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."