Monday, June 8, 2020

Are We Really All in this Together?

It has taken me some time to return to blogging because I have been watching and listening to what is going on in American cities, and asking myself how I could say something different from all that has been said by so many in the past week.

Let me give it a try. Many of my recent blog posts have been about the remarkable synchronicity between the astronauts saying, "We're all in this together" when they view the Earth from orbit or the Moon, and a variety of people saying it in regard to the COVID crisis. There did seem to be a remarkable display of unity globally for about a month at the beginning of the massive shutdown that was implemented to slow the spread of the virus. However, in the US at least, that consensus began to fray as the lockdown continued. We began to have people demanding their rights to open their businesses and go where they wanted to go, with or without masks. Opposing them, we had people supporting even more stringent controls and shaming those who did not want to go along with the plan.

This division became political, as "Red States" began opening up and "Blue States" stayed shut down. President Trump supported the "liberation," as he put it, of certain states and the Democrats decried his actions. I suppose all of this was predictable and it reminded me of what happened when Sputnik was launched, but that is a topic for another blog.

Suddenly, though, COVID was pushed away as protests began over the death of George Floyd. Anyone who saw the video of a cop's knee on Mr. Floyd's neck and heard the cries of "I can't breathe" had to be outraged by the incident. It soon became a symbol of oppression of African Americans by police and the marches began in every major city, and around the world.

As the protests began, SpaceX launched its Dragon Crew Capsule and it flew flawlessly to the International Space Station. The space community had been waiting for this event for years and wanted to celebrate, but it was hard to do, given the circumstances on the surface of the planet.

Now, there are articles being written suggesting that NASA's hope for the flight to generate some kind of unity in troubled times was misplaced. While many of us have compared this moment with 1968, another difficult year that ended with Apollo 8 and Earthrise, some commentators are arguing that it did not unify us and didn't improve things. If it had, wouldn't we be better off now?

Regardless of how that particular debate works out, one could easily say, "No, we are not all in this together. Isn't it obvious?"

But we need to make a distinction in the meaning of the statement.

When an astronaut says something like "We're all in this together," they are stating an objective fact. It is similar to "If you jump out of a window, you will hit the ground." The space traveler perceives the Earth as a whole, interconnected system, of which we are a part. The actions each of us takes affects every other person and the fate of our planet is the fate of all living things on it. This reality that we are part of a whole system is as real as the law of gravity.

When a surface dweller looks at COVID and realizes the same interconnectedness because the virus threatens everybody, she or he briefly has "astronaut awareness," but it does not mean that we are all going to act in unity and harmony in the face of this realization. Our goal must be that we move into alignment with the objective fact of interconnectedness with our actions on the ground. The astronauts do not see an "other" from orbit, but it sometimes seems that we are attuned to seeing only that when we are on the Earth. Aligning our experience on the Earth with the objective reality seen by the astronauts is the next step in understanding the deep meaning of the Overview Effect.

Friday, April 17, 2020

"We're All in this Together:" Part Six: Threats and Opportunities

I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of...100,000 miles, their outlook would be fundamentally changed. That all-important border would be invisible, that noisy argument suddenly silenced. The tiny globe would continue to turn, serenely ignoring its subdivision, presenting a united facade that would cry out for unified treatment.

Apollo 11 Astronaut Michael Collins                                                               
Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut's Journeys

What might be some positive lessons learned from the impact of the COVID Effect on global society?
One of the most important is that humanity, when we are united to response to a threat or opportunity, can achieve an enormous amount in a short period of time. A recently published essay by Charles Eisenstein makes this point in great depth. (1)
In the United States, we have already learned this lesson in the past, but seem to have forgotten it. For example, the US was deeply divided between isolationists and interventionists regarding the wars raging in Europe and the Pacific, until Pearl Harbor. Although much of the American Navy was destroyed in the attack, the nation rallied, rebuilt, and helped to win a world war in four years. Contrast that with the 20-year war in Afghanistan, which is still not quite over.
In response to the Soviet Union’s launching of the Sputnik satellite in 1957 and then the launching of the first human into orbit in 1961, President John F. Kennedy announced that the US would send a man to the moon and return him safely to Earth before the end of the decade. At the time, no one had any idea how to do that, but with a clear mission and a sense of urgency, NASA accomplished the goal, in spite of a stand down after a terrible fire killed three astronauts and in the wake of the president’s assassination.
In response to COVID, the Earth’s population has acted as a species, perhaps for the first time ever. The phrase of the astronauts, “We’re all in this Together” is stated as a self-evident truth...though it was not so clear even a month ago.
Maybe you like the Green New Deal, maybe you hate it. However, one criticism of it was that we simply could not do it; it was impractical to make such a massive change in our economy and society in time to “flatten the curve” of climate change. And what would we do to support all the people thrown out of work by the radical changes envisioned in the Deal?
Well, a lot of what we have done in the past month, like reducing the amount of fossil fuel use, and helping people who are unemployed because of the lockdown, look a lot like that proposal.
Perhaps we should do it, perhaps we shouldn’t, but we can no longer say we can’t do it.
It seems that humans only respond to threats or opportunities, doesn’t it? If the threat is large enough and immediate enough, we will overcome our differences and respond. If the opportunity is large enough and immediate enough, we will respond. The differences don’t go away, but they are submerged long enough to react to whatever has suddenly claimed our attention.
Humanity, for good or ill, is the most powerful species on Spaceship Earth. We hold the fate of so many other living things in our hands. The virus has taught us a critical lesson, if we are only willing to learn it and act on it: we can use this enormous power for enormous good.


oCopyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved

Stay Safe.Stay Strong.Stay Connected  

Sunday, April 12, 2020

"We're All in this Together: Part Five:" What is Humanity's Mission?

Note: It’s Easter and a time when we tend to think of death and rebirth, regardless of our faith tradition. Our world is experiencing a lot of deaths right now, the passing of truly innocent victims. My emphasis on lessons learned is not to ignore the sacrifices that are taking place today, but to honor them by doing our best to avoid similar catastrophes in the future.
The pandemic is challenging us to think about viruses, and ourselves, in new ways. How do we get a handle on something that has, to our knowledge, never before happened in human history? By that, I mean something that affects every human being on planet Earth and something that threatens every one of us.
            Interestingly, astronauts have been weighing in on this question, comparing what is happening with COVID to their experiences on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station. On April 11, during a virtual version of Yuri’s Night, Chris Hadfield addressed this issue with a short video and a conversation with Loretta Whitesides. (1)
As he and other astronauts noted during Yuri’s Night and elsewhere, self-isolation is one aspect of the two situations that is very similar. Typically, there might be six astronauts on the ISS and they are physically isolated from the seven billion people on Earth, including their family members. As is the case for those of us in isolation during the pandemic, they have an ability to communicate with people on the planet, but not to visit them.
            A second similar element is the pervasive sense of danger that a space mission and the COVID virus engender in us. Astronauts are in a shirt-sleeve environment on the ISS, but, as Hadfield noted, they know that a micrometeorite might penetrate the hull at any moment. While their safety is being monitored by mission control personnel around the world, the harsh environment of outer space will be unforgiving if anything goes wrong.
Like us, the astronauts have to don protective clothing if they go outside. Even more than inside the Shuttle or ISS, danger is ever present on a spacewalk.
Finally, Hadfield pointed out that uncertainty is a big part of the experience. Astronauts leave the Earth on spacecraft and expect to return on a certain date, but that is not always the way things turn out. For example, we are currently marking the 50thanniversary of the Apollo 13 mission, which was supposed to be the third lunar landing of the Apollo era. However, something went terribly wrong on the way to the Moon and getting the astronauts home safely became the actual mission. The same has happened with the Shuttle and ISS expeditions. Unexpected events can lengthen or shorten flights into orbit or the Moon.
Like the astronauts, too, Hadfield said that we are being taken out of our ordinary daily lives and given a unique experience. He said that Yuri Gagarin and most astronauts who followed him felt compelled to share the meaning of the spaceflight experience, which has come to be called “the Overview Effect.”
These similarities are striking and may give us a start at developing language to understand what I have begun calling “the COVID Effect.” (2) But what stood out for me the most was that Hadfield also said that each of us should ask ourselves “what is our mission” during this unique time; "what do we want to accomplish?” 
In another video, he noted that sending a crew to the ISS is designated as an “expedition” because you are a “small group of people doing something that has elevated risk in a very different environment...” (3)
So maybe we ought to consider this period of lockdown and social distancing as a period of time with a purpose, an expedition. Just as astronauts experience the Overview Effect when they are in outer space and return with a new worldview, maybe we will experience the COVID Effect during this time and emerge with a new perspective on ourselves, our planet, and our place in the universe.
The big difference between us, as “astronauts of Spaceship Earth” and astronauts like Chris Hadfield is that we did not know our mission when all of this began. We have to define it while we are in the middle of the expedition. Unlike a professional astronaut, who carries out a mission that has already been assigned to them, we get to choose the meaning of this experience, the nature of humanity’s mission. 
What do you think it might be?

