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And What if We Are All Still ‘Flat Earthers’? - Musings and Meditations

Updated: May 24

“The surface of the Earth is the shore of the cosmic ocean.”

Carl Sagan

"We do not live on the Earth, we are a part of how the Earth lives."

David Richo

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on Earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don't even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child -- our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

Thich Nhat Hanh

Our planet, which we call "Earth”.

Dear readers and followers of A Biosphere Project, this week I offer a somewhat longer musing, but it is a well known fact that one can get a bit lost in musings, forgetting about time or place.

No video this time but some thoughts on something close to my heart (and probably yours too): our planet. And about the possibility that collectively we still don't really see what our planet actually is.

But don't worry, there will be beautiful pictures to look at too.

Last Monday, April 22, was the annual "Earth Day”. A day in which we at least have the intention to put our planet at the center of attention, just as on International Women's Day we want to put women at the center of global attention, and just as on other days we want to put other people, ideas or principles in the spotlight for a while, or honor them, if you will.

"Earth Day" is not really a day that generates much buzz or activity. I notice no colorful parades, no inspired speeches, no day off from work, no grand demonstrations or penetrating coverage in our media. Earth Day passes rather quietly every year. I also saw almost no mention of this day on social media.

Many other such "special" days do get more attention. Mother's Day, Father's Day, Women's Day, Children's Day, Human Rights Day, and so on. But Earth Day, no, it rather goes unnoticed every year.

Which is curious, actually. After all, the Earth is our alpha and omega, our Mother, our only home, our paradise-like habitat in an endless Universe. 'Paradise-like,’ do I hear some skepticism there? Yes indeed, paradise-like. The extent to which we no longer see that is the extent to which we have a wrong view of our planet, and of ourselves.

Things are not going so well for our planet, that may already be clear to you. I am going to talk a lot in the blog about the ways in which things are not going so well with her, with Mother Earth, with Pachamama, with Gaia. Not well at all. You can read about that in my essay "Let Us Not Talk About the Climate Crisis Any Longer (Part I)”.

But this time I want to talk about something else: about how we see (or don't see) the Earth, how we are (or are not) aware of her, how we think about her and how we see ourselves in relation to her. And about the possibility that we do not really see both the Earth and ourselves at all, and the possibility that we are completely mistaken in our perception of what the Earth actually is and who or what we ourselves actually are.

That's a lot to take on, and I'm not going to dig into every possible aspect of all that, because that would lead to a blog post the size of the Encyclopædia Brittanica.

For starters, I want to talk mostly about how we see the Earth, literally.

Not how we see the Earth in a conceptual sense, the ideas we may or may not have about the ultimate nature of our planet, but literally how we see the Earth.

Although of course the two are very much related, and sometimes inseparably connected. Sometimes one influences and determines the other to such an extent that it is hardly possible to say which came first: how we see the Earth or what we think about it. Very often we see only what we think, rather than what there really is to see.

In any case, I am going to have to limit this musing to a kind of first outline of the issues at hand, because very many things worthy of musing about are coming into view, and I've only just begun.

Let me start with how we see the Earth, in the most literal sense. The picture at the beginning of this musing is an image of our planet taken from space. So we see our Earth from the outside, in its entirety, as the beautiful 'Blue Marble’. And it really does resemble the marbles that children used to play with in days long gone by.

The first time we could see the Earth like this is very recent. Before the second half of the 20th century, no human being had been able to see it like this. We have known for some time that the Earth is round, and that it orbits around our star as part of our Milky Way Galaxy, but what our planet actually looks like from a distance, no human being had ever seen before May 30, 1966, when this first image was taken showing the Earth in its entirety (there had been images taken from low orbit before, but only a fragment of the planet could be seen on those).

First photograph showing the Earth in its entirety from space, taken May 30, 1966 by the Russian Molniya satellite.

This and other images taken in that same year are, of course, still very rudimentary compared to the splendid stream of unimaginably detailed images in color that have been reaching us in recent decades from a multitude of satellites and spacecraft, and from the ISS that has been faithfully orbiting above our heads for many years. But it must have been something of a shock then: for the first time we saw our world from space, in its entirety, and also in its fragility and apparent smallness in space. I experienced that shock in the womb, because I was born a few months after this image reached Earth. So like everyone born in 1966, I was born just at the beginning of a new era: the era when we can see ourselves from the outside, from space. That had never happened before in the history of our species.

First photograph of Earth taken from geostationary orbit by the U.S. satellite ATS-1 on Dec. 11, 1966

First color photograph of the entire Earth taken on Nov. 10, 1967 by the U.S. satellite ATS-3

And the tens of thousands of images that followed these first images gave awesome depth and resonance to the portrait of our Earth and ourselves, something I also talked about in the text "A Selfie of Planet Earth”. Wonderful images they are, both the ones taken from 'low orbit' where the ISS spins round the Earth, and the ones taken from greater distances, such as those from geostationary orbit that are far enough away to show the whole of the Earth in one image.

