3 May 2009

The Photo That Changed the World

Posted by Dan Satterfield

What were you doing on Christmas Eve 1968?

If you are younger than 40 you weren’t even alive, but I hit 50 next month, and I remember it well, and not just because I was 9 years old at the time, and Christmas morning was a few hours away. Apollo 8 was circling the Moon, and I was (and still am) a Space nut. Human beings on that Christmas Eve were for the first time in human history, looking at the Earth from another world, something we take it for granted now, but in 1968, this was an almost unbelievable event. My Grandfather never did really believe it.

The Crew of Apollo 8: Borman, Anders and Lovell

The Crew of Apollo 8: Borman, Anders and Lovell

The Crew of Apollo 8: Borman, Anders and Lovell

When Apollo 8 went around the edge of the Moon, all contact was lost with Earth, and  NASA had a nervous half hour plus waiting for the Spacecraft to re-emerge. Hopefully the Astronauts would have successfully fired their engine, and slowed down enough to fall into lunar orbit, but as Apollo 8 swung back around the Moon, through the static of 240,000 miles, came the voice of Frank Borman: “OK Houston, you can tell the world, we have arrived.”

Those words were spoken just after the astronauts saw something incredible, an Earth rise. The bright blue Earth rose above the gray Moon as they rounded the back side, and Astronaut Bill Anders grabbed a camera and took a quick snap. which has become one of the most famous photos ever taken, and Probably THE most famous photograph ever made.

That picture changed the World.

Earthrise from Apollo 8. Perhaps the most famous photograph ever made.

Earthrise from Apollo 8. 24 Dec. 1968 By Bill Anders

From the Dawn of human history through, the 1960’s the human mindset was “us against nature”. A popular song in the 70’s was titled “You and me against the World”, and that was how humans thought of our relationship with the planet. Over the last 4,000 years, humans had learned to shelter ourselves,develop agriculture, and build cities, and in the 1800’s America tamed the continent. The idea that we could significantly harm the planet was not really considered, Nature herself was the enemy to be battled against. Humans were tiny, and the world was huge.

In reality however, this “worldview” was no longer true in 1968, and it’s much more a falsehood now.

You could argue that we can’t harm the planet, and you would be right. It’s probably more correct to say that humans are harming themselves, and the other life on the planet. The Earth will adjust, with new life will evolving, that’s suited to the changed Earth. This itself is nothing new. 99.9% of the species that have ever lived on Earth are now extinct. The Biologists tell us that the more successful a species is, the sooner it goes extinct. Go figure that. We humans have been around for less than 5 million years. Dinosaurs lasted well over 100 million years, and the Trilobytes lasted even longer before they died suddenly in the great Permian extinction.

Bill Anders photo changed the human mindset. For the first time in Human history, we humans saw just how insignificant is our home in the vast Universe. We were just a small island of colourful life, in a dark, cold, vast and  lonely cosmos, and we were trashing that island. The foundations for this realization had been laid before Anders took that photo. Rachel Carson had written “SILENT SPRING”. It was perhaps the first environmental best seller. On TV, a popular public service announcement, featured an Indian who cried at the site of a littered landscape. It was a powerful 60 second spot that everyone my age remembers.

Rachel Carson wrote the first environmental best seller.

Rachel Carson wrote the first environmental best seller. wiki.

Just 16 months after Bill Anders pressed the shutter release on Apollo 8, the planet celebrated the first Earth Day.

Scientists in the late 1960’s warned that if we did not change our ways, that by the end of the century, the majority of our rivers would be seriously polluted, and that ocean fishing stocks would crash. Others warned that millions would suffer health effects from air pollution. Still other scientists warned Congress that there was growing evidence that we were risking our stable climate by continuing to burn fossil fuel at an increasing rate, something President Lyndon Johnson first warned of in 1965!

Asian Brown Cloud

Asian Brown Cloud from NASA/NOAA

So here we are 40 years later, and almost every one of those predictions have come true, and much more. Nearly every major river on this planet is heavily polluted. The air pollution is so bad in Asia that a giant brown cloud blocks the sunlight, over the planet from India to China, reducing sunlight by more than 10% over huge swaths of the planet. Invasive species are costing governments, and citizens billions each year. With the Arctic ice melting at an alarming rate, it seems that humans have, at last, gotten the message, but is it too late?

A series of papers in the journal NATURE last week, have shown that we may have less than 40 years to make DRASTIC cuts in greenhouse gases, and that’s  IF we want to hold the warming of our planet to 2C. This will still be a major change to our Climate, but almost no serious Climate Scientist thinks we can hold it below 2C now.

We humans learn slowly it seems, but we should ALL be glad that the crew of Apollo 8 thought to grab a photo of Earth rise on Christmas Eve 1968.



* This post was rewritten slightly in March 2015