Dec 5, 2016 by


Lake Poopó, Bolivia … composite of images taken from Google’s timelapse tool.
Lake Poopó, Bolivia … composite of images taken from Google’s timelapse tool. Composite: Google

The image of the Earth from space is so seared into human consciousness that it is hard to conceive what it was like to live without the picture of our planet as a blue sphere that we all now carry in our minds.

The first photographs of the Earth’s surface seen from 100 miles were taken in 1947. By 1968, the famous Earthrise image photographed by the crew of Apollo 8 framed our planet as a beautiful oasis in black space. Today, stunning and intensely informative pictures of the Earth’s surface are being taken from space constantly: so comprehensively, for so long, that Google has now created timelapses that show three decades of change.

It induces anxiety to watch, in just a few seconds, a desert in Saudi Arabia turn into a vast agribusiness complex, a lake in Bolivia vanish or cities grow spectacularly in China.

Google timelapse of Chongqing, China.

History has become a car crash in speeded-up motion. We can see, in these timelapse satellite videos, how the Earth is being torn apart by human acts. We can also see, in timelapse videos of Arctic ice, great glaciers melt before our eyes. Yet, are human beings capable of assimilating such global perspectives or is our consciousness tragically limited to a pre-space age, even pre-Copernican mentality? Are people only capable of acting on immediate, personal and local concerns, even though images from space can show us the bigger picture?

This is one of the real problems of our time. The new vistas on Earth opened up by Apollo 8 in 1968 may seem to have sunk into the very fabric of human consciousness, but it also seems that we can watch any number of videos of expanding cities and vanishing ice without becoming globally conscious.

Google timelapse of Lago Poopó, Bolivia.

Extreme scepticism about climate change has proved a vote winner for Donald Trump. Specifically, Barack Obama’s environmental policies have been accused of creating a “war on coal”. Pennsylvania miners were not happy to accept that their traditional jobs were doomed for the greater good. All the images of climate change, the timelapse videos of a crumbling Earth, the crash of glaciers, don’t apparently mean anything compared with the direct experiences people have in their own neighbourhoods. If a truth is inconvenient, ignore it.

If you want to experience, directly, the gap between imagination and reality, science and common sense, that threatens our ability to act rationally to save the planet, just consider your smartphone. Walking down the street, I can see myself move on the screen of my phone, in a real-time, real-life link between myself and a network of satellites. Yet do we go around pondering this magic? No, and perhaps it even seems naive to do so. We just use the app to check how far we are from the meeting or pub we’re trying to get to.

Google timelapse of north-east Greenland.

We are now a species in space, our lives as well as the health of our planet scanned by satellites. Globalisation is not abstract but a scientific reality that is made visible in these timelapse images of our changing world. Yet that knowledge somehow does not get into the depths of our psyches. The GPS in our smartphones and cars is an unfortunate metaphor for a crushing failure of human imagination. We literally refuse to engage with the dazzling global and extra-global nature of modern life. It’s all too complex, apparently.

We are mentally imprisoned, unable to soar in our minds to see the Earth as a satellite can see it. And it’s killing us.

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