why space travel makes you more of an environmentalist

Astronauts get a very rare and unique perspective on our planet, one in which our world isn’t just a steppingstone to the stars, but a fragile home to be protected.
stranded on the moon

One of the most common objections you hear when talking about space exploration asks why we bother flying to other worlds when this one is in bad shape and getting worse. Critics of companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin will even point to dystopian science fiction in which humans have to leave Earth because it’s simply too polluted for civilization to support itself, claiming that heavy investments in space travel mean that we’ll see our planet as disposable and carelessly neglect it, assured that we have spare worlds. But according to a new study, seeing Earth from the vacuum of space has the exact opposite effect.

That’s right, astronauts who had the privilege to spend time outside humanity’s cosmic cradle return worried about its future and the phenomenon is so common it even has a name: the overview effect. Apollo astronaut Edgar Mitchell even mused about how great it would be to “drag a politician a quarter million miles” and give them a sense of perspective of how small and fragile humanity is, and how little their petty little obsessions of the day really are in the grand scheme of things. And many of his colleagues talk about how thin the atmosphere looks in the sunlight, and the diversity of environments they see in orbit.

So, when astronauts talk about humanity being a multi-planetary species someday to survive, they’re not talking about treating Earth as disposable. They’re worried about comet impacts, supervolcanoes, and nuclear wars started by narrow-minded war mongers. While many of these quotes have been widely printed for decades, last year, Anaïs Voski, a researcher of environmental policy in Hungary decided to give these thoughts a more qualitative treatment, interviewing 14 astronauts, with a focus on common themes in their answers to grade the intensity of the overview effect they experienced.

Her findings show that 10 of her subjects experienced an intense version of this phenomenon while only one didn’t seem affected, and the rest had at least some degree of it, as well as the fact that for many, it translated into added awareness of environmental problems around the issue of sustainability. Many expressed concerns about providing for a growing number of humans and making sure our energy sources are cleaner, and the vast majority were worried about their diets and transportation habits being sustainable in the long term. A few even said their experience in space affected how they voted in elections.

At first glance, this research may seem like idle curiosity, a sort of academic journalism, but as space tourism and commercial space travel ramp up at an escalating pace, knowing exactly how the overview effect pays out on those who get to see our world from orbit and beyond is very important. Maybe instead of lobbying against investments in space travel and criticizing how much is spent on the future of humanity in space today, environmental activists would find it advantageous to throw their support behind it instead. If people come back with a sense of both wonder and a sudden understanding of Earth’s fragility, they’ll support the same goals, be more willing to donate, and make meaningful personal changes in their lifestyles.

Even if we do manage to make some of our grandiose plans come true, Earth will be home for tens of thousands of years. Having dodged radioactive death rays of Jupiter, hiding from rain made of liquid natural gas on Titan, and braving the dust storms of Mars, future travelers will come to this world looking for a reprieve, a chance to feel the warmth of the sun and the cool, refreshing breeze from oceans that won’t kill them in horrible ways. And if Voski’s work is any indication, they’ll be both very aware of just how fragile the environment is and insist that we protect the only habitat where we can survive without life support.

See: Voski, A. (2020) The ecological significance of the overview effect: Environmental attitudes and behaviors in astronauts, Journal of Environmental Psychology, DOI: 10.1016/j.jenvp.2020.101454

# space // environmentalism / space exploration / space travel

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