The Overview Effect — our biosphere and Covid-19

Modern day philosophiser Timothy Morton first used the phrase “hyperobject” with respect to the climate crisis, referring to the difficulties we may encounter in relating to such an all-encompassing and existential issue.

The environmental systems upon which we depend are infinitely complex and interrelated, to the point that the study of our relationship with our environment can lead to paralysis by analysis, becoming overawed, distracted or defeatist, often with similar end results to climate denialism. How we think about the climate crisis is perhaps as critical as the rapidly accumulating carbon in in our atmosphere and oceans, witnessed even by how the nomenclature itself is evolving i.e., climate crisis rather than change. One proposed solution to overcoming this “hyperobject” is to increase our awareness and connectivity to our planet. One such solution is being proposed by a Silicon Valley virtual-reality start-up which aims to reproduce an experience for users of what is known as the Overview Effect.

The Overview Effect refers to a recognised and replicated experience that astronauts have when viewing the planet Earth from orbit.

On seeing our planet framed by the vast emptiness of space, it becomes difficult not to struck not only by the astonishing beauty of our only home, but also by its fragility, such as its eggshell-like atmosphere. Astronauts report a mystical-like experience that results in their feeling compelled to protect their planet when they return. Despite recent advances by Elon Musk’s Space X, it is unlikely that space tourism will be afforded to many in the near future to share this experience further.

An interesting recurrence of the Overview Effect occurred after the landmark Biosphere 2 experiment in 1994. Led by Professor Roy Walford, 8 volunteers successfully lived inside a sealed self-sufficient bubble in the Arizona desert for 2 years. The initial concept was to gather data for potential future space explorations; however, the experiment has had far-ranging impacts beyond costing sci-fi like space colonies. Participants existed primarily on a plant-based diet, as this was the most efficient in terms of yield and waste. The concept of waste was almost alien, as everything they used was either recycled, reused, or fed back into their fragile biosphere ecosystem — including the very oxygen they inhaled and the carbon dioxide they exhaled. They were forced to live in balance with, and with due respect for the biosphere that they had constructed — and they did so with success. The concept of polluting their own air, their own ground water, or the many other intricate natural systems they had come to depend on would be unthinkable. On leaving the biosphere in 1994 one of the participants reported feeling the Overview Effect as they viewed their home of two years externally and recalled a profound appreciation for how precious and delicate their enclosed ecosystem was.

Modern living, with its rampant consumerism, perpetual news cycles and 24 hour advertisements has become an exercise in distraction from engaging in feeling a connection with our environment. Our maps and borders, languages and cultures, oceans and horizons, act as a Trompe l’oeil (meaning ‘trick of the eye’) foiling us into feeling that we live in a world of limitless expanse and resources. Yet our natural resources are dwindling at an exponential rate with profound effects on our delicate planetary homeostasis. With respect to how we practice healthcare in Ireland, our systems of care all exist in this theoretical world of limitless resources and negligible waste. Medical screening services, for example, are considered via Wilson and Junger’s ten criteria of a good test, yet there is no criteria system to look at the environmental impact of healthcare.Shouldn’t our relationship with our fragile and collapsing ecosystems inform every action we take, in healthcare and beyond?

The science of replicating the Overview effect via a headset and floatation tank is in its infancy, the Biosphere in Arizona is now retired, and we must seek other more readily available methods of achieving the Overview Effect to connect us to our environment. As we transition to a post COVID world, perhaps the pandemic can offer such an experience. Viral emergence was made possible by the unabated erosion of biodiversity on one side of the coin and by unperturbed globalization on the other. The pandemic has made real the vulnerability of the ecosystems of which we are a part and has humbled the hubris that we can act as a species that profits and lives aside from our environment rather than working within it. However, a post COVID world also affords us a golden opportunity to reset and rethink how we may live in harmony with our environment going forward. There is no need to imagine living in the Biosphere 2 experiment, we already live upon the most amazing and unique biosphere in the known universe, and it is incumbent on us to take care of it. The COVID pandemic did not arrive without warning, but global preparedness failed as it too became a hyper-object. Now that the glass ceiling of what can and cannot be done by our government has been shattered, we know that as a society we are prepared to make sweeping societal changes for the betterment of our own health and that of our community. The default mode of how our country thinks and acts has been temporarily disabled and we have been given an opportunity en masse to stop, and to reflect. Now is the time to insist that we do not resume the status quo.

Sean Owens is a member of Irish Doctors for the Environment.



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