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Cultivating the Overview Effect

July 11, 2023

The Overview Effect. That’s a term I’ve wanted to write on for a while. I almost did so after watching the first few episodes of the great documentary series One Strange Rock. Then, again after the news that William Shatner went into space and came back a transformed man. But only now, as I get a glimpse of the overview effect myself do I feel the inspiration to write this reflection.

No, I didn’t take last week off to go out into space (and thanks to those who noticed the first weekly gap in Gaian Reflections since this endeavor started four years ago). I actually took a vacation, a rare occurrence, and while I was going to scramble and write an essay anyway, I then read Vu Le’s most recent Nonprofit AF essay on how taking a break doesn’t mean you’re lazy, which I encourage you to read if you too identify as hard-working or as an overachiever.

My family and I actually spent some days in Montreal (a shorter drive from Connecticut than DC it turns out).* That was a first for us and filled with explorations of art, food (yes, including Poutine), even a giant biosphere created by Buckminster Fuller. But the surprising winner was an exhibit called Space Explorers: L’Infini. It was small—actually just one dark room—but as it was a VR exhibit, it was huge—the size of the International Space Station (ISS), which my son and I got to explore. (My wife said no to a VR headset!)

While it doesn’t look like much, this might be the most impressive exhibit in Montreal (Image by Erik Assadourian)

Now this was my first time putting on a VR helmet and while I’m generally negative about the idea—it just being a more sophisticated way to tune out the world and amuse oneself to death—in this case, I got to go where I could never afford to, or even if I could, could never justify the ecological damage required to do so (I struggled to rationalize driving to Montreal!).

In truth, walking around in VR was clunky and cartoonish, with the station made out of shadowy lines and people glowing silhouettes (that you occasionally bumped into). But when you clicked on a hovering orb, suddenly you were transported to the station. You could turn your head or your entire body 360 degrees and see every angle. I watched (and listened to) an astronaut load a lithium battery pack, set up a fire-testing station, even throw a cookie into another astronaut’s mouth. Many talked directly to the camera about their experiences, about how the trip changed them. One astronaut, Nick Hague, talked about how “limited” he realized he was. He picked up a small clip and opened his hand and it just floated there. ‘I’m just like this clip,’ he explained. And while I didn’t get his exact words, his point was that his autonomy, his ability to influence the world, is far more limited than he ever realized until being up on the ISS.

That was an important reminder. Deep down, I want to help form a philosophy and community that puts humans back into right relationship with the home we are (and will always be) tethered to. But truthfully, I am just a clip, with limited ability, autonomy, even agency. A tough but important reminder.

How much autonomy does a clip, or a floating sphere of water, have? (Image of NASA astronaut and Expedition 62 Flight Engineer Jessica Meir by NASA)

Connecting with Gaia

The most important part of the journey was not the station or the interactions with the astronauts, but looking out at Gaia below me. Yes, literally, as I remained firmly on the ground, but I mean 250 miles below, looking out from the vantage of the ISS. I could see the curve of Earth, the black of space, the horizon, clouds, and ocean. In one overview (as there were several different moments of this) I could see an angry hurricane below—similar to the photos I’ve seen from NASA but much much more. While surely a poor shadow of really being up on the ISS, it was still humbling and beautiful and a way for a far larger number of people to experience the Overview Effect.

Essentially, as philosopher (and term-coiner) Frank White defines it, “The overview effect is a cognitive and emotional shift in a person’s awareness, their consciousness and their identity when they see the Earth from space,” As Wikipedia adds, this effect entails “a state of awe with self-transcendent qualities, precipitated by a particularly striking visual stimulus.” That’s what happened to William Shatner, and why he experienced “the strongest feelings of grief” he ever experienced. As he noted, it was “the lifeforce that I saw coming from the planet — the blue, the beige and the white” (as well as the threat of its death).

See the lifeforce emanating from Earth. (Image of astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson “Earth gazing” in the Cupola module of the International Space Station, from NASA via Wikipedia)

That’s what happened to astronaut Ron Garan Jr., as well. In the radio program, Living on Earth, he describes this feeling. “For the first time in my life, I was seeing this exquisite beauty from the outside and, and somehow that outsider perspective, what I call the orbital perspective, compelled me to feel deeply interconnected with everybody and everything on the planet.”

