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  • Paul D. Wilke

Carl Sagan and Pale Blue Dot Environmentalism


As Voyager I completed its primary mission back in 1990, NASA turned the probe's cameras back to take a snapshot of the Earth 3.7 billion miles away. Earth from this distance registered as a barely recognizable pixel-sized dot in the photo. The Cassini spacecraft took an even better shot (above) of Earth from Saturn in 2013. Dr. Carl Sagan famously used Voyager's picture to wax poetic about our cosmic insignificance in the big scheme of things. Here it is if you haven't heard it.



Dr. Sagan's words still resonate today as we learn even more about the cosmos and our place in it. We've long known that Earth is not the center of any divinely-ordered universe with humanity as its centerpiece, but rather just another tiny planet orbiting an average star on the margins of a middling galaxy.


We're one world among billions, perhaps trillions, in an immeasurably vast universe that is billions of years old and spans tens of billions of light-years across. Dr. Sagan's point was to remind us of these humbling facts whenever we lose our perspective in the trivialities of day-to-day life. However big a deal we think we are, we're not, at least by cosmic standards.


One of the consistent narratives since at least the sixteenth century has been the gradual displacement of humanity and our planet as the spiritual and geographic centers of the universe. Scientific discoveries have slowly chipped away at the lofty pedestal upon which we had placed ourselves as a species.


Even our biology, as Darwin showed, is merely the chance outcome of evolution, meaning we have more in common with chimpanzees than any deity. And so this narrative gained momentum until our humble Earth and its lowly denizens were reduced to almost complete cosmic irrelevance. We ended up little better than animal godlings that eat and shit and fight and mate and finally die and rot, wholly forgotten, on this small rock floating through the endless darkness.

But the pendulum is beginning to swing back the other way. If Earth is just one planet among countless trillions, it nevertheless has an abundance of something that appears to be exceedingly rare elsewhere in the universe: life. And lots of it. Our beautiful, green, vibrant planet is a cosmic miracle, whether you believe in a God or not. However, we take the uniqueness of our circumstances for granted because that's all we know.

So I disagree with Dr. Sagan on this one very minor point. The fact that we are sentient beings who can question our place in the universe means we genuinely do occupy a privileged place within it. In a way, we are conscious manifestations of a universe reflecting back upon itself. That's amazing when you consider how much of this fortunate circumstance we take for granted. A quick scan of our solar system reveals nothing even remotely hospitable to life, just a bunch of majestically dead spheres.

There's the scalding, pressure-cooker hell of Venus, the arid deadness of Mars, and the irradiated, frozen worlds orbiting the cloud giants of the outer solar system. For all the breathtaking beauty of a Jupiter or Saturn, they are still lifeless and forever uninhabitable.


While all of these are scientifically mesmerizing in so many ways, nothing even comes close to the biophilic miracle of our world. As we've pointed our telescopes outward beyond the solar system, we've so far found no shortage of fascinating mysteries to unravel, but no life. None.


Astronomers have cataloged thousands of planets beyond our star, but again, nothing even remotely resembles our gorgeous emerald and sapphire orb. At least not yet. Everything we've found is hostile to life as we know it. Everything is dead, but we're alive to ponder it. That's a privilege.

Surface of Venus taken from the Soviet Venera 13 probe in 1982.
Personal photo February 2015 outside Pirenopolis, Brazil

​By looking at our planet through a cosmic lens like Dr. Sagan did, we can better understand the just-so circumstances and sheer luck our civilization benefited from to get where we are today. An asteroid here or a comet there and everything would be otherwise. The fragility of our situation should give us pause. In fact, it should terrify us.


The more we learn about the universe, the more alone we realize we are, and the more miraculous our situation appears to be. We're nurtured by and dependent on a thin band of life-giving atmosphere extending no more than a few miles above the surface. That's it.


Go beyond that thin sliver of oxygen, and we die. A little closer to the Sun, and the Earth would be too hot and more like Venus; a little further out, it's too cold, and more like Mars. If our Sun were a little hotter or cooler, like most stars in the galaxy, or a little less stable, then we wouldn't be here. Even the chance existence of our humble moon played a critical role in promoting the development of life by stabilizing the Earth's rotation, and therefore its climate.


In so many different ways, we're damn lucky even to be having this conversation. If there are other kindred civilizations out there, somewhere, trying to reach out into the darkness like we are, we can't talk to them, or learn from them, not now, and possibly never.

All of these unsettling facts should make everyone a Pale Blue Dot environmentalist when you view existence through this type of lens. As Dr. Sagan said, all we have is this tiny planet and nothing else to fall back on. God is not going to save us. The universe doesn't care. All we have is each other. So consider this for a moment and leave the politics out of it.


If you love to hunt and fish, then you want thriving ecosystems with lush forests, clean rivers, lakes, and healthy oceans. You are therefore an environmentalist. If you love spending time in the outdoors, or camping, or hiking, or just sitting on the porch, then you want those environments you enjoy to remain the way they are. Again, that makes you an environmentalist. Don't let the corrosive rhetoric of today's discourse blind you to the fact that we all have a stake in the health of the planet.


Let's not let the pursuit of a dollar here and a profit there come at the expense of our Pale Blue Dot's future. Let's channel more of those dollars and profits toward ideas that promote our planet's health and protect the biodiversity that makes Earth so utterly unique from anything else we've discovered, and that also ensures the long-term survival of all life on our verdant Earth.

We're at a crossroads. For the first time, a single species can radically alter the environment in ways that threaten to upset this delicate balance. Humanity's gift is the ability to dream big and then make those dreams a reality. The wonders of our technological civilization came from realizing those dreams.


We are at the point that we can manipulate reality to serve our needs. Our curse is always to live trapped in the moment, where those needs become wants, and those wants become addictions, and those addictions become destructive to the long-term survival of our planet's biosphere. The finitude of our lives makes it difficult to think in grand timescales.


We see today and it looks like yesterday and tomorrow will be more of the same and so we believe it will always be forever and ever. Until it isn't. Then, looking back, it will seem so obvious that we had it in our power to do good for our world and the abundance of life it holds, but instead chose to do otherwise.

When I look up at the night sky - all too infrequently these days - I wonder what lessons are out there that we will never learn. What other civilizations rose and fell because of the same inability to preserve and nurture the delicate planet they were so fortunate to find themselves inhabiting.


If we can never learn from these impossibly remote cautionary tales from interstellar space, we can nevertheless live under the assumption that our existence depends on sustaining this lifeboat Earth and that we should do all we can to foster our planet's habitability for ours and future generations.


Like it or not, we are now the curators of our world. For good or evil, we have the power of demi-gods who get to decide the fate of life on Earth. We can be creators or destroyers. We can nurture or plunder. The choice is ours. That is an enormous collective responsibility and, I would argue, a privilege.


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