To See: George R. Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision Realized

George R. Stewart was an “inventor” of the Whole Earth Vision – the recent realization that Earth, in an immense universe, is one small, blue, life-bearing place, only fully understood if it’s explored from two perspectives – that of the ecologist, who studies it from ground level, and that of the astronaut, who examines Earth from space.

Stewart used that vision for the first time in Ordeal By Hunger.  He begins the book by asking the reader to “imagine yourself poised in space” in what we would now call LEO or Low Earth Orbit, about 200 miles up.  In the book’s Foreword he describes northern Nevada precisely, as photos taken from the International Space Station reveal.  (Stewart used the techniques of fiction to make the history dramatic and engaging, and did that so well that some readers still think they’re reading a novel.  They’re not; they’re reading history.)

The book then moves into the ecologist’s point of view, ground level, as Stewart makes the case that the Donner Party’s tragedy was the result of the party’s ignorance of the ecosystems it passed through.  At the book’s end, he writes, “It should be obvious…I consider the land a character in the work.”  The land, of course, is the ecosystem.

Today, most of us can wander our ecosystems easily.  So far, the perspective of the astronaut is restricted to a lucky few.  But – would Stewart not love this? – we can watch Earth from LEO on a continuous feed, here.

NASA Strategic Planner Jesco von Puttkamer suggested we are now living in the “New Enlightenment of Spaceflight.”    That Enlightenment began with Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision.  The New Enlightenment expanded its reach exponentially with the first photos of the Whole Earth from space, most dramatically “Earthrise” from Apollo 8. von Puttkamer’s slogan for the age, borrowed by Star Trek for the series’ first movie, is

Space:  The Human Adventure is Just Beginning

Today, we know Stewart’s pioneering Whole Earth vision from both perspectives – of the land, and from LEO.  We have joined von Puttkamer’s New Enlightenment of Spaceflight, and gained Stewart’s Whole Earth vision and have a greater understanding of and love for our home planet.

We have become enlightened.

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Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University

George R. Stewart’s Prophetic Whole Earth Vision, and a Canadian Coin

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In a recent issue of the excellent CBC New website,  journalist Bob MacDonald describes a new Canadian coin that honors the 25th anniversary of the first spaceflight by a female Canadian Scientist-Astronaut, Dr. Roberta Bondar.  The coin, beautifully-designed, has two remarkable features. Concave on one side and convex on the other, it carries a sense of the roundness of Earth.  And its colorful rendering of the image-map of Canada from space glows in the dark to reveal patterns of man-made lights in that northern country.  (The Canadians were also kind enough to include a good part of their neighboring nation to the south on the coin.)

Since this is a silver coin, durably made, it will be a long-lasting — “a deep time” — reminder of North American geography as it appeared the early 21st century.

In his article, MacDonald emphasizes what he seems to consider a new idea – that space and conservation are two sides of the same coin.  The article is well-written, and will open up that idea for the first time to many readers.  But the idea is NOT new – NASA is tasked, to do ecological research.  And that, in part, is certainly because George R.Stewart, nearly a quarter of a century before the NASA organic act was written, and 33 years before the first Earth Day,  in Ordeal By Hunger and his ecological novels, presented the concept to a massive audience of literate, general readers.

Ordeal By Hunger, written in 1936,  opens with a view of Nevada from orbit so accurately described that when  International Space Station Astronaut Dr. Ed Lu  photographed Nevada from space his images matched Stewart’s words almost exactly.  Stewart’s history of the Donner Party then comes down to Earth, to focus on the role of the ecosystem in the fate of the emigrants.  Thus, he completes what has become known as The Whole Earth vision – understanding Earth from within its ecosystem, and  from without,  as one small, beautiful, place in the universe.

Stewart follows that same approach in his first ecological novel, Storm.  The novel begins with a view of Earth from Earth orbit; moves into the ecosystem to tell its story; then ends by  taking the reader to an imaginary platform on Venus, describing the tiny bright light called Earth from millions of miles away.

Once again George R. Stewart proved to be a prophet, and trailblazer for our time.  His books helped lay the foundation for the view of Earth found on the new Canadian coin, and for our sense of the Whole Earth.