Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Summit Conference of Philanthropists

One of the most persistent ideas that emerged from my interviews with astronauts for The Overview Effect: Space Exploration and Human Evolution (AIAA: 1998) was the concept of summit conferences in space. Some of the astronauts felt strongly that if world leaders could see the planet from that vantage point, their negotiations and decisions would be different.

The objection, of course, is that with current technology, we can't risk sending world leaders to, say, the International Space Station. There are also security and cost concerns that make the idea somewhat impractical at the moment.

However, if the goal is to have impact on how people think and what they do back on Earth, why not send a group of philanthropists like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett to the space station for a week? These two, in particular, are interested in global philanthropy, and they have been challenging other billionaires to donate more of their wealth. They can also afford the trip.

So far, most of the "space tourists" who have gone to the space station have been wealthy, and the experience has no doubt had an impact on their thinking and their philanthropy. What would be unique is to have two or three members of this exclusive club go together, have a dialogue about global issues while they are there, and share that discussion with those of us still on the surface of the Earth.

It's still a summit conference, only with different participants.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Points of View and the Overview

As I look at the political debate going on in the United States, I realize that each side is coming from a "point of view," and no one has an Overview. This is especially pertinent to me right now, because I am working on a piece of fiction called Points of View. We often say that when the Earth is viewed from orbit or the moon, there are no borders or boundaries. That's is true, but there are also no "sides." There is just a sphere in which everything is part of a single whole system.

One of the outcomes of the Overview Effect ought to be an emphasis on systems thinking, because that is the only effective way to view problems and challenges on the Earth. If it is a whole system, then we should be able to model the potential outcomes of different policy proposals. Instead, we argue about what will work from an ideological perspective.

We need for more people to have an Overview.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Writing from Orbit

As i wrote in The Overview Effect, it would be good for as many people as possible to experience the Effect. That would help to "change the world by changing the way we see the world." However, it is still expensive to physically place a human being in Low Earth Orbit, so it makes sense to begin simulating the experience as much as possible.

Some of us are working on that in a virtual world called Second Life. We have a simulated orbital facility looking down at a simulated Earth that rolls beneath the "avatar" that represents people in virtual worlds. I've been going there and trying to do some writing while "in orbit" to see what it would be like when we eventually have a real orbital facility and are inviting "Overview Fellows" to spend time there while doing their work.

What follows is something I wrote back in June while having this experience:

"It is June 2 and I am once again sitting in the SL TOI orbital facility watching the Earth go by beneath me. I am imagining what it would be like to do my writing every day with this view. My first thought is that it might be hard to do any writing because the view is so compelling. My second thought is that the astronauts are right that there are no borders on the planet and no boundaries between the planet and the universe, or "space." Not only is it the case that the borders we create are artificial but it is also true that the Earth/space distinction is artificial. Not only do I begin to identify with the whole Earth but I also begin to identify myself as a point of consciousness within the universe and not separate from it."

I will have much more to say on this topic later.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Uniting the Space Community

The current debate over President Obama's plan for space exploration does not appear to directly affect the work of the Overview Institute, at least in the short term. Regardless of how it happens, people will still be going into orbit and beyond, they will still be experiencing the Overview Effect, and we will continue our work of changing the world by changing the way we see the world.

At the same time, it does seem likely that far more people will be able to experience the Overview Effect directly if the president's plan is accepted. His approach puts more emphasis on private enterprise and commercial activities in space, and I believe strongly that this will be the only way to bring large numbers of people into the off-planet environment. The government-dominated program that we have had in place for the past half-century hasn't done it. So far, only 500-plus people worldwide have actually had the profound experience of seeing the Earth from space and in space, while floating weightlessly in the silence of our vast universe. And NASA has been responsible for only some of those flights.

But change is difficult. We have recently witnessed some of our most distinguished astronauts opposing the new approach. We have also seen politicians from the states that are most affected by the cancellation of the Constellation program rallying and railing against that decision. I find it so ironic that many of these same people have opposed the president with great ferocity when he has extended the reach of government, but in one of the only areas where he is taking a different course, they are supporting a program that calls for more government rather than less.

