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How a book and a photograph changed the way we look at things

How a book and a photograph changed the way we look at things

By Rajendra Shende

It was the winter of 1972, 7th December to be precise. After nearly five hours of a successful launch and space travel of forty-five thousand kms away from the Earth, the three American astronauts had adjusted themselves well in the Apollo 17 spacecraft. Outside through their window was the universe of absolute darkness. In that vastness of infinity, they saw a perky and intensely bright fulsome globe hanging from nowhere.

It took some time for them to come to the terms of reality and fathom that it was the very planet from where they were propelled 5 hrs back. Aided by the Sun behind them, the Earth was strikingly dazzling and lively.

With the help of a 70-millimeter Swedish camera with an 80-millimeter German lens (specially modified for the Apollo mission), the American astronauts of Apollo 17 crew captured that sharp image of the Earth.

A vibrant picture

Never before, a manned or an unmanned spacecraft had taken such a complete and bright view of the Earth that appeared like a blue marble, full of life. 

That buoyant and clear image, with the polar ice cap on the south, distinct Arabian Peninsula in the center, the island of Madagascar in the vicinity of eastern African coastline and the western Indian coastline vaguely on the horizon, later became the most reproduced and revolutionary image in human history.

The commander of the last of the Apollo mission (who was also the last human to walk on the moon), Eugene Andrew Cernan, died on 16th January 2017, 4 days before Donald Trump became the President of the United States of America. In 1972, Cernan hardly knew that the historic image of gibbous Earth that his mission had captured would become the most widely distributed image in the human history. Further, it would trigger the global movement for caring for our mother Earth.

The significance of the picture

Numerous obituaries that appeared in the press after the death of Cernan, recited his exceptional heroic exploits that included his three rover excursions of about 30 kms on the moon, 22 hours of moonwalks, commanding the longest lunar landing flight of 302 hrs and longest sojourn on the lunar surface of 73 hrs. None of these tributes highlighted the remarkable photograph of the Earth, that was taken during the mission and the subsequent onset of the silent revolution of planetary proportion on preserving the ecology of our planet.

In reality, the image complemented the outcome of the first ever United Nations conference on Human Environment and Development in Stockholm held in June 1972, just six months before Apollo 17 mission.

In reality, the image complemented the outcome of the first ever United Nations conference on Human Environment and Development in Stockholm held in June 1972, just six months before Apollo 17 mission. The conference’s declaration of 26 principles concerning environment and development, action plan with 109 recommendations set in motion the enhanced understanding of the environmental imperatives. The image supplemented that very understanding with the visualization of the frailty of the Earth and the sense of urgency to act. The image was stored in the hearts of global citizens and became the root of modern environmentalism.

In his 2011 book, Scales of the Earth, El Hadi Jazairy, Research Scientist and Architect at MIT-USA  wrote, “Time and time again, the environmental movement has circulated the NASA Earth photographs to cash in on their delicate and bounded beauty.”

The legacy of Rachel Carson

The legacy of Rachel Carson | Photo Courtesy: An organic conversation

Indeed, that image became a symbol of the environmental crusade, by depicting Earth’s frailty, vulnerability, and isolation amid the vast expanse of space.

The impact of the ‘Silent Spring’

10 years before the capture of that momentous image, a compelling book ‘Silent Spring’ also transformed the way the Western world comprehends the Earth. It was authored by Rachel Carson, who described the haunting stories of how indiscriminate use of pesticides, like DDT and hazardous chemicals, are victimizing the Earth’s ecosystems.

‘Silent Spring’  targeted the chemical industry and regulatory officials for disinformation and casual attitudes that were threatening the life-supporting food chain,10 years before the capture of that momentous image.

The book targeted the chemical industry and regulatory officials for disinformation and casual attitudes that were threatening the life-supporting food chain. Al Gore, former Vice President of United States and Nobel Laureate wrote that the book had a huge impact on him. He went on to say, “Silent Spring had a profound impact … Indeed, Rachel Carson was one of the reasons that I became so conscious of the environment”. Many are convinced that Silent Spring tilted the balance of power in the world and diluted the hegemony of the Western-style consumerism as the way to the progress. The book was listed as one of the 25 greatest science books by Discover Magazine. Passionate naturalist Dr. Richard Attenborough considered Silent Spring as a book that transformed the scientific world the most, after ‘Origin of Species’ by Charles Darwin.

Gaps that the picture of the earth filled

However, the book stopped short of providing the vivid urge and vibrant impel to protect the Earth. It created the controversies that Ms. Carson did not take into account i.e. the balance needed between the essential use of pesticides like DDT to save millions of people in the poor countries from malaria and the environmental damage it does.

That gap was, undoubtedly, filled by the animated 1972 image of the beautiful, elegant but dainty whole Earth.  The world started to appreciate the idiocy of people fighting over borders, killings in the Middle East over some imaginary lines on the self-proclaimed territorial-maps not even visible from space. The only borders visible from space are the lines that separate oceans from land, forests from deserts and, if seen carefully, deforested land from pathetic forests that still exist!

Threats to the future and the way ahead

After 45 years, with Cernan’s death and trumpets being blown to silence springs and blur images that make us appreciate the mother Earth, the image should be recalled. The most appreciated recent comment by Mr. Donald Trump was that he has an ‘open mind’ when it comes to environmental issues.

He should now see the image of whole-earth taken by the American mission of Apollo 17 again. That may compel him to vow to make not only America great again, but to make the ‘Whole Earth’ great again.


Rajendra Shende is the Chairman TERRE Policy Centre and the former Director of UNEP and an IIT Alumni.
Featured Image Credits: NASA
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