Astronomy education is a great way to raise awareness of the impact of human activities on Earth systems.
An early mantra of the environment movement, when ecology was entering our cultural consciousness, is “think globally, act locally.” While the phrase came from a Scottish land use planner in the early decades of the 20th century, it became a catch phrase to encourage people to take a larger view of the impact humans have on our planet’s systems. These days, humans have implemented policies and educational practices designed to move us toward thinking in these terms, however our ability to change is still limited, with resource extraction continuing to occur on a massive scale, and some environmental degradation actually accelerating. Short-term thinking about resources continues to hold sway, without considering if future generations will have any resources left to extract or about the impact on the overall system.
A number of years ago, I found myself involved as a leader of a local environmental organization in the timber country of Oregon. During a program, we had a local astronomer present to the membership. Introducing the astronomer, I reminded those in attendance of the old mantra “thing globally, act locally,” and suggested we might better start to “think cosmically, act globally.” This phrase has stayed with me, and I have pondered how we might shift the focus of people to a greater spatial and temporal awareness than what we usually have.
Humans are not particularly good at thinking in time spans longer than a human life, or even in segments of a lifetime. Our memories are short and do not always include events that happened early in our own lives, let alone those our parents and grandparents experienced. History is this remote telling of things that happened, but not to us. Likewise, we have a difficult time looking forward beyond an immediate future, although many are able to take a long view (such as saving for their eventual retirement, and even that is limited to a relatively small segment of the population).
Different branches of science concern themselves with temporal scales outside our normal experience. Archeology and paleontology examine a deeper past, discerning patterns in the evolution of species and the development of human culture. Climate scientists investigate the past and, using current data, project future trends. As noted in a previous post, these two areas of science, evolution and climate change, present challenges for many in their understanding and acceptance of their validity, perhaps due to a lack of temporal thinking when it comes to time scales longer than a human life. Or individuals may have a worldview where humans are separate from the natural world, and they act accordingly. In essence, it is a worldview where humans are not native to this planet and can do what we wish without having to deal with the consequences of our action, even if there is an acknowledgement our children or grandchildren will have to confront the results of our current activity.
A few sciences require this sort of spatial and temporal thinking, beyond our usual experience. Geology is one of them as we gaze into the deep past and below Earth’s surface to create a four-dimensional model of over 4.5 billion years of history. Part of that history involves the evolution of life, and part involves the co-evolution of planetary systems such as the hydrosphere and atmosphere. It is impossible to separate these elements from one another when considering climate science.
It is possible astronomy education is the vehicle to raise awareness of the impact of human activities on Earth systems. Astronomy and its siblings planetary science and astrobiology include the investigation of atmospheres, defining the properties supportive of life as well as creating the tools for more extensive investigation of planetary systems (in the sense of the systems on planets, not the array of planetary bodies around a star). Astronomy can help us to think cosmically, and how there are habitable zones not only on individual planets, but around stars and within galaxies. Placing Earth in a cosmic context can help us understand how fragile the global ecosystem is. When cultures use up a local resource, they are able to pick up and migrate to a new area, where the cycle of resource extraction and depletion begins anew. For us on Earth, once we deplete our resources, there is nowhere else to go, although this is a common theme in much science fiction. All we are left with are the wastes from their extraction.
Founded in 2019, Astronomers for Planet Earth is a movement recognizing the fragility of our planet, and how we must adopt a cosmic perspective to fully understand our home. As they put it, “there is no Planet B.” Bringing together astronomy students, educators, and scientists from everywhere on Earth, Astronomers for Planet Earth aim to create change in how we view not only our planetary home, but ourselves.
This post originally appeared in the Spring 2021 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific