Earthrise: ‘Discovery’ of a commodified home

Written by: Stefan Bernhardt-Radu, 4th year History Student, Coventry University

While the Earthrise photo captured by Apollo 8 in December 1968 is usually hailed as a moment when the Earth as home was ‘discovered’, thus mobilising the environmental movement, the argument here is that it ultimately represents the containment of the movement’s radicalism. Whilst Richard Deese and Yannick Mahrane et al. argue that the photo became the icon of an unproblematic global environmental movement, William Bryant maintains that the photo ultimately defused the movement, offering an explanation as to why the photo is generally considered to have been inconsequential in the long run. To analyse why the radicalism of the environmental movement may have been defused, this article will explore the environmental feelings triggered by the photo and how it ultimately became an icon of an economic compromise, and then a symbol of a commodified Earth.

Firstly, the Earthrise photo sensitised a large group of people to issues that were already known on a much smaller scale by scientists and intellectuals. Competition between the US and USSR propelled scientific research and technological innovation, providing a deeper understanding of our planet. Nuclear technology, for example, simultaneously rendered the idea of potential annihilation tangible yet also helped to advance the earth sciences. Cybernetics, owing to their imitation of life, helped to foster a biological understanding, while aerospace technology provided images of Earth from space. Deese argues that it was mainly this technological and scientific development that led to the widespread use of the famous ‘Spaceship Earth’ metaphor, a precursor to the environmental radicalism created by the Earthrise photo. In brief, the Spaceship metaphor, widely used amongst scientists and intellectuals, suggested that Earth was a small ship, with a vulnerable and limited reserve of air and soil, on which a united humanity would need to be committed to planetary safety, security and peace.

Nevertheless, Deese downplays the wider context. Another sensitising factor was the exponential economic growth of Western countries after the Second World War, fundamentally functioning as a deterrent against future wars, and a solution to progress. This allowed even working or rural classes to own appliances such as refrigerators, washing machines, radios, automobiles and gas stoves by the late 1960s. Along with economic growth (although not determined by it) came overpopulation, an effect of improving sanitation and economic growth – the ‘baby boomer’ generation. The problem of overpopulation would result in Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb which was widely known. Furthermore, this generation contained a university-educated student population who would participate in social justice movements, and who, owing to economic growth, pollution and overpopulation, would be closer to nature thanks to suburbanisation or the accessibility of cars. All of these elements led to an uncontrolled human usage of the environment, which led to the economist Kenneth Boulding coining the term ‘cowboy economy’ (an economy of waste) that should be transformed into a ‘spaceman economy’ (the Spaceship Earth). Sabine Höhler, in turn, argued that the Spaceship Earth metaphor became crucial in expressing spatial limitations to the members of the emerging ‘Environmental Movement’.

In this socio-economic context, the Earthrise photo translated intellectual concerns into a ‘sensual reality’ that could be understood by millions of receptive people. In other words, Earth became a tender, lonely and small blue planet, inhabited by a unified humanity, a Mother Earth. The idea of a fragile Earth was a shared feeling by the 20 million Americans who participated in the first ever Earth Day on 22 April 1970, to whom Margaret Mead said that ‘I think that the tenderness [which] lies in seeing the Earth as small and lonely and blue is probably one of the most valuable things that we have now’. As a result, environmental concern and activism grew significantly: the National Wildlife Federation saw a twofold increase from 271,900 in 1966 to 540,000 in 1970. In short, the Earthrise photo clearly sensitised a large population to the idea of a fragile planet – and thus popularised and rendered accessible the growing worry which had been prevalent only amongst experts.

