You need to know who you are, otherwise it’s impossible to change.

Sounds like a leadership slogan, but it’s also a perfect way to sum up how the environmental movement got started in North America in the late 1960′s and early 70′s. It wasn’t a great political announcement that kicked things off. It wasn’t a damning report on a toxic disaster. It was one, simple photograph. In 2013, we’d probably call it “the ultimate selfie”:

Earthrise. Nature photographer Galen Rowell declared it "the most influential environmental photograph ever taken."

Earthrise, taken by William Anders. Nature photographer Galen Rowell called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”

Earthrise, the “big blue marble” (it’s almost impossible to imagine this) was the first time that humans had truly seen ourselves. That we’d identified our home, Earth, as a place, a thing. That sudden self-awareness was not only a near-religious experience for many of the NASA astronauts who experienced it, but also a powerful realization for those left behind. So powerful that it’s widely credited with kickstarting the modern environmental movement.

I was reminded of this moment in time (not only a lesson in the power of self-awareness, but also of what motivates people to change – but that’s another blog post) this morning while scanning Twitter. NASA has, over the last few years, been releasing stunning photographs taken by the International Space Station. This morning I came across an image of Cape Cod in the United States.

Cape Cod in the United States, photograph from the International Space Station

Cape Cod in the United States, photograph from the International Space Station

I see a lot of these photos in my Twitter stream as they’re shared by NASA via social media and then shared and re-shared by a lot of the people I follow. Tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions of people see them every day. Far more than the number who saw Earthrise in the glossy pages of Life Magazine, where it was published in 1969.

Which got me to thinking. One could argue that these images, from all over the world, have the potential to be just as powerful, if not more so, than Earthrise. They’re up-close, personal photographs of our home. We can see things we recognize – both natural beauty and the impact of our activities. They’re real, in no way abstract.

The lights of London, by astronaut Andre Kuipers

The lights of London, by astronaut Andre Kuipers

As we find ourselves in what some scientists are calling another extinction event (this one sometimes called the Anthropocene, after its cause) we are and will be faced with tough, life-altering choices. (A friend recently did an assessment of his consumption. The good news was that his household required 50% less that the average Canadian home. The bad news was that if everyone on Earth consumed at the same level, we’d need six more planets to provide the necessary resources.)

I can’t help but wondering if these very personal images of our home planet, and what we’re doing to it, shared more widely than ever before possible thanks to digital media, will help motivate us to make the dramatic and difficult choices we need to.

Mid-Atlantic pollution haze, August 2006

Mid-Atlantic pollution haze, August 2006

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