Sunday, December 30, 2018

Looking Beyond 2019 (Way, Way Beyond)

Earthrise, by NASA/Bill Anders

A problem with New Year resolutions is their typically limited outlook. On a personal level, annual self-reflection and recalibration can be helpful but what we all need is an appreciation for the long view, one measured well beyond the bounds of a single circuit about the sun. Human shortsightedness is at the root of many of our woes, so expanding our panorama to encompass a vastly broader horizon should be an essential part of our yearly resolve to make changes for the better. 

Speaking of a broad horizon, this past Christmas Eve marked the 50th anniversary of the iconic photograph of a distant Earth taken from lunar orbit by Apollo 8 astronaut Bill Anders. I’m old enough to remember the Apollo 8 mission well and how monumentally significant that single photo would prove to be.(1) The Earthrise image spurred the environmental movement by vividly depicting how tiny and fragile our planet is against the backdrop of an infinitely vast and dark universe. Everybody immediately realized one and all share the same “little boat floating in space” and that humanity’s fate is hitched to that lonely boat. 

Author and architect Lance Hosey wrote a piece for acknowledging the anniversary of Bill Anders’ Earthrise photo but also suggesting its outsized impact upon our attitudes toward our planet has actually undermined the very movement it launched. In his view, Earth is now too often perceived as an object, every place on it a mere point on a globe, each one like the other. Consequently, he asserts, we speak of the “environment” in the singular rather than as an endlessly diverse variety of extant landscapes and ecologies. 

I agree with Lance but also disagree at the same time. I believe the value of the Earthrise photo is unassailable and essential to comprehending how tenuous the dynamical system that sustains the planet’s biosphere is. 

As Lance contends, while a planetary perspective does serve a purpose, we must reestablish our loyalty to the land and not lose our appreciation for the diversity of cultures, the individuality of place, and the singularity of settings. Architects excel when this appreciation is applied to their work. Enhancing a sense of place—imparting a physical, emotional, and spiritual connectedness to specific settings—is vital to celebrating the infinite diversity of immersive experiences possible and the multiplicity of world views that uniquely exist on our small, blue planet. 

But that serves my point: To the best of our current knowledge, the entirety of Earth is implausibly unique. Life elsewhere in the universe may be exceedingly rare, the varying and dynamic conditions required to support it requiring circumstances balanced precipitously between order and chaos. Earth may be more special than a strictly Copernican view of our universe would hold. Count me among those who are proponents of an anthropic principle that suggests we exist in an extremely privileged position—one humanity must acknowledge if there is any hope of preserving it. An ability to appreciate our cosmic context is crucial to understanding the specifics of any earthbound place and time. 

Some long for humankind to become an interplanetary species. To me that dream has always been tinged with a shade of resignation regarding Earth’s destiny. Elon Musk’s justification for pursuing a goal of building civilizations in space is his belief in the need to “preserve the light of consciousness” because “it is unknown whether we are the only civilization alive in the observable universe, but any chance that we are is added impetus for extending life beyond Earth.” Such reasoning betrays a fatalistic attitude—a certainty about the inevitability of a tragic fate for our planet. Among other things, we would lose a fundamental aspect of our identity should we abandon our planet for another home. It’s precisely because we and Earth are so unique that fighting for our preservation and the “singularity of settings” here is so important. 

My wife and I recently engaged in a debate about this topic. Why expend precious “treasure and oil” on space exploration, she argued, when those same resources might be applied to solving earthly problems? Shouldn’t Elon Musk (SpaceX), Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin), Richard Branson (Virgin Galactic), and the others direct more of their wealth toward combating climate change, hunger, disease, homelessness, species loss, and despair? Of course, these concerns deserve everyone’s attention and substantial investment. As I wrote previously, there will always exist needs that trump others. Money isn’t the point. What should be important is our innate desire to invest energy and potential in the exploration of the unknown, in pursuits that enlist the power of our imaginations. Our sense of awe, wonder, and curiosity are central to who we are as human beings. 

If architects are to remain relevant in the decades to come, they’ll need to think big, look over the immediate horizon, and consider what it means fundamentally to dwell upon the earth. It will be their responsibility to wonder and explore, if not the larger universe, the nearer spaces closer to home they can control. Like space scientists, they will need to enlist and exercise human curiosity for the sake of a future that can be better for theirs and future generations. 

Each of us may resolve to exercise more, eat healthily, or spend more time with family and friends in the new year. For 2019, I encourage all of you to also look beyond your immediate concerns and take the long view. If we all do this, the odds of safeguarding livability aboard the third rock from the sun will be improved by many orders of magnitude.  

(1)  Like many young people during the 1960s, I was enthralled by the race to space between the Soviet Union and the U.S. and idolized the courageous cosmonauts and astronauts. I dreamed of becoming an astronaut myself, settling instead upon a decidedly terrestrial career as an architect. Even today, I can name the crew members for nearly every one of NASA’s Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions without having to rely upon Google. 

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