(1) You can watch the video and conversation between Chris and Loretta, as well as the entire Yuri’s Night program here:
(2) I have resisted using this term, because I don’t want to be seen as creating new “Effects” to go with the Overview Effect. However, it really seems to fit the situation, so I am using it, but sparingly. If people find it valuable and it helps to move the conversation along, that will be a great benefit.
(3) Here is a link to the other Hadfield video, which is excellent:
Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved

Stay Safe.Stay Strong.Stay Connected  

Saturday, March 28, 2020

"We're All in this Together": Part Four

"You can't see the boundaries over which we fight wars, and in a very real way, the inhabitants of this Earth are stuck on a very beautiful, lovely little planet in an incredibly hostile space, and everybody is in the same boat."

---Former Astronaut Don Lind, in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution.

"We have realized that we are on the same boat, all of us fragile and disoriented ... all of us called to row together, each of us in need of comforting the other."

---Pope Francis, delivering the Urbi et Orbi address to an empty St. Peter's Square (NPR, 3/28/20)

As I have mentioned in earlier blog posts on this subject, the message that "We're all in this together," or "We're all in the same boat," is something of a mantra by astonauts when they return home after seeing our planet from space and in space. From orbit or the moon, they experience the interconnectedness of all life on Earth and realize that we cannot ignore this connection. It is real and it has real implications. This is the essence of the Overview Effect.

The message is coming through to us with great clarity now that we are threatened by the coronavirus. It's ironic that we have difficulty absorbing the information from our fellow human beings, but an invisible co-inhabitant of the planet has gotten through to us loud and clear.

The astronaut mantra has now become everybody's mantra, from Pope Francis to People magazine. Although there have been tensions between countries and even among the various states in the US, it has been heartening to see how people have come together to face this crisis and to "row together," in the Pope's words. We can only hope that some of the spirit of unity persists once we move to a more "normal" system state at some point in the future.

Similarly, the global lockdown that has reduced travel dramatically has had an impact that can be seen clearly by satellites in Earth orbit. As just one example, the pollution that represented a major health hazard in China not long ago, is noticeably absent in pictures taken from space during the pause that has emerged in response to COVID-19:

As we know after centuries of experience, war is something to be avoided. However, there are moments, like this one, when it is necessary. As with any conflict, though, the lessons learned are almost as important as achieving the necessary victory.

What are we learning from this battle? How will we use it to forge a better future on Earth and in space?

Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved

Stay Safe.Stay Strong.Stay Connected  

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

"We're All in this Together": Part Three

I asked my good friend and colleague Felix Hoch to review my previous two blogs on the topic, "We're All in this Together." He did so and said his only disagreement was with the notion of the virus as the "immune system of the planet," because, as he put it, "seeing humanity as a plague further promotes a mindset of separation. I experience it more as a balancing move of the biosphere that has huge potential to facilitate and initiate global coherence in the noosphere."

As is always the case, Felix's words are full of wisdom. I hesitated using the term "immune system of the planet" because I do not see humanity as a plague and I do not want to promote a mindset of separation. However, that was the phrase that came to mind and engendered the writing of the blog post, so I had to be honest and share it as the starting point for my thinking.

In this post, let's use Felix's phrasing that it is a "balancing move of the biosphere" and understand that it has great potential for how we view the future. In particular, I am encouraged that the astronauts' experiential understanding that "we are all in this together" is also becoming experiential for surface dwellers. The number of people repeating that phrase is growing rapidly and I have now heard it said by the Surgeon General of the United States, Bernie Sanders, CNN's Anderson Cooper, and Vice President Mike Pence. (People with quite diverse world views, as we know.)

Moreover, "One World In Dialogue," a great online gathering place for what I would call "overview thinking," is sponsoring a global meditation on 3/29/20 titled "We're All in This Together:"

Coming full circle, we have this excellent article that concludes with exactly the same sentiment from astronaut Jessica Meir:

If the reality of the Overview Effect, which astronauts understand so well and have been striving to communicate for so many years, now permeates global society, then this very difficult and---for many of us---tragic period, will leave humanity and the Earth with something of tremendous value.

Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved

Stay Safe.Stay Strong.Stay Connected 

Friday, March 20, 2020

"We're All in this Together": Part Two

When you go above the planet, what you see is a system that is highly connected and interwoven.

Former astronaut Sandy Magnus, in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution

At the outset of this post, I want to be clear that I am not dismissing the tragic human suffering and loss of life we are experiencing during this crisis as unimportant or as a good thing. Nor am I ignoring the economic stress all of us are experiencing. I am saying, however, that the lessons we draw from this moment are very important to our future and the future of the planet.

