November 19, 2014
Last month I spent some time in Namibia for work. During one of my days off, I was able to spend some time visiting Kolmanskop. Located in the Namib Desert a few miles outside of the seaside town of Lüderitz, Kolmanskop is a “Ghost Town” that is the remains of a former diamond mining town. Kolmanskop was founded shortly after diamonds were discovered in the region in 1908 and was abandoned to the elements in 1954, after the diamond supply was depleted. Over the last sixty years, Kolmanskop has been decaying in the desert, battered by the wind and swept over with sand. Today, many of the buildings are half-filled with sand. The discarded possessions of the town’s former inhabitants are either slowly disintegrating in the open air or are precariously protected by glass display cases. The town of Kolmanskop is managed as a tourist attraction by the diamond mining company Namdeb. Tourists can pay a fee to visit the town during certain hours. At their own risk, tourists can wander through the abandoned buildings.
Visiting Kolmanskop was a fascinating and surreal experience. As I explored the ghostly town, I felt keenly aware of the insignificance and ephemeral nature of my life. I wondered if, one day years from now, a young woman will wander through the decaying remains of my home… or perhaps come across a former possession of mine– maybe a book, with my name written on the front cover, dusty in the corner of an antique shop– and wonder, just for a moment, about the object’s former owner. Wandering through Kolmanskop, I found myself thinking about one of my favorite Carl Sagan quotations, from the book Pale Blue Dot:
Look again at 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 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. 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.
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.
With that quotation in mind, enjoy my pictures from Kolmanskop: