By Olivia Ruffins ’20

One of Carl Sagan’s best works was published two years before he died. Titled Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space, Sagan titled his book after the photo of the same name.  It had been taken by Voyager 1 after it passed Pluto, billions of miles from our planet.

The Pale Blue Dot: photographed on February 14th, 1990 by the Voyager 1 Space Craft.  Earth is circled in  white. Photo taken at Sagan’s request.

In the book, Sagan speaks at length about the history of astronomy, how humans are ultimately insignificant in the universe, the unlikelihood that a god created humans as uniquely special beings, and the urgency of climate change on the survival of a majority of the species on the planet. The most famous section of the book, which also was a given as a speech at Cornell University in 1994, gives a poignant description of the photograph, and the implications that such an image has on human humility.

Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you’ve ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joys and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines…every creator and destroyer of civilization…every young couple in love, hopeful child…every “superstar”, every “supreme leader”, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. (6)

With that single image, humanity became much more conscientious of our place in the cosmos. Our squabbling, which in the early 90s, included the fall of the Soviet Union and  the beginning of the  Gulf War, which seemed in the moment of great importance, was rendered almost completely meaningless, as we looked at our tiny not particularly interesting planet. Because our brief life will almost exclusively take place on Earth, it can be hard for us to look beyond our immediate needs and day to day tasks.  It is only when the tedium of life is interrupted, and we are able to view images that  have been transmitted billions of miles away from our home, do we begin to slowly and collectively understand our place in, as Sagan would put it, “the vast enveloping cosmic dark”.

If has been observed by a great many astronomers, including Sagan,  that our relative position is not at all significant in the universe. Neither Earth nor our sun are in the center of the universe. We aren’t even in the center of our galaxy. The Milky Way doesn’t have any special properties or features that aren’t prevalent in the trillions and trillions of other galaxies in the universe. While this can make us feel quite small, Carl Sagan is quick to point out that it doesn’t mean that our strive for the progress through advancements in science and technology and the humanities are meaningless. Sagan believed that humans being naturally curious creatures, citing the story of Adam and Eve, who ate from the tree of Knowledge before being banished from Eden.  Sagan thought that humans should now look to space and space exploration as not only a frontier, which would be preceded by incredible advancements human developed technologies, but also as an exercise in humility. Sagan tried to break down the archaic and egocentric view that humans had throughout most of our history, the idea that we were somehow special because there was no evidence of other forms of life in the universe, and we had been molded by divine creation as living beings.

Before we can begin our next technological evolution to space exploration, we must try and curb the imminent threats posed to our civilization by climate change by mass cutting of greenhouse gas emissions. Sagan also spoke of at length about global warming in a context that relating to his field of study, astronomy and planetary science. Sagan believed, rightfully so, that in order for us to truly understand the impact that unregulated emission of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, we need only look to our planetary neighbor, Venus, which a swirling green atmosphere full of carbon dioxide and sulfuric acid clouds, an extreme but not unthinkable atmosphere judging by the amount of carbon dioxide that is pumped into Earth’s atmosphere as a result of fossil fuel combustion.

The surface temperature of Venus reaches reading upward of 300° C and an atmosphere composed of  primarily carbon dioxide and sulfur.

The climatological history of our planetary neighbor, an otherwise Earthlike planet of which the surface became hot enough to melt tin or lead, is worth considering–especially by those who say that the increasing greenhouse effect on Earth will be self-correcting that we don’t really have to worry about it or that the greenhouse effect itself in a “hoax.(181)

This kind of rhetoric seems more crucial than ever as world leaders are becoming more and more conservative, and putting environmental protections on hold in favor of economic growth. Growing nationalist ideals coupled with a blatant disregard for the scientific community are proving to be a fatal mix. This is happening  during a crucial period in humanity and Earth’s history, where every year for the past four years have exceeded the last at being the hottest years on record and the sixth mass extinction is well underway (with according to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment has caused twenty four extinctions of species a day). “If we don’t know what’s real, how can we deal with reality? For practical reasons we cannot live in fantasyland.” (48). This doesn’t dissuade many world leaders, who are quick to exclaim that  that climate change is a “hoax” created by the various governments or corporations to kill jobs, despite overwhelming consensus in the scientific community; climate change is not only a real thing, but that it could be the cause of the end of humanity if emissions of greenhouse gases are allowed to be emitted at the current rate.  

Carl Sagan aptly stated that “ There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate.” We are for the most part we are stuck on earth, a faint and fleeting  point of light suspended in the inhospitable vacuum of space. We don’t have the technology to colonize other planets and survive, and for the time being we, the masses of humans, not world leaders and business owners whose selfish interests only concern themselves, their immediate acquaintances and the profitability of the servitude of natural resources and peoples, must do everything in our power to keep our world habitable for future generations, lest we perish, and taking a significant portion of the other species whom we share the planet with. We mustn’t start our space exploration as refugees fleeing a planet that we alone have poisoned by the effects of greenhouse gas emissions causing the global climate to change.

 While Pale Blue Dot was written twenty three years ago, it still has significant merit for our generation, the urgency that Carl Sagan expresses on the topics of global warming and the future of humanity and Earth are issues that the world’s young people must begin to face head on. As Millennials and Generation Z become independent adults, we begin to have influence in how we want our species to progress. The biggest way for young people to have an impact on the world is for us to vote for legislation that aligns with our hopes for the future.  Sagan ultimately teaches us that “ There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”      

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