The current proposals for the NASA budget have, unfortunately, split the American space community, which is a sad outcome of it. Regardless of how the inevitable compromises work out in the coming weeks, I hope they will help to bring us closer together again. We are not, by any means, the largest community in the United States, so we can ill afford high leves of disunity.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

We Need an "Earth Corps"

Like everyone else, I have been saddened by the impact of the recent earthquake on the people of Haiti. It seems horribly unfair that they have been hit by this disaster just as (according to some reports) their economy was beginning to move forward.

At the same time, the response of the world community has been heartening. People have given money to help, and first responders from many different countries are on the ground, doing what they can to assist the survivors. (Sadly, two of them have recently died in a helicopter crash.) There have also been complaints about the pace of the relief operation, and stories about lack of coordination. Unfortunately, this sounds familiar, because it's a pattern with just about every natural disaster that strikes, i.e., there is a tremendous outpouring of support in the early days, and then there is a sense of frustration when food and medical supplies are delayed in reaching those who need them the most.

For the most part, we cannot stop natural disasters. However, we can do much better in how we respond to them. Our current approach is to go along with business as usual until a volcano erupts, an earthquake occurs, or a tsunami roars out of the ocean. Then, we hurriedly cobble together a relief effort. The truth is that we are going to have a number of these disasters every year, and we should simply prepare for them so that we can mitigate the suffering to the greatest extent possible.

This is why we need an "Earth Corps," a standing group of people trained in all aspects of disaster relief. Like a military organization, some Earth Corps members would be career professionals, ready at all times to move out as needed to devastated parts of the planet. Others would be reservists, who would be activated on certain occasions, especially if the problem occurs in their own country. In quiet times, rather than allowing "business as usual" to take hold, Earth Corps teams would monitor events around the globe and be ready at any time to respond. They would also spend their time in training, learning, for example, how to use new tools for locating people trapped in collapsed buildings.

The Earth Corps has to be a planetary organization to be successful. It could be funded by participating governments, private donations, or a combination of both. It might be supervised by the United Nations or another international organization. Many of those who currently respond to natural disasters would be ideal members of the Corps, while others could easily be recruited to such a noble cause.

Creating an Earth Corps is a form of "overview thinking," or taking to heart the message of the Overview Effect that we are one species with one destiny, and beginning to understand the art and science of planetary management. As I wrote in The Overview Effect, planetary management is a centerpiece of a planetary civilization that is emerging on Earth, and which I called "Terra." We Terrans cannot rest easy in simply realizing that our planet is a whole system, in which everything that happens affects everybody. We must begin to act on that realization as well.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

A New Paradigm for Space Exploration

President Obama has now made the most important decision of his presidency. That decision forges a new role for NASA and brings commercial space exploration and development to the forefront. Many people in the space community have already come out against the choices the president has made. There is likely to be a huge fight in Congress, especially because cancellation of the moon mission and the Constellation program means a huge loss of jobs at a time when we need all the employment we can get.

At the same time, there is much to admire in the new policy, not only the emphasis on involving the private sector but also the focus on international cooperation.  Many others will attack or defend the new paradigm on policy grounds, so I will add my thoughts with a different focus, i.e., why this is the central decision of this administration.

The analogy is clearly to President Kennedy's declaration that the United States would create the Apollo program and go to the moon. As many observers now agree, what we learned about the Earth as a result of Apollo was as crucial as what we learned about our satellite. The Overview Effect had been experienced in limited form before Apollo 8, but when the astronauts of that mission turned their cameras around to show us the whole Earth, a jolt went through our collective consciousness. For the first time ever, we clearly saw our home, our mother, the environment in which we were really living. The astronauts were in one spaceship, the rest of us were in another: as Buckminster Fuller put it, we were riding through the universe on "Spaceship Earth."

That was more than 40 years ago. What has followed is the environmental movement, globalization, and countless other changes in our planetary civilization. Perhaps most important is the awareness that we are actually part of a planetary civilization and are global citizens, like it or not.

Forty years from now, I suspect there will be shifts in human consicousness similar to what happened as a result of President Kennedy's decision. In 2050, someone will likely see President Obama's choices in a different light than we see it today. (First, this new paradigm has to get through Congress, of course.) While it would be foolish to try to predict with precision what the results will be, I suspect that the new emphasis on private enterprise's role will support more people having the opportunity of experiencing the Overview Effect. This in turn will lead to more "overview thinking" worldwide I also hope that if we can turn a new focus on international space cooperation into a global "Human Space Program," it will lead to greater understanding of our role not only as global citizens but also as "Citizens of the Universe."