The Sublime and the Pale Blue Dot

In this blog, Matt Harvey offers a taster of his recently published article in Environmental Values (online first, August 2022), The Sublime and the Pale Blue Dot: Reclaiming the Cosmos for Earthly Nature, advocating ‘engagement with the sublime Cosmos, as an earth-centred aesthetic experience that reminds us of and finds joy in our inalienable attachments to this precarious, precious planet’.

Carina Nebula, James Webb Telescope. NASA, ESA, CSA, and STScI. 12 July, 2022.
Retrieved from: https://www.nasa.gov/webbfirstimages

Many of us have, at some point in our lives, experienced the thrill of gazing up at the night sky with its seemingly endless expanse of stars and galaxies, and wondered about our own place in the Cosmos. Attempting to find our significance in such a vibrant universe might elicit feelings of anxiety and awe, as our imagination grapples with the infinite vastness and dynamic materiality that lies beyond the pale blue marble we call home. Aesthetic experiences such as this are part of what it means to be human, and yet we inadvertently have cut ourselves off from the Cosmos through atmospheric and light pollution. Furthermore, as we spiral further towards ecological collapse, billionaires offer visions of humanity colonising and mastering the vibrant Cosmos – from Mars, to the outer edges of the solar system, and beyond. Science fiction has long given us such narratives of interstellar travel, through cryogenic suspension pods, thrilling jumps to lightspeed, or a consciousness-expanding spice melange. Yet  such fantastical endeavours are just as ill-conceived as fantasies of colonising the surface of Mars – fantasies which are given increasing political significance.[1] My paper in Environmental Values argues that environmental political thought should grapple with these debates and encourage engagement with the sublime Cosmos, as an earth-centred aesthetic experience that reminds us of and finds joy in our inalienable attachments to this precarious, precious planet.

The ‘“’Pale Blue Dot’, Voyager 1. February 14, 1990.
Retrieved from: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/jpl/pale-blue-dot-revisited

The sublime, as a literary and aesthetic tradition, has received considerable treatment in environmental thought as a means of grappling with the devastation posed by the climate crisis.[2] Objects in Earthly nature, through their dynamic vitality or seemingly infinite expanse, challenge the imaginative capabilities of the viewing subject – and, as Immanuel Kant argues in the Critique of Judgment, the practice of aesthetic judgment in nature is a means of realising political freedom.[3] As an example, we might find ourselves on the shore of the ocean and find ourselves overwhelmed by the roar of the churning waves and the endless expanse of its depths from horizon to horizon. In time, through this aesthetic encounter and the free play of our imaginative faculties, we find freedom – we are not ruled by such a display of nature’s might. Yet, engagement with the sublime has not been extended to the vibrancy of nature beyond the boundaries of Earth. As I argue, the Cosmos is a unique example of the sublime because its vastness and dynamic materiality actively resist humanity’s attempts to master it, either cognitively or through use of science and technology.

The two images above illustrate different dimensions of the Cosmos’ sublime presentation. The first shows the Carina Nebula, a vast cloud of hydrogen and stellar debris 9,600 light years away from Earth that serves as a graveyard and birthplace of stars. This image, along with other recently released photos from the James Webb telescope, illustrates the dynamic vitality of the Cosmos. Contrary to our visions of space as an abyssal void, the Cosmos is an expanse of solar radiation and wind, the moving bodies of planets, comets, and asteroids, explosive supernovae and little-understood black holes that consume all that fall into their gravitational pull. Despite our ability to map the expanse of the Cosmos and behold its awe-inspiring visions, it lies forever beyond even our most fantastic aspirations to conquer. Our nearest neighbouring star, Alpha Centauri, is just under a mere 4.5 light years away – an expanse that would take 81,000 years for our fastest interstellar craft to traverse. 

