Thursday, April 23, 2009

Earth Day from Space Teaches Us A Little Humility

Every April 22 newscasts show smiling politicians in designer blue jeans, work boots and work gloves, getting dirty picking up trash.

This has become an Earth Day ritual, as politicians show us just how environmentally-friendly they really are, as they spend the whole day doing photo ops for the press, picking up trash, sorting recyclables, planting trees, and many other “green” activities.

Granted, since the rise of the environmental movement from the fringes in the 1970’s to the mainstream in the 1980’s, politicians have debated and deployed policies which really are good for the environment. Just about every major city in North America has some sort of curb-side recycling program, and many even have curb-side composting programs – just to name a couple of the big “green” initiatives politicians have helped put in place.

Many companies have also jumped in on the environmental bandwagon, creating whole product lines dedicated to promoting the health of our environment. From “green” soaps that are phosphate-free, to recycled paper products for everything from writing on, to wiping your bum.

The whole environmental movement has come a long way since its initial beginnings in the protest movements of the late 1960’s. During the anti-war protests during the Vietnam War of the 1960’s, many took up the cause to protect our planet Earth. Environmental groups began to appear in the 1970’s. By the time of the 1980’s, acid rain, overfilling landfill sites, and droughts causing major famines in far-flung places like Ethiopia were regular events making headlines in the news.

The “me” generation of the 1980’s built momentum for the environmental movement – acid rain was damaging cars, overflowing garbage dumps meant new landfill sites had to be found – and that started the ultimate “me” generation anti-environmental movement known as NIMBY – Not In My Back Yard.

But you really can’t possibly understand the importance of Earth Day, unless you really appreciate how delicate our planet Earth really is – as much of what we have today is still based on NIMBY.

Often in this blog, I’ve referred to our home as “planet Earth,” with good reason. Aside from the obvious – that we live on a planet, named “Earth” – I do this to emphasize just how fragile our home is.

Astronauts are the lucky ones that get the whole “planet Earth” message best, because they see first-hand just how frail our home really is.

“Our planet is our spaceship,” said Sandra Manus, a NASA astronaut who just came back to planet Earth after a four-and-a-half month stay aboard the International Space Station. “It looks very fragile from here, and it’s very easy to take it for granted when we’re living on it, when it seems so big and so massive. But it’s not, it’s very small and very fragile.”

Astronomers, scientists and every day home-based viewers with eyes to the sky constantly are amazed at just how big our galaxy is, and how many other galaxies there are in space – each with their own planetary systems, stars, asteroid belts, and other phenomenon found naturally in the depths of space.

But the real lesson in humility comes when you think, as many astronauts such as Manus have, that despite the vastness of space, planet Earth – our home – is the only object in space where we can live.

Until we develop technology to blast us to the outer reaches of our own galaxy, or have a way to colonize a planet, moon, or other celestial body in our own solar system, the only place human beings have to live is right here on planet Earth.

Earth from space appears as a giant blue-green ball, surrounded by the eerie glow of our atmosphere, in a dark forbidding ocean of black space. The first astronauts to see this were the Apollo 8 astronauts, snapping the now iconic image of the Earth rising over the moon, in 1968.

If only we had the technology to put everyone in space, even if it was just for the briefest of moments, so that we all had the opportunity to see our home, planet Earth. If this was possible, Earth Day wouldn’t be spent watching politicians doing their token “green” deed for the media. Instead, we’d all have a greater understanding of what Earth Day really is about, because we’d all know just how important our home, planet Earth is to our very survival.

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