What Earth Day, Captain Kirk, and the Overview Effect Have in Common

When actor William Shatner, famous for portraying Captain James Tiberius Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, actually touched the edge of space, he was overwhelmed with a sense of anguish.

The iconic fictional Starship Enterprise“It was the death that I saw in space and the lifeforce that I saw coming from the planet — the blue, the beige, and the white,” said Shatner in an NPR interview. “And I realized one was death and the other was life.”

“I was crying,” he said. “I didn’t know what I was crying about. I had to go off some place and sit down and think, what’s the matter with me? And I realized I was in grief.”

We have shuffled across Earth’s surface for millions of years, involved in our transitory concerns. Most of that time, it was little more than going out to find food and fuck—live long enough to leave another generation to struggle on. Life for our distant ancestors was truly nasty, brutish, and short.

But they, like we, lived under the stars, and their reliable movement in the night sky consoled us in a hostile world.
We first contemplated the heavens, then we went there. And, as Shatner expressed, what we found at the edge of space was the boundary between life and death.

Captain Kirk cried at the beauty of a bountiful Earth and the damage we press on our only home.

It’s Big-Picture stuff.

The Overview Effect

Astronauts report the Overview Effect as a “cognitive shift.” It happens when people go to space and see a reality that defies their evolutionary upbringing. The experience brings a sense of “self-transcendent awe.”

It is transformative, they say, imbuing a sense of mind-altering oneness, down there below. Military men turned astronauts disabused the rationality of war, political brinksmanship, and social division. From space, there is no “other.” They understood viscerally the dire consequences of a fundamental lack of awareness of the tenuous blanket life from which every human thought, endeavor, or belief derives.

Apollo 14’s Edgar Mitchell felt like “grabbing politicians by the scruff of the neck and dragging them into space.” Many warned of the dire consequences of a fundamental lack of awareness of the tenuous blanket life from which every human thought, endeavor, or belief derives.

Shatner had explored the universe at warp speed aboard the Enterprise, going where no person had gone before, at least on TV and in the movies. His eyes were finally opened once he reached the boundary of space. For Shatner and many other privileged individuals, what we understand intellectually comes home like a punch in the gut.

Can those of us who will never reach space internalize what those few have?

Transforming Earth Day with the Overview Effect

Perhaps you get a taste of the Overview Effect when flying in the stratosphere, assuming you don’t have the window shade pulled down. The world takes on a new perspective from higher than the highest mountaintop. With a new perspective comes greater awareness.

Greater awareness and transformation are what we need on Earth Day and every day after that for as long as it takes until we can heal our relationship with the planet.

We have progressed since our ancestors, lost in the mists of time, strode the Earth. They struggled to understand their environment and hang on in a dangerous and unforgiving world. Their focus was survival. Despite the marvels of the modern world, our focus is the same—survival.

But we also seek meaning and purpose in a world fraught with human strife. Long ago, people looked up to the sky in awe and wonder. Today, we can look back on the Earth and feel the grief, unity, and joy of our tiny place in a vast universe.

Earth hanging in the blackness of space

There is no other place in the cosmos that we yet know of where the atoms and elements have united into a life-giving blue marble hanging in the darkness of space—an outpost that brought forth life and consciousness.

Earth Day is every day.

Thomas Schueneman
Thomas Schuenemanhttps://tdsenvironmentalmedia.com
Tom is the founder and managing editor of GlobalWarmingisReal.com and the PlanetWatch Group. His work appears in Triple Pundit, Slate, Cleantechnia, Planetsave, Earth911, and several other sustainability-focused publications. Tom is a member of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

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