together a series of conferences, using his own money, that culminated in the first conference on the Overview Effect, held in Washington, DC, in 2007.
Some 100 people came to the event, which
took place the day before the annual Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) conference, and was supported by key SFF leaders, including Rick Tumlinson, Jeff Krukin, and Bob Werb. The event was streamed live on the Web and got some notice among bloggers as well. Let’s add another 5,000 people to our total as a result of that event. We are now at 429,000.
The following year, in May 2008, we went to the International Space Development Conference in Washington, DC, and announced the establishing of the Overview Institute, functioning as an independent nonprofit within the Space Frontier Foundation. During the next four years, we began building up the Overview Institute on an incremental basis, first determining which projects we would support, and then launching a new website in 2011.
As in the case with the previous period, we do not have a good estimate of how many people became aware of the Overview Effect from 2006 to 2012, but let’s estimate a doubling per year over the earlier phase to 2,000 annually, which would give us an additional 14,000 people. Added to the earlier numbers, we now have 443,000 people who theoretically know about the Effect.
Phase Three: 2012-2013
In late 2012 and early 2013, something totally new happened.
A group of young filmmakers from England, Steve Kennedy, Guy Reid, and Christoph Ferstad, contacted me and said they wanted to make a documentary about the Overview Effect. I helped them as much as I could, and the film, “Overview,” by Planetary Collective, premiered at Harvard University under the sponsorship of the Harvard Extension School, on December 7, 2012.
A number of the members of the Overview Institute are featured in “Overview” (David Beaver, Edgar Mitchell, and me) as well as several astronauts who were either featured in the first edition of the book or will be featured in future editions (Jeff Hoffman, Nicole Stott, and Ron Garan). “Overview” has now been played on Vimeo 1.6 million times. If we add that to the number generated in the earlier phases, our total stands at 1,643,000 people, which is very good, although still far less than what is needed to reach all of the Innovators.
When we look at the dramatic leap in awareness that the film has generated, it is not difficult to see that now is the time to take action and generate even more momentum.
We are now beginning to look at ways to do just that, first by raising money to support a further “viralization” of the film. David Beaver suggested, well over a year ago, that viralization of the Overview Effect should be a high priority. Our Group agreed, and that is now a project of the Institute.
The value of this exercise is that it quantifies, within the structure of an existing project, what is largely a qualitative mission. When we speak of a global “cognitive shift” that is similar to the individual shifts felt by the astronauts, that is truly what we are seeking. However, without numbers, it is still a subjective goal.
Putting numbers to the task makes it more real.
Crossing the Chasm
My colleague, David Beaver, adds another piece to this puzzle by citing the work of Geoffrey Moore, who has documented how new technologies are taken up first by “visionaries” and later by the general public. According to David:
Specifically, Moore says that rather than being a smooth curve from initial enthusiasts to the tail end of techno-change…there are gaps between different market segments. The greatest gap, The Chasm, is between the relatively small visionary/early adopter group and the pragmatic Majority, which makes up fully two-thirds of the total market…
This suggests that even if we reach the 2.5 percent of the population called Innovators, we will still face a chasm that we will need to cross eventually. I believe we will cross it by showing that just about every cause on Earth ought to support our efforts. Why? Because whether you are trying to diminish the threat of war, feed the poor, or reduce the impact of climate change, the image of Spaceship Earth, and the constant refrain of “We’re all in this together” will support your work and make it easier.
As I have pointed out in The New Camelot, the view of the Earth from orbit and the moon is one of unity, a context that holds the incredible diversity of ideas, political systems, lifeforms, and passions together and makes one of the many.
Making It Happen
How will we make this happen? How will we go from 1.6 million people being aware of the Overview Effect to 150 million? The answer is simple to describe, though it might be challenging to accomplish. According to the numbers, if everyone who has watched the film to date recommended it to 100 people and those 100 watched it, we would be there, and a bit more. I suggest we launch a “1 to 100” campaign, making every effort to reach out to existing “Overviewers” and ask them to pass the link on to 100 friends, family members, and neighbors (remember that diffusion theory suggests this is the best approach.)
The advent of social media with its amazing power to reach millions at a time makes this rapid diffusion more plausible than ever before.
From one to 100, from 1.5 million to 150 million.
We can do it!