However, owing to those conjectures in which Earthrise was taken, the image also represented an ultimately defused environmental activism, as the core economic attitudes and lifestyles were preserved. The history of the United States’ National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) signed into law on the 1 January 1970 – ‘a major victory for environmentalists’ – demonstrates this. The legislation’s most powerful way of enforcing environmental regulation was through the public-disclosed environmental impact statements (EIS), which forced reviews of projects such as dams, highways or pipelines. Despite this, due to a growing fear within the ranks of federal development agencies concerning a halt or fall of the economy, an ‘overriding considerations’ cost-benefit section was introduced in 1973, which took into account what ‘other interests and considerations of federal policy are thought to offset the adverse environmental effects of the proposed action’. That section was implemented in 1973, when the price of oil soared and therefore the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline project became a national emergency. That Americans were waiting in long gasoline lines shows the moderate character of those who only three years before had congregated on Earth Day. Radical environmentalism was thus side-lined. NEPA ultimately functioned as a superficial ‘fix’ of a massive environmental impetus, but it was ultimately set aside for the USA’s love for oil and cars. This trend continued: while in 1970, the 20 million Americans gathered to challenge ‘basic economic, technological, scientific and bureaucratic relations of society’, on Earth Day 1990, (with 200 million people worldwide), there was no such challenge to the ‘basic economic, technological, scientific and bureaucratic relations of society’.

Related to this, is that the Earthrise photo helped to reduce the complexity of the problems and universalised a complacent Western environmentalist critique. The ‘global view’ of Earthrise removed people from the ‘realm of immediacy’ where they could take efficient action. This has had several consequences on the environmental movement. For one, it makes environmentalists ignore social inequalities on the ground which are fundamentally linked to ecological issues. For example, global inequalities were stark when 110,000 were killed during the December 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, as the affected poor countries could not afford satellites that would have immediately signalled incoming tsunamis via ground-level tsunameters. Western environmentalists and governments also condemned poor countries for their inability to prevent environmentally-related issues. In a 2019 article, Dr. Viwanou Gnassounou, the assistant general of the Africa Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) international group, declared that ‘disasters [e.g. famines of 2018] are linked to climate change [but] we have not been very successful [to get this point across]’ and that ‘[donor countries] prefer that you condemn yourself by saying that you did not have a proper policy to prevent disaster’.

Moreover, the photo presents the world as an abstract concept, a fragile, beautiful world that removes many environmentalists from pragmatic actions – ‘mopping’ environmental issues, not turning off industrial ‘taps’. Although the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reported that drastic need for action was needed to limit global warming to 1.5 C in October 2018, some environmental groups such as Greenpeace stress the need to tackle plastic pollution, an important but perhaps a less crucial issue. The ‘climate crisis’, unlike plastic pollution, exceeds its boundary significantly in the model of ‘Planetary boundaries’ that measures safe pollution thresholds. Hence, plastic pollution became, according to Prof. Rick Stafford, a ‘convenient truth’. Corporations and industries have therewith transformed environmental practice into payable ‘environmental performativity’, while environmental concern was morphed into a ‘hitherto uncommodified area’, to be paid for by ‘green consumers’. As a corollary thereof, Der Spiegel published a special on ‘Globalisation: the New World’ in 2005, the front cover of which being the Earthrise photo, albeit altered where the Earth is replaced by a Earth-painted container ready to be shipped profitably to its consumers, perhaps somewhere floating in space. In other words, ecological ‘efficiency’ would need be part of a new era of economic growth, not against it.

A good way to conclude is to mention that Earthrise is only a photo. Irrespective of that, it has stirred different reactions and effects. One, it has translated the Spaceship Earth idea into a particular and accessible metaphor of a fragile, blue Earth which fuelled action for the planet. However, it also inherits a logic that did not challenge the technocratic or bureaucratic idea that the Earth could simply be ‘fixed’ via technology or policy. At the same time, the image distances the viewer from the Earth and universalises the observer’s perspective on the world, global inequalities and pragmatic environmental considerations thus being disregarded. In reality then, the Earthrise photo helps the Earth to be Othered, placing the planet out of the realm of ‘historicization’, and turning it into a fragile Utopia, whose ground-level complexities are largely ignored by what William Bryant has called the shimmering blue and white spectacle of the ‘veneer’. ‘Discovery’ is then part of a Western discourse, the fragile planet being a convenient discursive metaphor that only Westerners could ‘save’, all while not drastically modifying their modus vivendi.

Cover Photo: Earthrise, taken on 24 December 1968, by Apollo 8 Astronaut William Anders.


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