It’s Earth Week. Eric Holthaus, The Phoenix, April 19, 2021
One of my favorite concepts is the Overview Effect.
From far above, the Earth is instantly recognizable. Crystal blue oceans, turquoise coral reefs, dark green swaths of dense tropical forests, red clay deserts, and swirling white clouds. Standing on a mountaintop or gazing out the window of an airplane brings an unavoidable sense of connectedness, of awe, of inspiration and reflection. In this view from inside the sky, we can’t help but imagine what’s happening down there, on the ground—we are compelled to empathy. Being above the clouds transforms us into a better version of ourselves.
But most of us don’t spend very much of our lives at 30,000 feet—especially these days—and when we do, we often take it for granted. On a commercial airplane, you have about 70 percent of the atmosphere below you, by weight. Virtually all weather on our planet happens below that altitude. That’s a unique perspective to witness the vast footprint of humanity. Flying is also the single most energy-intensive act that any of us will ever do with any regularity.
So instead, we’re usually here, on the ground. Billowy white clouds occasionally pass overhead, sure, but most of our lives are spent mired in the joys and struggles of daily life. It’s easy to forget we live on a planet—a real one, that’s hurtling through space. It’s easy to forget that it’s probably a shorter trip (about 60 miles) from where you are right now up through our thin atmosphere to the edge of space than it is to the nearest major league baseball stadium or national park. It’s easy to forget that our atmosphere, our entire existence, is unfathomably fragile.
The “overview effect” is a common reflection upon returned astronauts that they see the planet as a single, interconnected entity. Astronauts’ experience of being in space causes them to see the planet’s atmosphere as a fragile blanket that gives us all life. Not just all human life, but all life. It’s just such a stark contrast between the literally glowing blue and green and white thing in front of me, and black. You could travel at the speed of light for millions of years, and maybe not get to another place that has such a rich diversity as this right in front of us. That’s the perspective that we almost never get here on the ground.