The Overview Effect

I was halfway through writing a blog for this month when I came upon an article on National Public Radio that really caught my attention. It was about my now-90+-year-old childhood hero (and, let’s face it, crush) William Shatner’s reaction when he made his recent trip to space. These days I think the former Capt. Kirk is a real hoot, and I try to keep up with his antics and marvel at how spry and humorous he remains – hosting unknown-mystery-themed television programs, hanging out with ancient alien theorists, and generally not taking himself too seriously. His “singing” is another story, but even that is campy fun. It seems that everything this guy has done since he finished his stint at the helm of the Enterprise has been with a tongue in his cheek and a twinkle in his eye. Honestly, I’ve never really taken him seriously, either. Until now.

The recent NPR interview and article (publicity tour for Shatner’s upcoming book) highlighted not the twinkles, but the tears in his eyes. And caused me to weep as well, for the profound wisdom of the human body’s instinctual response to great emotion, and great sorrow.

William Shatner confessed that he wept upon seeing the Earth from space. However, the tears he cried weren’t only from astonishment and joy. They were from a sense of “profound grief.” And he’s not alone. Many astronauts have discussed the “Overview Effect” (coined by space philosopher Frank White in his book on the phenomenon),  as it’s come to be called, and how it caused not only an unexpected overwhelming emotional response, but also a cognitive shift that changed their lives. It’s been described as the change that occurs when the world is seen from above, as a place where borders are invisible, where racial, religious and economic strife are nowhere to be seen. In the moment, it has often caused a sense of awe described as “self-transcendent.” Seeing our world from a distance brings home not only its beauty, but its fragility and, increasingly, its precarious position in the universe.

Not having had the privilege of seeing for myself, and living vicariously through the experiences of those lucky few, this was in my opinion Shatner’s most profound observation:

“It was the death that I saw in space and the lifeforce that I saw coming from the planet — the blue, the beige and the white,” he said. “And I realized one was death and the other was life.”

This from a guy whose career was launched playing a character who explored space for a living – looking for new life and new civilizations and boldly going forth into what in reality turned out to be light-years of …. Nothingness. Shatner called it “the strongest feelings of grief” that he’s ever experienced. That stark contrast in the juxtaposition of the cold, barren darkness of space and the beautiful, teeming life breath of our home planet hit me hard. Not only is this place spectacularly, exquisitely magnificent (whether by happenstance or design), but, folks, it’s unique as far as we can currently see. Sure, there may be similar, life-sustaining planets out “there” in the universe, somewhere, many, many light-years away (and I sincerely believe that there are), but the likelihood of us being able to find, travel to, and inhabit them in the lifetimes of even our grandchildren’s grandchildren is slim indeed – way too late for those who are setting up this cataclysm for our descendents, for whom it will do no good. Pinning our hopes on an easy solution to the destruction of the Earth will lead to… destruction.

“I wept for the Earth because I realized it’s dying,” Shatner said. “I dedicated my book, Boldly Go, to my great-grandchild, who’s three now — coming three — and in the dedication, say it’s them, those youngsters, who are going to reap what we have sown in terms of the destruction of the Earth.”

Human beings are the ones that create borders, boundaries, racial differences, political divides, unethical economic inequality, religions, and all the other things that keep us separate. Humans are the only species on the planet that chooses to exploit their home’s resources as a source of temporary personal (usually in terms of money or power) gain rather than trying to protect and conserve them – astoundingly self-destructive and suicidal behavior. It’s insanity to continue to believe that “someone” “someday” will discover a cure for the ills we face, rather than doing something NOW to turn the tide – overpopulation, war, trash accumulation (including toxic and forever waste), global climate change, habitat destruction, dwindling food resources, etc. – and that our species and planet will miraculously survive. The science fiction scenarios of a dystopia leading to global decimation are currently much more likely than those showing us loading into spaceships taking us to a new, pristine planet (likely, to exploit and destroy anew, given human nature as it is).

 According to White, space travelers return to our planet with “a greater distaste for war and violence, and a desire to do something to improve life back on the surface, because they’ve seen the truth of our situation.”


“We’re entangled with each other,” Shatner said, decrying conflicts between human beings. “We have a war … the stupidity of it all is so obvious.”

The solution – the only solution to the planetary mess we’re getting ourselves into is to start to see one another as one and the same with ourselves. One species, one race, one chance at survival. We’re all in this together – no matter our imaginary differences, we’re all interdependent dwellers of the same planet.

But is it possible for us to work together to turn our fortunes around before it’s too late? With individuals becoming more and more polarized every day? We just went through a few years of people capitalizing and polarizing on a global pandemic, while others suffered and died. Some people, as usual, came out of the pandemic incredibly, astronomically wealthy, profiting from the trusting nature of others who are willing to grasp any straw in frightening times, or taking full advantage of capitalism’s inequities. The same, I’m afraid, will happen as our beautiful world plummets into future incremental disasters. But this time those with personal space craft, though they will attempt to find an alternative living situation, I’m afraid will come up wanting. All their money will burn up with the rest of the planet. So, I’m skeptical, but willing to be convinced.

We cannot give up hope, and stop trying to save our planet by recognizing our interconnectedness. We simply have no other choice if we are to survive. Only those of us who see the futility and stupidity of continuing to stay distant from one another, physically, financially, politically, philosophically and in all other ways, can hope to make instead step by step victories over the inevitability of the end of our world. We must boldly go against popular culture and profit-making rantings and screeds and fight for our beautiful big blue planet.

NPR: Although the truth may not be pretty, a more universal perspective can only aid in reconnecting our long disconnected species. White says that astronauts return more eager than ever to be part of the solution, so that humanity may, one day, live long and prosper.

Read/listen more about Frank White and the Overview Effect here.

The world’s a Big Blue Marble

When you see it from out there

The sun and moon declare

Our beauty’s very rare


Folks are folks and kids are kids

We share a common name

We speak a different way

But work and play the same


We sing pretty much alike

Enjoy spring pretty much alike

Peace and love we all understand

And laughter, we use the very same brand


Our differences, our problems

From out there there’s not much trace

Our friendships they can place

While looking at the face

Of the Big Blue Marble in space


~ Skip Redwine, Composer, Themesong from the Big Blue Marble Television Series, Public Broadcasting Service, 1974-1983

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