The Overview Effect: a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts during spaceflight, often while viewing the Earth from outer space. Those who have experienced it describe a new understanding of the uniqueness, fragility, and relative smallness of our one and only home. And while it’s easy to imagine the impact this must have; it seems that spaceflight is a prerequisite. Which is why we sat down with Karen Nyberg.
A mechanical engineer and retired NASA astronaut, Nyberg was the 50th woman in space, spending a total of 180 days there over the course of two missions. “I ended up spending about six months on the International Space Station (ISS), and one of my favourite things to do was to spend time in the cupola,” she says. A domed observation area, the cupola provides unparalleled views as the ISS completes its 16 daily orbits of the planet. “Watching things like the sunset were amazing,” she explains. “It’s pitch black, and you see city lights, and all of a sudden the limb* of the Earth starts to brighten up. You see this line, and it changes colour and gets thicker and thicker, and then the Sun appears.”
According to Nyberg, it’s moments like these that truly emphasise the planet’s fragility. The thinness of the atmosphere alone brings about the realisation that the line between hospitable and inhospitable isn’t all that thick, cosmically speaking. “You see just how interconnected every piece, every ecosystem, everything on Earth is,” she states. “It’s hanging there in the blackness of space with nothing else around it for humans to go to. And it’s our home. We need to protect it.”
Nyberg also stresses the feeling of interpersonal responsibility. Given that the Earth is the home of every person, every person therefore has the obligation to do what they can to protect it. “That’s the second aspect of the Overview Effect: understanding that it is our home, meaning every single person on Earth. We’re all connected. Every single person has a lot more in common than we do differences.”
Changes that appear small, such as driving electric as opposed to internal combustion vehicles, have a huge and lasting impact. Which is music to our ears.
It’s Nyberg’s opinion that we haven’t gone past the point of no return, though the need to act has never been more urgent. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she feels that technological innovation could be the key to true change. “We’ve seen, especially over the past several years, just where technology can take us,” she says. “It can advance so quickly, and there are so many smart people working on it, that I’m confident that we can come up with creative and innovative solutions to deal with the environmental problems we’re having.”
Innovations like the Polestar 0 project, in which we aim to create a climate-neutral car by 2030, are examples of how ingenuity and technology can go beyond band aid solutions, dealing with the disease instead of the symptom.
Of course, it goes beyond the technological. Nyberg also feels that the seriousness of the current situation is lost on a lot of people. Indifference to the climate crisis is the default setting of a lot of people, even for Nyberg herself at one point. “Before my time in space, I think I was mostly indifferent to environmental issues,” she admits. “I didn’t really think about the things my family was throwing away. Or how much water we were using.” A greater awareness, combined with the knowledge that every little bit helps, is what’s required in Nyberg’s opinion. “It can be overwhelming to look at the entire situation,” she states. “Little things make a difference. Don’t use too much plastic. Refill water bottles. I think there’s a way we can think environmentally and still live our lives. We’re a very innovative species, we’ll come up with ways.”
Nyberg is one of the over 560 people to head to space since cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin first orbited the Earth in 1961. As such, she’s undergone a profound perspective shift, the Overview Effect leaving a lasting impact on her. Ideally, everyone would experience this. The realisation that our planet is both fragile and our only home emphasises the importance of action more than anything else.
And since we can’t all go to space, we should listen to those that have.
See Karen’s video here.
*The edge of the Earth’s atmosphere.
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