The Declaration of Independence and The Overview Declaration

Written by Frank White.

In 1776, a group of 56 men came together and took a huge risk, pledging their "lives, fortunes, and sacred honor" to a "Declaration of Independence" by the 13 American colonies from Great Britain.

In 2008, a smaller group of 22 men and women came together (virtually, in some instances) in Washington, D.C., and made a commitment to a "Declaration of Interdependence," also known as the Overview Declaration, which established the Overview Institute.

There are many similarities and differences between these two declarations. For example, the Declaration of Independence clearly marked a breaking away, the establishing of a single state separate from the global empire that had been created over the centuries by the British. By contrast, our "Declaration of Interdependence," based on astronaut and cosmonaut experiences that have come to be known as "the Overview Effect," sought to knit together, creating a unity out of the diverse collection of nation-states on Earth.

While this contrast marks a significant difference, there are also strong similarities between the two. Perhaps most important, both documents called for a radically different way of looking at the world, a fundamental shift in worldview. The 1776 declaration boldly declared, "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness." Nothing could have been more threatening to a political system ruled by a king. The political theory of that time gave the divine right not to the people, but the king. Any rights held by the subjects were granted by the sovereign. The Declaration of Independence turned that thinking on its head. The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness passed directly from God to all men (they hadn’t yet realized that the same truths applied to women as well), with no need for an intermediary.

The Overview Declaration opened with an equally bold statement:

We live at a critical moment in human history.  The challenges of climate change, food, water, and energy shortages as well as the increasing disparity between the developed and developing nations, are testing our will to unite, while differences in religions, cultures, and politics continue to keep us apart. The creation of a "global village" through satellite TV and the Internet is still struggling to connect the world into one community. At this critical moment, our greatest need is for a global vision of planetary unity and purpose for humanity as a whole.

The key word is "critical." There is a sense of urgency in this statement that is reminiscent of 1776. The document then points to the Overview Effect as the basis for just such a vision of planetary unity and purpose. In this way, our declaration, like its predecessor more than 230 years earlier, calls for a new way of thinking, but with a focus on wholes rather than parts, unity rather than division.

Interestingly, one might say that both documents emerged from a variation on the theme of the Overview Effect. When the American colonists traveled across the Atlantic Ocean and found themselves 3,000 miles away from their home country, they were able to see it differently. Given the technology of the time, it took them longer to get to the New World than it took the Apollo astronauts to arrive in lunar orbit.

After about 150 years of living on this harsh and challenging frontier, they began to doubt that the Crown truly understood what they were facing in the New World, and wondered if the king truly had their best interests at heart.

Similarly, astronauts and cosmonauts, sent into orbit and to the moon by different nation-states, looked down at the Earth and saw that there were no borders or boundaries there. They realized that the Earth was truly a "fragile oasis" (a term coined by astronaut Ron Garan and the name of a website he has established) in a vast universe full of stars, planets, and galaxies.

Many of them returned to Earth committed to working together to bring the message of the Overview Effect to the people of the planet, and did not always communicate what their governments wanted them to say. Even as the Cold War was going on, American astronauts and Soviet cosmonauts joined together to create the Association of Space Explorers, which included space travelers from both Communist and non-Communist countries.

It took 11 years from the signing of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 to the signing of the Constitution in 1787. Those were years of fervent debate over the meaning of rights and liberty, and the relationship of a government to its citizens in a republic, rather than a monarchy.

We are now in the period following our declaration when we must put "overview thinking" into practice. To do so, we must truly understand our situation. When we launched the Overview Institute and shared our Overview Declaration at the ISDC in 2008, I asked the crowd, "How many of you would like to live in space?"

Most of them raised their hands, of course.

I said something to the effect of, "Well, I can grant your wish. The Earth is in space, it has always been in space, and it will always be in space. Therefore, you are living in space. Congratulations!"

It was a major conceptual leap for the signers of the Declaration of Independence to state that their rights came from on high, not from the king. We must make a similar leap so that another series of truths becomes self-evident: we are in space, we have always been in space, and we will always be in space.

Four years after our "Declaration of Interdependence," we have been having the same kind of debate over the nature of the Overview Effect and what it means in practical terms for government, economics, sociology, the arts, and every other aspect of human life. While our goal is not to create a constitution for a new government, I believe that we are in the "Federalist Papers" stage of the process. These were a remarkable series of documents written by three of the Founding Fathers of the United States (Hamilton, Madison, and Jay), and they laid the philosophical foundation of the emerging nation.

The essential question before the founders of the United States was whether ordinary people could govern themselves within the framework of a nation-state. That question, it seems to me, is now settled. The question before us today is whether ordinary people can govern themselves within the framework of a planetary civilization. I believe we can, but only if we make the fundamental choice to do so.

I hope that this new website will be a place where debates take place at the same high level as they did in the waning days of the 18th century. According to the astronauts, the Overview Effect tells us that "we’re all in this together." What an impressive moment in history it would be if we began to behave as if we believed that to be true!