He was then asked about Gaia Hypothesis and responded:

I don’t think it’s a hypothesis. I think it’s obvious I am seeing the planet from the vantage, that vantage point of space makes it obvious that we’re looking at a living breathing organism, a multi celled organism, an organism that has different, you know, aspects of it, that based on the various, you know, multi varied species of life that exists upon the surface and below the surface of earth, and in the atmosphere of earth. And all of those different species, different individual animals, and plants are all part of an implicit wholeness, that is the planet itself. It’s all not only interconnected, it’s deeply, deeply interdependent.

Exactly. It’s all, we’re all, deeply interdependent. One interconnected living organism. And most people struggle with that realization for lots of reasons. Our lack of education. Our scientific, atomistic education. Our cultural priorities. And our complete disconnect from our food, our water, our energy (which didn’t happen when we were hunting and foraging, filling pitchers from streams, and cutting wood for fire).

Our culture has almost already built us a virtual reality headset that we don’t even know we’re wearing (as Plato pointed out 2,400 years ago). Admittedly viewing Gaia from space (in person or virtually) might not trigger the Overview Effect in most people (as we’re just too disconnected), but just as the escapee from Plato’s cave feels compelled to go back, it’s worth a try. Of course, even if it does trigger a shift, will it trigger an active shift in how we live? Perhaps not without some nurturing—without supporting the epiphany and channeling people to utilize this new found connection.**

Maybe we need to support the overview effect. The Gaian community is too small to linger outside the Montreal exhibit handing out leaflets*** but it would be interesting to brainstorm ways to spark in people the overview effect (or support those doing this) and then develop a program of turning that Overview Experience into a new found sense of Earthly connection and purpose.

It appears that the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum also has a new space to cultivate the Overview Effect. (Image of NASA astronauts visiting the One World Connected gallery by NASA/Joel Kowsky)

The [Ironic] Disconnect

The truth is, while the Overview Effect is what I got out of the experience, I bet many instead left the exhibit celebrating space exploration and human exceptionalism. Certainly there was a lot of cheerleading going into space travel and creating a ‘permanent lunar presence, en route to Mars.’ There was also a lot of praising the big corporations that build all this stuff. And the final experience of the exhibit (after removing your goggles) is to watch a launch of the most powerful rocket ever (a new SpaceX one), with an astronaut voiceover saying how “it is absolutely inspiring what humans can put together with their hands and design with their minds.”

To me, that launch video combined with those words are a perfect modern representation of the Tower of Babel. We’re reaching to the heavens, trying to become gods (one astronaut interviewed in the exhibit even suggests perhaps “spacefaring man” should be genetically engineered to have a tail and four arms!). And all the time, we’re destroying the Gaian organism we’re part of and completely and permanently tethered to.

While I hope many will experience the overview effect as they travel through the virtual ISS, it is equally likely that they are instead reminded of man’s power and infallibility. And become cheerleaders of space, technology, and the metaverse, rather than Earth activists and servants of Gaia. But perhaps I’ll be pleasantly surprised.

Will we choose the path of techno-disconnection or use this moment rediscover our deep interconnection? (View of the South Atlantic Ocean from the ISS by NASA)


*Doable on one tank of gas in a Prius C it turns out—which slightly alleviates my travel-guilt, but is also important to know in a Handmaid’s Tale Scenario!

**Question: What has William Shatner done to help heal Gaia since returning from space ten months ago?

***Though we probably could use social media in this way, identifying and responding to those that express awe at their experience at L’Infini.

(Image on Reflections page is of astronaut Tracy Caldwell Dyson “Earth gazing” in the Cupola module of the International Space Station, from NASA via Wikipedia)

Erik Assadourian

Erik is the Director of the Gaian Way (gaianway.org), an ecospiritual philosophy, organization, and community.

Tags: blue marble, Gaia, Gaia hypothesis, interbeing, virtual reality