Why ‘Earthrise’ Matters
It is perhaps the most famous photograph ever taken. It came into being almost by accident, when on the morning of Christmas Eve 1968 one of the astronauts aboard the Apollo 8 spacecraft, Bill Anders, turned the camera from the supposed object of their mission – the moon – towards a spherical, brightly glowing, blue object rising above the lunar horizon. This was Earth, our irreplaceable planetary home. Suddenly humankind was able to view its habitat with a gaze hitherto reserved for the entity we have termed God.
It was a moment that invited and continues to offer us a fundamental change in perspective. Although the theory that the earth was a sphere had been proposed by ancient Greek thinkers from Pythagoras onwards, such thinking remained theoretical for hundreds more years, and still remains today, as we make our way laboriously around our streets, mountains and seas, largely implausible.
Though the Earth typically appears inexhaustibly vast to us, suddenly it emerged as what it truly is: just another medium-sized planet in one solar system, in one galaxy, in a mind-defyingly infinite universe. Though it might seem far for an earth-dweller to journey from NY to Sydney, or from one pole to another, these are, in the greater scheme, the trails of an ant.
Earthrise allowed us to feel a kind of care, even love, for the planet. Viewed from space, we see it protected from terrific bombardments of meteorites and solar and cosmic rays, and made habitable, only by an infinitesimally thin membrane – which it is now wholly in our remit to destroy. Our oxygen rich atmosphere – the difference between a barren desert planet like Mars, and our lush, abundant, breathable home – appears in the photo as the vaguest of halos.
From up here, it is possible to feel so much more generous towards the human project than we normally do. We can smile gently at humanity and perhaps admire it a little too. Everyone’s faults drop away against such majesty. We are tugged towards being more patient and warm around our fellow ants spinning with us in endless darkness. We might like to tell one or two of these ants in franker, more direct terms how fond we are of them.
On the planet, right now, babies are being born, adults are crying themselves to sleep, people are on their knees hoping for redemption. There is struggle, error, folly and hope. The photograph urges us towards a higher form of kindness and forgiveness. There is – probably – no divine being to look down on us and help us: it’s only us responsible for ourselves and our fragile home. We may have to adopt in and for ourselves some of the attitudes we once projected onto divinities.
If there were to be a new religion, one without a god, a secular religion set up to remind us of our need to love, to be kind and to forgive, then Earthrise might fittingly be its logo and its central image. But even without such a fanciful though perhaps necessary creation, Earthrise deserves a place on the kitchen wall, on our screen savers and in our minds, a constant reminder of our power, our vulnerability and our deep responsibility to one another.