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'Planetary' Calls For A Global Vision Shift For Earthlings

A view of a phytoplankton bloom near Alaska's Pribilof Islands. The milky green and light blue shading of the water indicates the presence of vast populations of microscopic phytoplankton.
A view of a phytoplankton bloom near Alaska's Pribilof Islands. The milky green and light blue shading of the water indicates the presence of vast populations of microscopic phytoplankton.

As today is Earth Day, it may be that nothing is more appropriate than watching, here, at 13.7, a preview of the documentary Planetary.

Using footage from NASA, interviews and spectacular imagery from across the planet, the movie calls for a change in perspective — a new way of relating to each other and to the planet. Cynics will, no doubt, dismiss this as naïve, Birkenstock-wearing, granola-crunching, New-Age propaganda, and call for more drilling, more forest-clearing, more all-out fishing, more all-out irresponsible abuse of our joint planetary resources.

One message comes out crystal clear from modern-day science: There are no isolated effects; what happens here affects what goes on there. There is a global chain of energy and food supply and demand that keeps the planet in check. Global connectivity doesn't happen only through the Internet; it's a planetary phenomenon, where even small perturbations can have large effects. Obviously, large industrial-related outputs have more of an impact than that of an isolated household or village burning coal during winter. But that should not be a point of contention. As the naturalist John Muir wrote in My First Summer in the Sierra, "When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe."

If countries cannot come to a global agreement on how to proceed, change must happen at the individual level. One by one, we must learn the lessons that our new space-based view of the planet is teaching us. This is no ordinary planet; Earth is a rare oasis for life in a hostile universe, where planetary environments are extremely harsh for life forms such as ours. We evolved here, adapting to the very specific conditions prevalent in this world. It is here that we will remain for the foreseeable future — and it is here that we must find ways to live with an ever-growing population needy of resources that must be shared with other life forms. Surely, many only care about the bottom line — how the stocks are doing today. Can a finite planetary environment sustain bottomless greed?

This is where the shift must happen: We are the only stockholders this planet has. And the bottom line is our planetary future and the quality of life of our children and grandchildren. The worth of every generation should be measured by its legacy. What is our legacy going to be?

Marcelo Gleiser is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist — and professor of natural philosophy, physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College. He is the co-founder of 13.7, a prolific author of papers and essays, and active promoter of science to the general public. His latest book is The Island of Knowledge: The Limits of Science and the Search for Meaning. You can keep up with Marcelo on Facebook and Twitter: @mgleiser.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Marcelo Gleiser is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. He is the Appleton Professor of Natural Philosophy and a professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College.

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