Reminding ourselves of our planetary home helps create emotional attachment
As astronomy educators, we frequently have learners write out their addresses in a manner to encourage them to broaden their definition of home and to see themselves as part of the greater cosmos. As an educator at the Astronomical Society of the Pacific, mine might look like this:
The Astronomical Society of the Pacific, 390 Ashton Avenue, San Francisco, California, United States, North America, Earth, Sol System, Milky Way Galaxy, Universe.
Usually this is done to help open a window to the universe. Perhaps a more appropriate way is to use such an exercise as a mirror, to help learners understand they are a part of a planetary community on Earth.
The idea of home is one most of us inherently understand. We ask about one another’s hometowns, the place where we spent our formative years. We talk about going home for the holidays, or going away from home to go to university. Home is often where we find our families, our oldest friends, the places where we first learned about the world. Even as adults with our own homes perhaps with a spouse and children, we still look back at our original homes with longing. (Of course, this is not true for everyone, and there are circumstances where home is not looked upon fondly. Some people have the belief their ultimate home is in some “other” place where they go after they die. At many funerals eulogies speak of the deceased “going home.”)
Previous columns have noted how events outside a learner’s experience, whether in time or space, are difficult for them to incorporate into their world view. It is possible the disconnects we have for events far away are due in part because we do not consider those areas as “home.” Events occurring in places or with objects we are familiar with hold greater meaning for us. Two cases in point made events more real for me and really “hit home.” A shooting at Umpqua Community College a few years ago took place in a classroom I had used for summer sessions for young learners. When the Space Shuttle Columbia broke apart on reentry, I later realized I had seen some of the flight hardware as it was prepped for flight. Both events became more real for me, eliciting an emotional reaction. Somehow with both I was involved and impacted.
For educators wishing for learners to develop an understanding and caring for the Earth particularly when it comes to climate change, we need to help them make a connection and build empathy for what is taking place even though they are not directly impacted. In short, we need to help learners think of the entire planet as their home, and not just the small part where they grew up or currently live.
Astronauts have spoken on many occasions on how when on orbit or in transit to the Moon they were unable to see the political boundaries or other impacts of civilization. This seeing of the Earth as the sole and fragile abode of humankind was transformative for them. The expansion of the concept of home to encompass the entire planet is not easy. As temporal scales flummox many people, so do those of distance.
A staple of many science fiction stories is the migration of humans away from Earth due to environmental catastrophe, usually climate change making our planet unable to sustain civilization as we currently know it. In the stories, Earth takes on a mythical quality, with our space-faring descendants recognizing it as their place of origin, their home world. This scenario is all too plausible for our actual future, though there currently is no “Planet B” with similar attributes to Earth where civilization could resume its activities.
While our planet is relatively small and much of our modern technology has shrunk our world, it remains difficult to relate to cultures other than our own even though we may have spent time in them.
As noted in past columns, western-European-derived cultures tend to develop a transactional approach to their interactions with the Earth. On the other hand, Indigenous cultures tend toward a relational approach, seeing their lives intertwined with the natural world and noting how everything is connected in some manner. This latter approach increases the chance of understanding how cause and effect relationships might influence parts of the system far from what is under direct observation. In some ways, modern science has adopted this systems approach building models reflecting more far reaching relationships between what were once thought of as disparate and discrete phenomena. Bringing a relational approach into our interactions with learners can help break down barriers to allow a more expansive view of our home planet and hopefully affect the future where we no longer have to hold out hope for Planet B.
This post originally appeared in the Autumn 2021 issue of Mercury Magazine, a publication of the Astronomical Society of the Pacific