After Earth Day: New adventures in planetarity

This past weekend saw the celebration of Earth Day on 22nd April. Since 1970, the date has provided a moment of focus and celebration for communities and organizations focussed on protecting our environment.

The first Earth Day was shaped by many factors. These included the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill in Southern California, which caused public outrage and helped motivate Republican President Richard Nixon to found the US Environmental Protection Agency, and the Earthrise photograph taken by Apollo astronaut Bill Anders in 1968, which has been described as “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken”.

Earth Day serves to draw our attention, energising debate and action around what must be done to protect and sustain our planet’s environment. The events from over fifty years ago, which helped to inspire its creation, remind us of the ongoing need to cultivate fresh perspectives, in order to act effectively in these complex and turbulent times.

The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill is an example of what Rafael Ramírez and Jerry Ravetz have called “feral” futures, where “human intervention create[s] an unwanted unfolding situation that could not have occurred in the wild”. As pipe was removed from a well 3500 feet deep, operators failed to compensate for the pressure difference created by the extraction. They could have done this by pumping mud back down the well. Pressure built up, straining the casing of the pipe. An attempt was made to cap it, but this only succeeded in increasing the pressure inside the well. As geographers Keith Clarke and Jeffrey Hemphill explain,

The consequence was that under extreme pressure a burst of natural gas blew out all of the drilling mud, split the casing and caused cracks to form in the seafloor surrounding the well. A simple solution to the problem was now impossible; due to the immense pressure involved and the large volume of oil and natural gas being released a “blowout” occurred and the 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was under way.

In such “feral” conditions, human agency turns a situation which was thought to be predictable into one which is contaminated by uncertainty. It’s no longer possible to throw a lever into reverse and undo what has happened. Through corruption, incompetence, greed, overconfidence, or arrogance, a mess has been made which will require a whole new approach to resolve it.

Ramírez and Ravetz suggest that this whole new approach may involve an appreciation of aesthetics. Instead of trusting in the systems and procedures which had supposedly tamed the situation in the first place, we may draw “on sensing and feeling, on empathy and intuition, and on relating conception to perception”. We attend to patterns and intuitions as well as “going by the book”, because we understand that the “book” had not adequately or accurately captured the reality of the situation. We may use plausible scenarios, manufactured to challenge our existing assumptions, in order to gain fresh vantage points from which we can look beyond the erroneous frame of reference being used in the here and now.

At Three Mile Island, one of the examples Ramírez and Ravetz offer, operators mistakenly thought they were dealing with a problem for which contingencies had been set out in their manual. However, their understanding did not match what was really going on inside the damaged reactor: an accident of a kind which had not been foreseen when the standard procedures were written. Following those procedures compounded the danger and made the situation more unmanageable.

In the current era of climate change driven by human activities, feral conditions require ever more attention. Even the impact of something as apparently “wild” as COVID-19 has feral aspects, because the ways in which the pandemic has played out are entwined with our own choices, systems, and activities: globalisation, climate change, urbanisation, and wide variations in responses by governments, institutions, and communities.

Yet fresh perspectives can always be found, even if we have to manufacture our own vantage point to find them.

In her book Placing Outer Space, the anthropologist Lisa Messeri explores how planterary scientists go about imagining what other worlds might look like: from volunteers travelling to Utah in order to simulate a Martian expedition to astronomers who discover “exoplanets” orbiting other stars and try to imagine what it might be like to inhabit them.

Just as the Earthrise photograph inspired a generation more than fifty years ago, bringing together people of many political persuasions to advocate for the protection of our environment on Earth, Messeri finds that the act of imagining other worlds gives us a fresh perspective on our own.

She writes that “speculating on the plurality of worlds provokes thinking not only about the universe but about Earth itself”;

Ideas of what it means to be on Earth shape studies of other planets, and studying the habitability of other worlds refines how we define life on Earth.

This gives us the chance to think about the “planetarity” of our own planet, one among many celestial objects which we might presume to call Earth’s kin. Messeri argues that this term,

because it appeals to a word associated with “nature” (planet) rather than “culture” (globe), serves to remind us that we are guests of Earth […]
Whereas “globalization” suggests an expansive flattening, “the planetary” resurrects a sense of finitude accompanied by the reality of unequally distributed wealth and resources.

The fresh appreciation of Earth as one planet among many real and imagined, not all of which are viable for supporting and sustaining life as we know it, encourages care and attention rather than exploitation. This is the kind of aesthetic appreciation which involves what Ramírez and Ravetz call

the forms of understanding, perception, conception, and experience which we qualify (often after the fact) with adjectives such as ‘beautiful’, ‘ugly’, ‘elegant’, or ‘repulsive’.

Such appreciation could prevent us from treating the world like a system which we own and have mastered, one where we presume to have understood all the operating procedures and to have achieved dominance over nature.

In cultivating this, as Messeri suggests, the perspective of worlds we have not yet set foot upon might serve just as well as the photograph which Bill Anders took from the Moon in 1968.

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