And then there are the images taken from even farther away, like the one that accompanied that aforementioned text: the photos taken by NASA probe OSIRIS-REx.

The Earth and moon seen by the NASA probe OSIRIS-REx, from a distance of five million kilometers, October 2017.

And the greater the distance from which the photographs are taken, the more we become aware of the deeply moving and also possibly somewhat frightening fragility of our world. For me, the above photograph by OSIRIS-REx is a very powerful and moving image that puts our existence and the reality of our lives, our joys and our fears, into a larger perspective. And while that perspective is frightening to many people, it doesn't have to be. You can read more about that in the aforementioned essay "A Selfie of Planet Earth”.

But as the images became sharper and more technically advanced, it also became increasingly clear just how beautiful our planet really is. It still moves me every time I see another one of those marvelous images of our planet Earth from space. It is an indescribable and miraculous beauty. How is it possible after all. Why should a supposedly accidental and meaningless Universe be so beautiful? The idea just doesn't make sense, but I will hold off for now and not muse further on the metaphysical implications of the existence and recognition of beauty.

I want to keep things a little more "down to earth" in this musing (pun not intended but accepted in gratitude).

First photograph of the entire Earth taken by a person, probably astronaut William Anders, on Dec. 21, 1968.

Still, it's really something to think about: homo sapiens has been around for about three hundred thousand years, and it wasn't until about sixty years ago that we could see our home like this for the first time. All those aeons before 1966, we had no idea what Earth looked like from a distance.

We also have little or no idea of how our distant ancestors saw the Earth ten thousand or a hundred thousand years ago. We know that the first scientific notions of a round planet date from Egyptian times and that the Greek mathematician Eratosthenes was the first to calculate the Earth's circumference, in the third century BC. So the notion that the Earth is round dates back (as far as we know) to more than two millennia ago, be it that we thought the sun revolves around the Earth. Whether there may have been people before, in prehistoric times, who had come to that realization of a round Earth, we may never know. We know that certain cultures in ancient times assumed a flat Earth, although other forms were also suggested, such as the seven-story Ziggurat or the "Axis Mundi" in ancient Persian writings. But beyond that, we really have no idea how our ancestors in prehistoric times saw our Earth, although it is not unlikely that in many cases they assumed the Earth is flat.

But those last sixty years in which we can observe the Earth from the outside are thus really just a split second compared to all that time before, a tiny part of our existence on our planet, a fraction of the last second of the last day of our presence on our planet so far.

And I would like to put forward in this musing the proposition that we still haven't really seen this yet, that we have not really seen what this image and this reality means.

It is common knowledge that we can look at something for a long time without really seeing it. We can stare at something until we’re blind without really seeing it, and as a visual artist I know a thing or two about that. And I think I can say that we have not yet really seen this yet, this reality of our planet Earth seen from the outside, even though we have been looking at it for sixty years now. That we have not yet really let in what these images show, the reality of our planet in space, and the reality of our existence on this small, fragile world.

We have not yet really internalized this image and its reality, we have not yet really integrated it in our day-to-day sense of location or topology, it is not part of our felt awareness of our location and our environment.

In our perception of the world and our location in the Universe, we are actually still "flat earthers”.

We live on the Earth as if it were static and flat, and our sensory input, the information our senses impart us, always seems to confirm this image. There is no input that contradicts this image, unless pictures like the one above, taken from space.

But our day-to-day physical and sensory experience is that of a flat Earth beneath our feet. 

We leave our homes and go into the street, moving between buildings (or between fields if you live in the countryside) and our sense of topology, of place, is defined by structures whose relative size to our bodies is somewhat comprehensible. The space within which we move is, at least if you live in a city, that of a plane marked by buildings. The buildings and man-made structures define the layout of space and our sense of scale and sense of our relative position in a world that is overwhelmingly near and seemingly solid ground under our feet. If you live in a natural environment, you may already have a somewhat more expansive perspective of what our world is. You see beyond the buildings on your street or neighborhood, and you have a view of hills or mountains near or far.  But whether you live in the city or out in nature, your experience of the Earth is that of a seemingly infinitely large and stable and unmoving plane beneath your feet. All visual and sensory input confirms this.

So your default experience and view of our Earth may look like this if you live in the city:

Or like this if you live in the countryside:

Or like this if you live by the sea

Or like this if you live in the mountains

I could give a few more examples like this. But it should already be clear: no matter where you live, and no matter what your daily environment, nowhere do you get sensory or physical information about the actual nature and location of our home world in space. You can only surmise that when you see a picture like the one at the beginning of this musing.

