“Hello From the Children of Planet Earth”—Greta and the Golden Record
Greta Thunberg and the Golden Record—they have much in common though they are separated by 42 years and 14 billion miles. Greta gave voice to millions of eco-minded youth in the Climate Strike on Planet Earth, while the Golden Record is hurtling through the Milky Way with greetings in dozens of languages, including one child’s voice that says: “Hello from the Children of Planet Earth.” That’s right, the idea of youth speaking for the future of Earth is not new, no matter how much it triggers the dudes in power and their political supporters.
Greta’s message to the youth echoed in the global media networks of 2019, while the greetings from Earth are encoded on the Golden Record attached to the Voyager spacecraft, launched in 1977. Both Greta and the Golden Record are products of their eras, but are connected by their dire messages and the emergent planetary consciousness they represent. “Hello from the Children of Planet Earth” and the Climate Strike are voices born of two different apocalyptic fears—the Cold War and Climate Disruption. Importantly, the “Hello” greeting is part of an emerging planetary consciousness on Earth—the idea that humanity needs to think as a species to prevent self destruction on its tiny planet in the majestic universe.
It’s as if the artwork tapped into the emerging planetary consciousness symbolized by the Golden Record—and now Greta Thunberg. Conceived by Julia M. Hildebrand and myself, the artwork was called “Hello from the Children of Planet Earth” and was part of our mixed-media installation entitled “Media(S)cene” hosted by the Media Ecology Association at the University of Toronto, June 27–29, 2019. The artwork and installation was inspired by our Medium essay “Hot and Cool in the MediaScene,” which sketches out a radically new media theory for our species living on Planet Earth and in the Anthropocence. The essay won an international award—the John Culkin Award for Outstanding Praxis in the Field of Media Ecology, award by the Media Ecology Association.
Written in-part for the youth of the world and for those who realize we need new media theory for the radical conditions we face, the essay presents the parameters of a massive theory to connect our layers of media technologies to life on Planet Earth—to the Anthropocene, to our emerging planetary consciousness, and to the long-term future of the human species.
The Message of the Golden Record
Eight years after the optimistic triumph of Apollo 11 in 1969, humanity sent a dire message into the cosmic void. Mounted on Voyager is the famous Golden Record, a gold-plated copper disk with an electronic compilation of life on Earth, encoded with 117 photographs, greetings in 54 languages, 90 minutes of music from around the world, and a selection of sounds from nature and culture, such as animals, symphonies, and a rocket launch. Included was a needle to play the record, with instructions on the record cover and the playing speed of 16 rpm listed in the binary code of ones and zeros. There was also a statement from US president Jimmy Carter:
“We cast this message into the cosmos. It is likely to survive a billion years into our future, when our civilization is profoundly altered and the surface of the Earth may be vastly changed. Of the 200 billion stars in the Milky Way galaxy, some — perhaps many — may have inhabited planets and space-faring civilizations. If one such civilization intercepts Voyager and can understand these recorded contents, here is our message:
“This is a present from a small distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts, and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours. We hope someday, having solved the problems we face, to join a community of galactic civilizations. This record represents our hope and our determination and our goodwill in a vast and awesome universe.
Though President Carter was referencing the fears of the Cold War, the basic message is not that different from Greta’s—a message of warning and hope. Voyager was the next voice of the emergent planetary consciousness that first appeared with NASA’s Apollo moon program. [No, the moonwalks were not a hoax.] When Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon and said “One small step for (a) man, one giant leap for mankind,” a billion people watched in awe on television, immediately cheering and exclaiming “We did it!”
This was perhaps the first clear moment of the planetary consciousness produced by electronic media married to an incredible human achievement. Voyager was a continuation of that planetary consciousness in 1979, as was the Hubble Space Telescope in 1991, as are the internet and social media in the 21st century — at least on certain occasions for the internet and social media, such as the Climate Strike, Women’s March, and the Science March.
Voyager’s Message to the 21st Century
Voyager poses a profound challenge to our tribalism and cosmic narcissism, especially with the photo known as the Pale Blue Dot. By 1990, Voyager 1 had more than fulfilled its many mission objectives, so scientist Carl Sagan persuaded NASA engineers to program the space probe to snap a photo of Earth, by then a distant object receding ever farther in the space probe’s journey. As programmed from 3.7 billion miles away, Voyager beamed an image of the Earth back home — an image comprised of 640,000 pixels, the planet itself only a single pixel, a tiny speck of light, a Pale Blue Dot against the cosmic void.