Our cosmic isolation is perhaps best represented by the second image, the famous Pale Blue Dot photo taken by the Voyager 1 probe as it completed its flyby of Pluto in 1990 at a distance of 3.7 billion miles from Earth. The late Carl Sagan perhaps best evoked the experience of the cosmic sublime in describing the image of a pale blue dot bathed in sunlight:

That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines … every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there – on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.[4]

This image, when engaged reflectively, forces us to grapple with the absurdity of the anthropocentric ideals that we use to justify our exploitation and dominance of Earthly nature. At the end of the day, this speck of cosmic dust is the only home we will ever know.

The question then becomes, what are the politics that can emerge from such a sublime encounter? Certainly, one option might be a continued affirmation of the colonial (and inevitably ill-fated) visions promoted by Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and other escapists. Or perhaps a more well-intentioned but no less Promethean hope that the future of humanity is one of a spacefaring adventure realised through as-yet unfeasible technologies.[5] Yet this need not be the only outcome. Nat Turner, building upon a growing foundation of Black astronomy in the United States during the 1800s, was inspired to launch his slave revolt in response to the solar eclipse of 7 August, 1831 – which sparked fears of bibilical cataclysm among white slave owners.[6] Similarly, Indigenous Hawai’ian and Cherokee societies each drew upon the Cosmos to develop their own complex, Earth-centered cosmologies that emphasised a moral attachment to human and non-human nature.[7] A politics that emerges from a sustainable, Earth-centred engagement with the Cosmos need not foster radical action, or plunge us into a nihilistic despair at the thought of our isolation in the universe. As Carl Sagan reminds us, we are interconnected children of the Cosmos and we have a moral obligation to speak for Earth. However, we must recognise that, counter to the western tradition’s assumptions of human mastery over nature, we are not the centre of the universe. Our planet will continue its journey as part of the heliosphere, regardless of whether or not we continue to thrive on its surface.

References

Brady, E. 2013. The Sublime in Modern Philosophy: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Nature. New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

https://doi.org/10.1017/CBO9781139018098

Brady, E. 2022. ‘Global Climate Change and Aesthetics’. Environmental Ethics 31 (1): 27-46.

https://doi.org/10.3197/096327121X16141642287683

Degard, D. 2021. ‘Space and Art: Humanity is Spacefaring’. Astropolitics 19 (3): 165-205.

https://doi.org/10.1080/14777622.2021.1993067

Deudney, D. 2020. Dark Skies: Space Expansionism, Planetary Geopolitics, & the Ends of Humanity. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

https://doi.org/10.1093/oso/9780190903343.001.0001

Edwards, M. 2021. ‘Android Noahs and Embryo Arks: Ectogenesis in Global Catastrophe Survival and Space Colonization’. International Journal of Astrobiology 20 (2): 150-158. 

https://doi.org/10.1017/S147355042100001X

Ferrando, F. 2016. ‘Why Space Migration Must Be Posthuman’. In J. Schwartz and T. Milligan (eds), The Ethics of Space Exploration, pp. 137-152. New York, NY: Springer Publishing.

https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-39827-3_10

Fraser, G. 2021. Star Territory: Printing the Universe in Nineteenth-Century America. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

https://doi.org/10.2307/j.ctv18dvvcj

Mikkonen, J. 2022. ‘Aesthetic Appreciation of Nature and the Global Environmental Crisis’. Environmental Values 31 (1): 47-66.

https://doi.org/10.3197/096327121X16245253346567

Sagan, C. 1994. Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. New York, NY: Random House Publishing.


[1] Ferrando 2016; Deudney 2020.

[2] Brady 2022, Mikonnen 2022.

[3] See also Brady 2013, who argues in her reading of the 3rd Critique that such aesthetic experiences are a means of forming moral considerations and attachments to Earthly nature.

[4]  Sagan 1994: 6

[5] Degard 2021; Edwards 2021.

[6] Fraser 2021: 48-49.

[7] Ibid: 86-105; 144-153.


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