Earth Day and the Pale Blue Dot

This past Sunday, April 22 was Earth Day, a day set aside to support the protection of the environment. It’s a day to give thanks for the earth we live on and commit to caring for it. It’s also an opportunity to take stock of the impact that humans have on the environment, to assess our behaviors and ask whether our individual and collective habits and values enable the rest of creation to thrive or stand as obstacles to its flourishing.

As churches, schools, businesses, and individuals observed Earth Day in their own ways, I found myself thinking about the famous “Pale Blue Dot” image captured by the Voyager 1 spacecraft on February 14, 1990. From a distance of 4 billion miles away, the Voyager 1 camera took a picture of earth, which shows up as a tiny dot less than 1 pixel in size in the middle of a ray of light from the sun.

PaleBlueDot

In 1994, Carl Sagan showed this image during a lecture at Cornell University and reflected on its significance. In his remarks, which you can read at the Planetary Society’s website, Sagan emphasized what is immediately apparent in the image: that the Earth is a tiny speck in an enormous universe. It’s on this tiny speck that all of human history has played out. Every person’s aspirations and failures, every community’s joys and sorrows, every great empire’s rise and fall—all of it has happened on this dot, what Sagan calls “a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.” Such a view is humbling, which is why the image was taken in the first place. It gives us a striking sense of perspective by setting everything we know against the vast backdrop of empty space.

The “pale blue dot” image might for a moment cause us to scoff at the Earth, to look down on our tiny home as something that is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. The real effect, though, is the opposite. As Sagan reminded his audience, the Earth is indescribably precious, because it’s the only place in this endless universe that is home to human life. The big picture shows us that our home is tiny, yes, but also valuable and treasured. Though astronomers are searching for others like it, so far as we know it’s one of a kind. This pale blue dot is the only place where life as we know it grew up and still lives. It’s the only place we know where there are intelligent creatures capable of understanding the significance of big and small, of adopting a perspective that humbles us. And as far as we can tell, it’s the only place we know where creation sings and prays to its Creator, worships with words and music and some small measure of understanding.

We usually associate Earth Day with the color green, but the Voyager 1 image makes me wonder if blue isn’t more appropriate. Recognizing that Earth is a pale blue dot certainly motivates me to care more for it—to be a better steward of the resources it provides. It makes me want to change my habits to help keep the oceans clean, the forests thriving and teeming with life, the air clear. It makes me want to stop human-induced climate change. And it makes me want to treat my fellow humans and other creatures with love and a sense of common destiny. We’re all in this together—look what a tiny dot we all live on.

Much of my reflections on this blog are about imagining the future of humankind and especially the Christian faith in space. But that does not mean we should care nothing about the Earth. On the contrary, it means we should value the Earth all the more. It will always be our home. Even if we do venture out to Mars and beyond, far into the future, Earth will forever be our birthplace and our cradle. And for the moment, it’s our one and only world. May we treat this pale blue dot like the precious jewel it is.

 

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