Presidents column: A view of our earth… from two perspectives

Wednesday, 28. February 2018

Every year around this time ISES Secretary Paulette Middleton and I attend the Boulder International Film Festival, a 3 ½ day event packed with documentaries, feature films, and short subjects covering a broad range of topics on human experiences.  I am an avid believer in film as one of the most effective ways to communicate knowledge as well as the emotions of our loves and our conflicts. 

In preparing this column, there were two films in particular that inspired me.  One was a feature-length documentary titled “The Farthest”, which presented the history of the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft from their inception in 1972 through their launch in 1977, their encounters with the planets Jupiter and Saturn in the late 1970s-early 1980s, the further visit of Voyager 2 to Uranus and Neptune in the late 1980s, and the ultimate escape by both spacecraft from the Solar System (Voyager 1 entered interstellar space in August 2012, and Voyager 2 is expected to leave the heliosheath by the end of this decade). 

Of all the incredible images taken by Voyager 1 as it passed by Jupiter and Saturn and many of their moons was actually taken shortly after entering interstellar space, when the camera was turned backwards to view the Solar System that it had just departed.  There, in the midst of a solar beam image, a bright speck can be seen, at first thought to be dust residing on the photographic plate.  In fact, this speck was planet earth, seen from several billion miles away.  For the first time humans have launched a device that has escaped the solar system, and, as a way to remember this, they took a selfie of themselves as the spacecraft sped at over 50,000 km/hour toward the outer galaxies.  There is planet earth:  a speck in the vastness of the universe, and perhaps the only home of all humanity, as we know it.   As Voyager 1 and its companion Voyager 2 propel into deep space, each containing a golden record summarizing life on earth, they will likely be the only evidence outside of our solar system that the human race ever existed.

The other film, an unfinished project by James Balog who has become famous with climate-change related documentaries such as “Chasing Ice” and “Chasing Coral”, is intended to show how climate change is impacting the human condition.  The film highlights the increased flooding associated with storm severity and rising sea levels, the increased damage from forest and range fires associated with prolonged droughts, and the worsening effects on human health due to airborne pollutants associated with the burning of fossil fuels.  In his film Balog launches a balloon designed to measure the extent of pollution we have put into the atmosphere.  There is a camera attached to the balloon showing images of the earth and the edge of space.  Within less than half an hour the balloon has reached the outer limits of our atmosphere, providing a stark reminder as to how thin and finite and fragile this layer of air is that protects all humanity; how easy it has become to take this protective layer for granted; how we misuse this life-sustaining envelope by dumping into it the pollution emitted from technologies that enhance our material lives.  As our global population is about to pass 7.5 billion humans, it is clear that we cannot continue on this trajectory. Our ancestors before us lived on this planet in a sustainable fashion; only with the advent of the industrial revolution and the burning of fossil fuels to drive this revolution have we seriously abandoned our traditional sustainable practices.  We are borrowing from our future, both economically and through our insatiable use of natural resources, leaving a huge burden for our children and grandchildren, endangering their health and well-being as well as ours.  Balog’s film highlight how we need to aggressively decarbonize our energy economy with renewable non-polluting technologies.

As a human race, our ingenuity gives us platforms that permit us the opportunity both to view our planet from outer space, as well as to study in great detail our environment from ground level in ways that enable us to understand the consequences of our own actions on our lives and health.  Both of these perspectives remind us of the fragility of our existence, and the need for responsible and sustainable practices to ensure that the lives we are enjoying today can exist as well for our future generations.