We succeeded in taking that picture [from deep space], and, if you look at it, you see a dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever lived, lived out their lives. The aggregate of all our joys and sufferings, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilizations, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every hopeful child, every mother and father, every inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every superstar, every supreme leader, every saint and sinner in the history of our species, lived there on a mote of dust, suspended in a sunbeam.
The earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and in triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of the dot on scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner of the dot. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. It is up to us. It’s been said that astronomy is a humbling, and I might add, a character-building experience. To my mind, there is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly and compassionately with one another and to preserve and cherish that pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.
You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, “Look at that, you son of a bitch.”
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue
Which teaches awful doubt, or faith so mild,
So solemn, so serene, that man may be,
But for such faith, with nature reconciled;
Thou hast a voice, great Mountain, to repeal
Large codes of fraud and woe; not understood
By all, but which the wise, and great, and good
Interpret, or make felt, or deeply feel.
– Mount Blanc: Lines written in the Vale of Chamouni, Percy Shelley, written July 1816
Mont Blanc is only a quick Google image search away. Or you can log onto Google Earth and have a wander around… Of course, nothing can replicate the experience of standing before it on your own two feet and beholding it with your own two eyes. So it’s fortunate you can now climb it in seven days, ski down it, take a guided tour or drive under it.
Nothing puts man in his place like nature.
Oh, wait. That was two hundred years ago, when places like Mont Blanc, when the exposed bones of Mother Earth, the frozen sheets of the glacial North and the endless rolling seas that lap on shores intimate and alien were strange wonders, distant glittering jewels that only the truly blessed can touch.
Now we can fly. Fucking fly. I remember flying a short hop from mainland Scotland to the Outer Hebrides. We were above the clouds and I looked out the window at the ground below. The clouds cast shadows on the ground, just like the roof of a table casting a shadow on the floor. In those shadows, I thought, it’s overcast, the sun hidden behind a thick block of white. It’s cold, the light is dim, the cloud may not pass all day and it may turn into rain. But up here… it’s just a shadow. But for most people, flying is a chore. A trail of endurance. If I flew regularly (I’ve flown about half-a-dozen times in my life, and the last time when in the mid-nineties), then I’d probably feel the same way.
The word is such a mind-rending cosmic wonder–from the grass to the clouds to the pavement to the cars–that our brains have an almost infinite capacity to take it in our stride. I mean, I can travel three hundred miles in four hours in my car. I can top one hundred miles an hour if my concentration slips, a speed so vast that for long time people believed it was fatal. We have speed limits on our roads. Explain that to someone who’s only ever known a horse-and-cart. And yet, making that three-hundred mile trip to see my parents is a chore, not a wonder. No… it is a wonder. My brain just sees it as a chore.
So, seeing our tiny blue-green marble drifting in the void… Isn’t going to change humanity. Standing on the surface of the Moon and staring at our cosmic cradle will do nothing more than raise grumbles about check-in times and foot room and the awful in-flight meals when Earth to the Moon is as easy as New York to London.
Space is full of wonders and miracles to make humanity appreciate their insignificant place is the universe, to really drive home the fact we’re all alone in the night and all we really have is each other. But then, so is every home in the Western world. So is the shelf of every supermarket, the congested lanes of every road, every drop of rain and flake of snow that falls.
Let’s go into space. It’s the only way we’re going to find out what’s out there, and it may even help us stay alive. But let’s not kid ourselves: it’s not our spiritual and intellectual savour, not the humbling equalizer, nothing more than a new frontier to be laboriously exploited. At least, it will be until we change ourselves. And by then we won’t need infinity to humble us, the light shower of rain against the windows of our home will be more than enough.
P.S. Telephones are fucking awesome. I can pick one up, talk to any other telephone, any where in the world, in real time. Imagine being able to not do that. Imagine having to wait three weeks for any news from someone you can’t meet with face-to-face. See? Fucking telephones, man!
But I still hate talking on one. Text me. Don’t ever call me. (Unless you’re my parents, obviously. Parents get special rules.)