In 1990, as the Voyager 1 probe was speeding out of our solar system, it turned its cameras to the rear. Looking back, as though taking one last, fleeting glance back at its old home, it snapped a single image. That image is above. Requested by Dr. Carl Sagan, the image is one of Earth, our home planet, taken from very, very far away. Since known as the “Pale Blue Dot”, the image was accompanied by a speech, which Dr. Sagan delivered at Cornell University in 1994:
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that in glory and triumph they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner. How frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity – in all this vastness – there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
The Earth is the only world known, so far, to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment, the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
Today is special. Today is important. Today, we take our yearly pause to consider our planet. Most of us, sadly, probably don’t think too much about it most days. They breathe the air, drink the water, walk through the grass and lay beneath the trees as though all of it is infinite. As though they expect to wake up each morning to find all of their bills paid, the house cleaned, and the fridge overflowing with food. They look at pretty pictures of Earth, as though the blues and greens will be there forever, as though it’s a painting, permanent, immutable. Maybe they even observe Earth Hour. Maybe they even think for a moment about how often they drive their car.
Then, as it always does, April 23 rolls around. The pretty pictures go away, the concern fades, and everyone asks what’s on TV.
Here’s the thing: there are those in this world who live Earth Day. Every day. They spend their fretful days worrying about our future. They wonder how much longer our air will be breathable, how much the seas will rise. They wonder how much stronger the next storm will be, how many will die. They wonder how bad the next drought will be, the next famine. They wonder how many children will starve.
They worry a lot about children. Not just theirs, but everyone’s. They wonder if children born today will ever build a snowman. They wonder if those children will ever see a lion or a cheetah or a polar bear outside of a book. They wonder if those children will taste an orange, or play outside, or drink clean water instead of leaden poison.
For climate scientists, ecologists, biologists, conservationists, and all those actively engaged in the defense of our planet, this is their reality. They look at our world today and see something grim and urgent. They free sea turtles from plastic netting. They protest at chemical plants and tailing ponds. They use detergent to scrub oil from the fur and feathers of endangered animals. All the while, they are derided by those in power. They are dismissed as “alarmists” as the coral reefs die, as temperatures rise, as the ice caps fragment and glaciers disappear, as we witness a mass extinction the likes of which our planet has not seen for millions of years.
And all the while they fear that they might be fighting a losing battle. They wonder if it might be too late, worry that their efforts will ultimately be thwarted by more short-sighted and influential people. Yet they keep fighting.
It is a twisted tragedy that we speak of “defending” the planet, because it’s outrageous to think that we need to defend our own planet from ourselves. It’s as though we’re burning our own house down, running around setting fire to everything in sight and wondering where the flames are coming from.
Our species has produced so much good. We are curious, we are compassionate, we learn and struggle. We adapt, and no doubt for a time we will be able to adapt to our world as it changed through our mistakes, yet so much of the diverse life on our planet will be lost before we ultimately meet our end. And in the interim subsequent generations will be deprived of their human spirit, forced to devote all their efforts to mere survival as our species clings feebly to life.
We deserve more than that. As Dr. Sagan put it, there is no sign that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves. For now, it is up to us. We must work every day to be one of the pieces working to solve the puzzle. We must devote ourselves to protecting our planet, not just on Earth Day, but every day.
Today, that is my advice to my readers: before we can claim our place in the heavens, we must secure our place here. We must use all our intellect, our curiosity, our compassion and our strength in defense of Earth, the only home we’ve ever known.
Happy Earth Day.