The Overview Effect and the Human Space Program: Part I

Written by Frank White.

By now, the message of the Overview Effect regarding life on Earth seems clear: we are part of a whole system that includes human civilization as part of it. In this “planetary overview system,” we are all connected, and “we are all in it together,” as many of the astronauts and cosmonauts have said. Extending this thought beyond ourselves, everything in this system is interconnected.

While we create borders and boundaries to separate ourselves from one another, the astronauts, who have been humanity’s representatives on the “High Frontier,” have had difficulty perceiving these divisions. Instead, they have seen a beautiful whole, this “spaceship Earth” moving through the universe at a high rate of speed, carrying its crew on a great adventure. Unfortunately, most members of the crew are missing the point of the trip.

From the earliest days of space exploration, we have intuitively understood what the Overview Effect means to our lives on Earth. We need to bring “overview thinking” into everything we do. We need to hear the message from the universe that the time has come for us to think of ourselves as “Citizens of the Earth” rather than citizens of nation-states on a small planet at the edge of the Milky Way galaxy. The Earth itself is part of even larger systems, including the solar system, galaxy, and universe. Eventually, our awareness will expand to the point where we even see ourselves as “Citizens of the Universe,” though that moment is likely to be far in the future.

We have learned, then, that anything affecting one part of the human family affects all of the human family. In fact, anything that affects any life form on Earth affects all life forms on Earth.

The complementary message, which has come through clearly and has had great impact on human thought, is that we need to be good stewards of the planet, which some see as Robert Poole points out in his book Earthrise, Spaceship Earth and others as Mother Earth. Whichever metaphor you choose, we know that the Earth is crucial to our survival, because we are not yet a multi-planet species.

My colleague at the Overview Institute, David Beaver, has focused our attention recently on the concept of worldviews and how they shape perception. This is an excellent word because it encapsulates so much: our worldview is, quite simply, how we see everything. “World,” in this context, can refer to the universe as a whole, rather than its more limited meaning of “a planet.”

When our worldview changes, everything changes, and the Overview Effect is a phenomenon that changes the worldviews of those who experience it.

Some astronauts have pointed out that you do not need to go into orbit or travel to the moon to experience this transformation. This is true, of course. I had my idea for the book, The Overview Effect, while flying cross-country in an airplane. People have had the same kind of insight on mountaintops or in other terrestrial settings, and they have had it while meditating or praying.

However, there is something unique about going one step further, and seeing our planet from a distance while weightless, and seeing it not only from space but in space. Many of the astronauts came to know that the planet is a whole system of which we are a part, not only intellectually but also emotionally, as an experience rather than as a concept. This marks a major difference.

The message of the Overview Effect does not mean that we need to do away with nation-states, even if national borders and boundaries cannot be seen from a distance. It does tell us, though, that there needs to be some unifying principle, some means of organizing all the diversity on the planet into a whole systems approach to planetary management.

One of the goals of the Overview Institute is to define and clarify that unifying principle.

However, creating greater unity on our home planet is only part of the equation. What does the Overview Effect tell us about exploring outer space itself?

Since the first human left the planet in 1961, space programs have been monopolized by nation-states. The primary change has been the growth in the number of countries pursuing their ambitions of exploration and development. Most recently, China has been flexing its national muscles with a robust space exploration and development effort.

Just as we do not need to abolish nation-states themselves, we do not have to abolish national space programs. We may see much more innovation if we have 50-100 separate efforts reflecting the different cultures that have arisen on Earth.

However, just as we need a unifying principle on Earth, we need one as we leave the Earth to explore the universe. We need, in short, a Human Space Program.