We can reject that photo as too scary, too nihilistic, too meaningless because it makes us seem trivial and utterly insignificant. In my view, that’s not the right move. We can also see the image as a rebuke to our endless warfare and planetary destruction. And we can see the image an inspiration to become more enlightened, to understand our consciousness as one way the universe knows itself. We may be tiny, but we are also brainy!
In the book Pale Blue Dot, Sagan writes that the aim of the photograph was to help humanity better grasp its place in the cosmos in hopes we might overcome millennia of warfare and cosmic conceit, better care for our planet, and grasp the fact that Earth was our only home. As Sagan states:
“The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds.
Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.
. . . Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.”
Indeed, we’re tiny, but we’re also brainy and brave, curious and creative, and capable of great things—from curing diseases to creating the internet to building a planetary civilization to discovering the universe of two trillion galaxies. But, these only happen when we collaborate across borders and share our knowledge. Implicit in the Pale Blue Dot is the ultimate refutation of tribalism, narcissism, and nationalism in all their forms. It is the refutation of hate, bigotry and prejudice, and any worldview which privileges one group of humans over another, any politics that demands war against other people. In this worldview is the existential and scientific basis for universal human rights and for realizing our planet is tiny enough to be transformed by the effects of our sprawling civilization, at once marvelous, yet dangerous to much life on Planet Earth.
All this is why the Climate Strike cannot be separated from the Women’s March or the Science March. They are part of the same evolutionary trajectory—from a tribal species to global thinkers, from local villages to a planetary civilization. The quests for universal human rights, environmental and animal protection, and a science-informed society all stem from the universal condition we share—the fact that we are one species sharing one beautiful planet in a vast and awe-inspiring universe.
An Emerging Planetary Consciousness
Since our emergence and evolution in Africa, humanity has been migrating and globalizing for at least 70,000 years (see map below). At first on foot, then horse, boat, train, car, and plane, along with the evolution of communication and media networks, oral, written, electronic, digital.
Via our global media networks, we have effected an emergent planetary consciousness. Beneath all our diversity is the existential universal—all 7.7 billion humans share 99.5% of the same DNA and are made of the most common elements of the cosmos (oxygen, hydrogen, carbon, nitrogen, and other elements). We humans are a single species with billions of computers, laptops, tablets, phones, all linked in the layers of media networks that span the globe. As shown in the recent global strikes and marches, the planetary consciousness is showing an ability to organize, not merely to trade and wage war, but to rally for human rights, scientific knowledge, and ecological sanity.
Of course, these global networks also encourage a virulent tribalism that divides more than it unifies, precisely as individuals seek identities in the tribes of the media worlds they inhabit. That’s why this emerging planetary consciousness needs a coherent worldview, a new philosophy for human civilization—one that fully embraces our true existential conditions in the universe. Rants and tribes are nowhere near enough. After all, it’s still possible our planetary consciousness could devour itself in narcissism and nationalism, given that there are 12,000 nuclear weapons on Earth and more than $1 trillion is spent on military every year. Imagine if that money was spent on research for sustainable energy and protecting the environment.
Making a Stand Amid the Anthropocene
Youth of the world, you were heard in the Climate Strike. Greta triggered the dudes holding the levers of power. Yet, in the counter-power of global networks, we must embrace the universal over the tribal, the species over the nation and corporation, the long-range over the short term.
Indeed, the human species and technological civilization are transforming the ecosystems and biopshere on Planet Earth—it’s called the Anthropocene. Climate disruption is just one part of the Anthropocene, along with polluted air, nuclear waste, mountainous landfills, plasticized and acidified oceans, sprawling cities of concrete and asphalt, and even species-level extinction events. Grasping these conditions is also the motivation to decelerate resource consumption, develop alternative energy sources, design more sustainable structures, and protect our planet and the ecosystems that make life possible for all species.
What kind of civilization — if any — will evolve out of the Anthropocene remains to be seen. Merely arguing against capitalism, technology, and consumer society is not nearly enough to counter the Anthropocene; we need a new philosophy of human existence and new systems of value derived from our actual place in the universe. We need our art and science to inspire a new human philosophy and counter-narrative against endless narcissism, accelerating consumption, unchecked sprawl and climate disruption. There is no one to save us from ourselves other than our selves. That’s why the message of Greta and the Golden Record are more relevant than ever.
For more on Voyager and the Golden Record, check out the very cool documentary: The Farthest (2017).
For more on a new philosophy that draws from art and science and works in space and on Earth, checkout my essay: “Explosion of Awareness.”