Earthrise & Extinction

Drew Dellinger
Monday, 22nd July 2019

Five decades after the explosion of ecological awareness, we need a global political movement to save what’s left of the biosphere, says Drew Dellinger.

Fifty years ago, humans left Earth’s orbit for the first time, travelled far enough to bend the horizon into a circle, and saw the planet as it looks from space: the Whole Earth. A spheroid shining in silence; a numinous symphony of ocean, cloud, and continents, dizzy with life; the creativity of the cosmos pouring through a portal.

The photographs of Earth from space taken by the astronauts on Apollo 8 were not the first such images. Satellite photos of the Whole Earth had been published in National Geographic magazine in November 1967, and on the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog in the fall of 1968. But the ‘Earthrise’ photograph taken by William Anders on December 24, 1968, was the first viewed by human eyes as it was taken by human hands. It flooded the world at once. Within two weeks of Apollo 8’s return, Earthrise had appeared on front pages around the planet.

Two decades earlier, in 1948, the British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle had predicted that, “Once a photograph of the earth, taken from outside, is available – once the sheer isolation of the earth becomes plain, a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.” With Earthrise, humanity had captured such a photo. “The sense of the earth as a whole, as a planet, is with us inescapably,” wrote Anne Morrow Lindberg in 1969. “We have been given another image of ourselves and our place in the cosmos … No one will ever look at the earth in the same way.”

Ecological awareness had been building from the beginning of the sixties, but with the publication of Rachel Carson’s immensely influential Silent Spring in 1962, ecology began to emerge as a movement. Just over a month after Carson’s book came out, Aldous Huxley gave a lecture on ‘The Politics of Ecology: The Question of Survival,’ which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is the first time the word ecology was used to denote “concern for the effect of human activity on the environment; advocacy of restrictions” on industrial growth, and “a political movement dedicated to this.”

By the late sixties, environmental consciousness was expanding rapidly. In the Earthrise photograph, the Space Age collided with the Age of Ecology, and a powerful new energy exploded. In 1970 the first national Earth Day in the United States was joined by 20-25 million people, and in 1972 the first international conference on the environment was held in Stockholm, Sweden. 

When the astronauts came around the Moon on their fourth orbit and glimpsed their home planet, a new cosmology came into view. The photographs of Earth from space, with their fundamental message of unity and interconnectedness, provided a view much more in line with the cosmological vision of Indigenous traditions than with the disconnected, human-centered perspective of the modern Western worldview.

The Riotous Story of Life

For centuries, the modern Western worldview had been predicated on a profound separation between humans and nature, a distinction that disappears when the planet is viewed from space. Whereas the mythos of modernity had regarded the natural world as soulless matter and exploitable resources, the Earth-from-space view perceives the human as interconnected with the ecosystems and evolution of the planet. The riotous story of life is our story. The essence of Earthrise is interrelatedness.

In addition to our unity, Earthrise also showed our isolation, as Hoyle had noted, fostering a new appreciation for the hospitality and fragility of Earth’s life-giving biosphere in the cold dis-tances of space. The Earth as seen from space is a bounded world; it cannot be infinitely consumed or polluted without serious consequences. Unlimited industrialized destruction cannot last long on a planet with limits. As the ecological author, Thomas Berry, put it, “the earth community is a wilderness community that will not be bargained with.”

The ecological awakenings of fifty years ago have significantly shaped the following decades. Tragically however, the defining dynamic of our time continues to be the accelerating devasta-tion of Earth’s biosphere, the mass extinction of species, the degradation of the oceans and atmosphere. Despite the stark warnings and activism of environmentalists for decades, habitat destruction, climate change, and other ecological assaults are causing the largest mass extinction of species in at least 65 million years. And all of this is happening in a geological flash right in front of us, with an estimated 150-250 species going extinct every day.

Cosmology and Capitalism

We are in a race between cosmology and capitalism. The worldview of endless growth, of exploitation of people, communities, and ecosystems, is collapsing the biosphere and choking the sky in just a few generations. The modern worldview is creating a single-use planet. In recent years, a new surge of authoritarian and fascist politics has underscored long-running barriers to basic expressions of democracy, voting rights, and human rights. We urgently need an expanded political movement to create racial, gender, and economic justice, to protect democracy and the rule of law, and to mitigate climate change and mass extinction.

But the plutocracy and the world-consuming worldview of corporate capitalism exert a formidable gravity. “The reason why the present industrial world is so powerful,” Thomas Berry once told me, “is that it has the story. It has the story of progress toward wonderworld.” To counter the myth of progress and the ecocidal logic of capitalism, Berry called for a ‘New Story’ for the modern world, one that would supplant Western culture’s ‘Old Story’ of separation and anthropocentrism, mechanistic and materialistic thinking, exploitation and consumption. Before this New Story can take flight, modern society must face and dismantle the worldviews and institutions of colonialism, racism, patriarchy, and gender oppression which are integral to, and perpetuate, the Old Story.

