The writer Frank White popularised the term ‘overview effect’ in his book The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution (1987). This effect is the cognitive shift in awareness that takes place while viewing the Earth during spaceflight. Based on the records of hundreds of astronauts and interviews with dozens of space explorers he conducted himself, White concluded that astronauts speak about the Earth differently when they return.
A different kind of awareness
Upon seeing the Earth from orbit or the lunar surface, many astronauts have realised that the Earth is tiny, fragile, precious, and must be protected. The alarming depletion of natural resources, rising global temperatures and scale of environmental destruction runs counter to this worldview.
Neuroscientist Andrew Newberg said: “You can often tell when you’re with someone who has flown in space, it’s palpable.” (1) Philosopher David Loy wrote that being able to look back at ourselves “…seems to imply a kind of self-awareness.” (2)
The Overview Institute was set up in order to connect the world into one community – a ‘global village’ (3). And it does this by communicating and promoting the overview effect. One way in which to offer the overview effect to others, and increase planetary awareness, is through commercial spaceflights.
Image credit: Wikipedia
Space tourism for the sake of sustainability
Virgin Galactic is developing a commercial spacecraft in order to offer people, not just astronauts, the overview effect. They believe that exploring space makes life better on Earth (4). Only about 550 people have ever visited space. But Virgin Galactic highlights how 700 future astronauts from over 50 different countries have already paid their deposits for their flights on SpaceShipTwo (5).
However, while Virgin Galactic may boast about the diverse range of people who will get to experience the overview effect, it is still only a viable option for the super-rich. A seat costs around £200,000. Only the 1% have that kind of spare cash floating about for this unique experience and change in consciousness.
Another company, World View, is planning to take passengers up to “the edge of space” via balloon (6). Passengers will be able to see a stunning view of the stars, the black vastness of space, and the curvature of the Earth. It is the last perspective that may elicit an overview effect, and instill a passionate belief in the need to sustain the planet. But like with Virgin Galactic, you will need a large sum of money (about £60,000) to fund this potentially life-changing trip. But at least that’s not as expensive as Virgin Galactic flights, so it definitely offers the experience to more people.
But if you consider for a moment that the super-rich are also some of the most influential people in the world. Many highly profitable industries are responsible for large-scale environmental degradation and greenhouse gas emissions. Take animal agriculture (7) and the oil and gas sector (8), for example. If the chief execs of the biggest corporations in these industries want to treat themselves to a trip to space, they might return with a mission to promote sustainability.
Perhaps this is overly optimistic. Nevertheless, space exploration will be available to people who aren’t trained astronauts. And while only the super-rich and wealthy will be able to afford trips to space at first, advances in technology in the future may allow many more people – and many more influential people – to experience this fascinating overview effect. Space tourism could be a powerful antidote to the planetary mess that we’ve created.
During a public lecture at Cornell University in 1994, astronomer and author Carl Sagan drew the audience’s attention to a photograph of planet Earth taken by the Voyager 1 space probe from a record distance of about 3.7 billion miles. As he eloquently put it:
“To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
About the author: Sam Woolfe @samwoolfe
I’m currently a Writer at The Canary, covering issues relating to the food industry, drugs, health, well-being and nutrition. I’m also a Blogger for Inspiring Interns, where I offer careers advice for graduates. If you have a story you want me to cover, drop me a message on Twitter (@samwoolfe). You can also check out my travel blog (samreflectsontravel.com) and personal blog (www.samwoolfe.com) to read my articles on philosophy, psychology, and more opinion-related content.