On December 7, 1972, the Apollo 17 crew took a photograph of earth that became known as “The Blue Marble” because of the whorling clouds above the continents. Not the first image of the earth from space, it remains one of the most arresting. To commemorate the fortieth anniversary of “The Blue Marble,” Planetary Collective, a group of visual artists, philosophers, and scientists, released the short film Overview (above) at a screening at Harvard this past Friday. Overview takes its title from author Frank White’s phrase for the perspective of the earth as seen from space: “The Overview Effect.” White’s book of the same name uses interviews and writings from thirty astronauts and cosmonauts to build a theory about the psychology of planetary perspectives.
The film is a prelude to a feature-length documentary called Continuum, and it introduces many of that project’s themes: the interdependence of everyone on earth, the necessity of adopting a planetary perspective, and the meeting of certain religious experiences with the sciences. Through a selection of interviews with five astronauts and philosophers associated with think tank The Overview Institute, one gets a thrilling and vicarious experience of what it’s like to see Bucky Fuller’s “Spaceship Earth.” Across all of the responses emerge the central themes of Earth's unity, and its fragility: we’re all in this together, or else, the film concludes.
Especially interesting is the interview with Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell; he comes to see his experience in mystical terms, as a kind of intense meditative state known in Sanskrit as savikalpa Samadhi, a union with the divine. Dr. Mitchell’s attempts to integrate scientific practice and human consciousness parallel those of Planetary Collective and The Overview Institute, all of whom seek in their own ways to help the human race achieve a shift in perspective similar to what the astronauts experienced, a shift so well articulated by Carl Sagan in his Cosmos documentary series and his 1994 book Pale Blue Dot. Inspired by another iconic image of the earth from space, Voyager 1’s photo from 4 billion miles out, Sagan’s musings took a mystical turn, but never left the ground of sound scientific reasoning. His “Pale Blue Dot” has become a metaphor for a similar perspective as White’s “overview effect,” albeit one considerably more detached. Watch Sagan’s words brought to life below by animation studio ORDER.
Josh Jones is a doctoral candidate in English at Fordham University and a co-founder and former managing editor of Guernica / A Magazine of Arts and Politics.