Revolutionizing the story of the modern world and defending the biosphere means honoring and centering Indigenous worldviews and leadership. “Our values and our cosmology as Indigenous Peoples are intrinsically linked to the land,” says Indigenous climate leader, Eriel Deranger. “We’re still connected by that umbilical cord to Mother Earth. And it’s those values and that cosmology of our peoples that is one of the reasons that we’ve become central to solving the climate crisis.”Around the world, Indigenous-led, women-led, Black and POC-led, youth-led, queer-led movements are showing the way toward a future founded on ecology and justice. From the tar sands of Canada to the Amazon rainforest, Indigenous communities and other frontline communities are confronting corporate power and creating a future beyond the fossil fuel and extractive economies. In South America, COICA, an alliance of 500 Indigenous cultures from nine countries, is calling to preserve 200 million hectares of rainforest, creating the largest protected area on the planet.

Youth-led Climate Justice Movements

In the United States, young women of color are creating powerful youth-led climate justice movements, such as 17 year-old Jamie Margolin, founder of Zero Hour, and 25 year-old Varshini Prakash, founder of the Sunrise Movement. Recently, the Sunrise Movement has made headlines by generating pressure and momentum for a ‘Green New Deal’ – potentially game-changing legislation that would take on the climate crisis and economic justice simultaneously, as the interlinked crises they are. Meanwhile, other US youths are using the courts to advocate for the planet and future generations by suing the US government over climate change as a violation of their constitutional right to life and liberty in Juliana vs. US.

At the 2018 UN Climate Change Conference in Poland, youth delegates interrupted speeches, chanting “Keep It In the Ground,” and demanded real political solutions that match the scale and urgency of the crisis. In late 2018 and early 2019, in places like Australia, Belgium, Switzerland, Germany, and elsewhere, students have organized school strikes demanding climate action, inspired by 16 year-old Swedish climate activist, Greta Thunberg, who stopped attending school in protest of the climate crisis and the inaction of politicians. This student-led global climate strike movement is growing rapidly in 2019, with 35,000 young people marching in Brussels in late January. These young global leaders have called for continuing school strikes every Friday, using the hashtag, #FridaysForFuture. Leadership is emerging when we need it most. We owe these courageous young visionaries all of our support and engagement.

In the UK (and beyond), the Extinction Rebellion movement has taken to the streets with nonviolent direct action to disrupt business-as-usual and demand reduction of carbon emissions to net zero by 2025 and reduction of consumption levels. “We are facing an unprecedented global emergency,” states the Extinction Rebellion website. “The government has failed to protect us. To survive, it’s going to take everything we’ve got.” In April of 2019, Extinction Rebellion called for an international ‘Rebellion Week’ leading up to Earth Day.

Our best hope is that we can dramatically expand these movements. In October 2018, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) gave a 12 year window to reduce carbon emissions by 50%, in order to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and avoid the worst scenarios of climate catastrophe. Some climate scientists have noted however, that there is no ‘cliff’ which will suddenly appear in 12 years, but rather a dangerous slope – a slope upon which every action, and every delay, matters greatly. Even the stark findings of the IPCC report may be overly optimistic. Time is of the essence and speed matters. Transforming to a zero-carbon economy in the next decades requires immediate action on a huge scale. At this point, the most radical action is the most realistic, the most passionate response is the most prudent. 

The Earth is the most spectacular reality in the known universe, the most miraculous expression of creativity and life in the known cosmos. Its oceans are alchemists, turning sunlight into species. As majestic as the other planets of the solar system are – the rocky expanse of Mars, the grandeur of Jupiter, the sulfuric storms of Venus, the methane seas of Saturn’s moon – imagine if those were all one knew, and then, one came upon Earth, with its oceans and thunderstorms, elephants and egrets, waterfalls, rivers, poetry, music, whales, glaciers, and rainforests singing with some twenty million different species. Such a revelation would give an entirely new understanding of the creative dynamics and potentialities of the cosmos. The unfolding journey of the planet Earth is the clearest known outer expression of the universe’s complex inner depths. 

Fifty years ago, the Earthrise image appeared like a cosmological mirror, exposing the modern West’s illusion of separateness and the imminent danger of misunderstanding our place in the universe. We have just a few years to protect what remains of the web of life, and the opportunity to imagine and implement a world of justice, ecology, peace, and equality. 

Drew Dellinger is a writer, speaker, poet and teacher living in the San Francisco Bay Area. He is founder of Planetize the Movement and author of Love Letter to the Milky Way. @drewdellinger

Useful links

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