In an earlier version of this post, I talked about a phrase had come unbidden into my mind: “The virus is the immune system of the planet.” I supposed that happened because there have been so many discussions of human immune systems and their role in fighting off COVID-19.

One of my friends and colleagues (Felix Hoch) gently suggested a different metaphor (see "We're All in this Together" (Part Three) and I think he was right. Also, I have just begun listening to an Audible version of an excellent book, Viruses, Plagues, & History, by Michael B. A. Oldstone, and I would change the phrase to "A virus is once again changing history." This is not the place to go into detail about Oldstone's thesis, but it gives the reader an "overview" of the struggle between humans and viruses over the centuries and the insight that our future is always affected by each skirmish, one way or another.

In regard to our current situation, our species has been pushing the Earth really hard in the past 200 years. Our population has grown almost exponentially, which in turn has required greater energy use, destruction of natural habitat, and continuing challenges to the carrying capacity of the planet.

Experts and activists alike have been warning of dire consequences if we don’t reverse course, reduce the use of fossil fuels, drive our different kinds of cars, use the land differently, fly less, and so on. We have indeed changed our behavior to some extent, and the messages of the astronauts about the Overview Effect have been important in that regard. However, we have resisted bold and dramatic proposals to change course.

Suddenly, in the space of a week, consider what has happened. Our entire global civilization has ground to a halt. We are not driving, we are not flying, we are not using as much energy. We are moving to alternatives that were there along, implementing telemedicine, online learning, and working from home. All of this is an inconvenience for us humans, but if you consider it from the Earth’s point of view, it’s very healthy. It is giving the planet breathing room. So the virus is not good for human health, and the pause has not been good for the economy, but the lessons learned from the pause could be good for the planet and ourselves.

At this point, of course, the virus is our enemy. We have the right to self-defense and our species is mobilizing for a war, World War III if you will. However, the virus can also be our teacher. What will we learn from this period of intense combat? When COVID-19 is defeated (and it will be) will we go back to our old behaviors, pushing Spaceship Earth to the max, expecting it to adjust to us, rather than behaving like its astronauts and taking good care of it?

One very good thing has already come of this crisis, which is a level of human unity and cooperation in the face of a common enemy, the kind of thing people have imagined would be the response to an attack by aliens from outer space. Suddenly, everyone is repeating the mantra that "We're all in this together." That is not just a cliche, it is the absolute truth and it should guide our actions even when we are not in a crisis.

Will we maintain today's connection and collaboration when the enemy is no longer pushing us to do so?

Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 15, 2020

"We're All In This Together" Part One

"You looked down and you could see how incredibly thin the Earth's atmosphere is and realize the if we pollute it, we all breathe it together, and if we are so dumb as to start a thermonuclear war, we all go together; there is no lifeboat, and everybody is in it together."

Former Astronaut Don Lind, in The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution

Having interviewed 41 astronauts for my work on the Overview Effect, I have heard one thought expressed frequently, which is: "We're all in this together." By this, the astronauts mean that when you look at the Earth from orbit or on a lunar mission, you see that it is a whole system in which everything is interconnected. There are no borders or boundaries, and whatever happens in one part of the planet will eventually have an impact on the rest of the world. 

I have thought about this sentiment and quoted it often. I have also cited it in arguing that we need to adopt "Overview thinking" if we are going to tackle the multitude of challenges that face humanity as we move through the universe on our own Spaceship Earth.

While my listeners usually nod and agree with this idea, I know that it is still somewhat abstract because the global problems we are discussing rarely seem immediate. However, all that has changed with the arrival of COVID-19. As I have listened to the radio and watched television coverage of the pandemic I have frequently heard the comment that "We're all in this together." Most recently, the Surgeon General of the United States said it during an interview, Bernie Sanders repeated something like it in his debate with Joe Biden, and Vice President Pence affirmed it in a press conference.

Suddenly, we realize experientially what we know intellectually: COVID-19 has no interest in borders or boundaries and considers all of this planet its habitat. COVID goes wherever it wants to go and does whatever it wants to do. It does not care whether you are an actor, the wife of a prime minister, a government official, a healthcare worker, a plumber, or a retiree. As far as COVID is concerned, your body is a place for it to visit without asking permission. Homo sapiens has absolutely no immunity or defense against this invader and all that our very best medical people can do is support us through it and hope our immune systems are strong enough to resist the attack.

We are strong people and we have overcome many challenges in the past. I feel confident we will do so once again. My hope is that we will learn some lessons from this situation and adopt "Overview thinking" as the norm and not in response to the crises that will surely face us in the future.

Copyright, Frank White, 2020, All Rights Reserved