Everyday Enviro with Elise - The overview effect - Planet Ark Environmental Foundation

Everyday Enviro with Elise - The overview effect

By Elise Catterall  August 27th, 2019

Elise delves into the overview effect, the feeling of seeing Earth from space, and how it encourages protection of our home planet.


I’ve just recently read an article that discussed the overview effect - the cognitive shift that is said to happen to astronauts when they travel through space and look back at earth from the vantage of outer space.  Originally coined by space writer Frank White, it is primarily said to relate to a euphoric sense of awe at the beauty of earth and a perspective of oneness and connectedness.  It also is said to result in a strong empathy with the earth and a desire to protect it.

Consistently astronauts return from space travel and report that they forever changed as a result of seeing our planet from such a distance and are struck by how small and fragile it seems.  They often report feeling an overwhelming sense of protectiveness and stewardship. 

Many of us have had experiences that shift our perspective - travel, especially seeing natural wonders firsthand, often leads to a renewed appreciation of how awesome our world is.  Certainly, for me, witnessing wonders like the Great Barrier Reef or the Grand Canyon, for example, were life altering and life enriching, but even just camping can give you that perspective shift.

I feel intense gratitude, and more invested in the wellbeing of the earth, and especially for those wonders that are essentially at my doorstop, like the Barrier Reef.  Now, reading about the profound emotional effect of seeing earth from a distance, I imagine what I feel is a tiny, tiny taste of what all those astronauts have experienced. 

Some have said that the effect may be due to a physiological impact of space travel, perhaps in part an effect of zero gravity, but others believe it is a psychological shift  - a gaining of perspective where the smallness of one human, or even all of humanity, is placed in contrast against the vastness of the universe.  Whatever is the cause of this effect, there is a thought that harnessing the effect could help the rest of humanity take action to revere, prioritise and protect our home planet. 

It will probably be a while before the average human can pop into space to get the full overview effect, but in the meantime, there are various options available for you to experience even just a small amount of the profound shift in view associated with seeing earth from afar.  It can be as simple as just taking in the wonder that is nature – immersing yourself in it.  Beyond that, the Overview Institute was set up to educate the general population about the shift in world view caused by the effect and to provide resources and programs  (including this fab documentary) to get an insight into it. 

Not long ago the Smithsonian hosted an overview effect exhibit and right now in the Netherlands you can experience a virtual overview effect at the Columbus Earth Centre, while in the UK, a virtual reality experience is under development to utilise the overview effect for mental health support.   You can also get a slightly closer to home, but equally awe-inspiring effect by enjoying the incredible aerial photography of Yann Arthus-Bertrand

So, if you feel yourself flagging, feeling overwhelmed or contending with some complacent fellow earth-dwellers, utilising the overview effect could be just what is needed to get motivated to protect our planet.

See you next time! - Elise

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Positive Environment News has been compiled using publicly available information. Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes.


By Elise Catterall

Elise is a writer, photographer, and naturopath with a passion for nature. She completed a Master of Public Health in 2017 through the University of Sydney. Her photographic work focuses on flowers and plants as a way of celebrating nature. She has been writing for Planet Ark since 2017, sharing positive environment stories, personal environmental experiences and perspectives.

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