But it is difficult to reconcile those images from space with our day-to-day experience, and with how we see Earth in everyday life from our perspective, from the surface of the planet.

Consequently, for virtually every person on Earth, the truly felt sense of place, of topology, is that of a "flat earth," a static flat disk, with a blue (or gray) dome above it. We see the sky not as the endless space where we look directly at an infinite distance, but as a kind of backdrop above our heads, a dome that we experience as bounded rather than as a window onto a space that extends tens of billions of light years in all directions.

In no way do we get sensory information about the Earth being round or the Earth spinning on its own axis or the lightning-fast speeding with which our planet is spinning around our star or in turn spinning of our star around the center of our Galaxy. And just as well perhaps, it might become a bit too much sensorially if we were to feel and perceive all that constantly. Filtering information is an important part of a healthy functioning consciousness.

But still: I feel it is important that we deepen and broaden our sense of what the Earth actually is to this understanding: we inhabit a finite world located in an endless space where conditions are generally not so suitable for the emergence and survival of life. And our finite world is fragile, and we do well to care for the wider organism of which we are a part, our biosphere.

So our perception of our world has yet to evolve to further integrate the insights and information we have gained thanks to science into our sense of identity. And I think I can say that our perception of ourselves as well as of our planet is not yet evolved at the moment, and we actually have a false picture of most, if not all aspects of our reality, regarding topology but also in other domains, such as our perception of matter or of consciousness.

And this mistaken and limited view is partly at the root of many (or all) of our problems: an adherence to (different versions of) a sense of identity that is far too limited and fragmented, with as a consequence a tendency toward ever increasing competition and polarization, which combined with technology increasing exponentially in power will inevitably lead to a further cascade of crises and conflicts.

So, in my opinion, it is imperative that we start shifting our perspective, that we really shift it. Really.

Seen from a distance, the relativity  and insignificance of our differences in identity, culture, religion or skin color does become very clear. This realization may be the only thing that can help evolve our distorted sense of identity into a felt sense of our connectedness, and the need for a transformation of our beliefs in the service of the whole of the organism that humanity can become as part of the organism we call "biosphere”.

So that we begin to extend our felt sense of place to the totality of our Earth, and how it moves through space. That is a very big shift, but one that is really needed in my opinion, to come to a change of perspective that can help in the big transitions we are facing.

Image of the Earth and Moon taken on Jan. 17, 2018 by NASA probe OSIRIS-rEX, from a distance of 63.6 million kilometers.

Video from NASA Scientific Visualization Studio, showing a seven-day period in 2005 with elevated 3D rendering of moving cloud cover.

Most of my adult life I have been a teacher of drawing and painting, and in my practice of thirty years of teaching observation in those disciplines, I have learned a lot about how people perceive or do not perceive, and how we very often only see what we think we see, rather than what is really there to see.

I will talk more about that in the blog because in my opinion a real transformation of our worldview starts with a changed perception and new information.

And one of the things I've learned is that it takes repeated practice to change habits of perception. It is not enough to be alerted once to a faulty perception, it takes many, many repeated perceptual exercises to develop perceptual skills and gain a truer view of the reality that surrounds us and of which we are a part.

So it is my intention in the future to develop "exercises" that anyone can do to sharpen the perception of certain aspects of our world, make it clearer, bring it into focus. The word exercises may sound a bit too serious, think of it more as playful observations, a bit like children (or adults) lying in the grass looking at the clouds and fantasizing about what kind of animals they see in the shapes of the clouds sliding by.

Playful meditations can help to further internalize and make our own things that we may already know with our heads but not yet with our bodies into real, embodied knowledge.

These meditations can take the form of visual or mental perception exercises, both in terms of perception of the outside world and of the world inside us, which for many people is as great an unknown as the "outside world”.

These meditations and visualizations will possibly make use of video or audio material, and have their own place in the menu of the website, so that it will be easy to find them and to repeat them.

In this way, my work will remain one of pointing to different ways of perceiving, as it once was in my drawing and painting class at the fine arts academy.

Only now the perception will extend to a slightly larger domain.

But we should not shy away from those larger domains, because we can become much more at home in them, and that can make a big difference in how we can begin to see our beautiful home world, the Earth, differently.

I could go on musing about all this for much longer, because it is quite a vast topic, of course.

For those who find space and our place in it a somewhat frightening subject, I refer you once more to my essay "A Selfie of Planet Earth," in which I offer some different, new and scientifically based perspectives on that space that surrounds us in all directions. Perspectives that suggest that we should not see that space as a dead and meaningless void, but rather as a "fullness" that surrounds us and makes all that exists possible.

It's become a long musing this time anyway, but endless space and our beautiful planet deserve it.

Thanks for reading, and until the next installment,

All the best to you,


Earth seen from the ISS, from an altitude of approximately 400 kms.



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