The English Channel
The English Channel

This post stems from part of a recent article built on my earlier thinking and referring to scores of other previous studies. It was published in Episodes, the flagship journal of the International Union of Geological Sciences, a non-government organization in partnership with UNESCO. I gratefully acknowledge the whole article’s co-authors who were Philip Gibbard, an emeritus professor at the University of Cambridge and Mark Maslin, a professor at University College London.

A childhood memory of what convinced me that the Earth is spherical remains vivid. Already fascinated by atlases, the ‘breakthrough’ happened with my seafaring father on a clifftop overlooking the English Channel. Our gaze was fixed on a cargo ship sailing away from its last port. First the hull, then the funnel, and finally its highest wisps of smoke disappeared over the horizon. That experience and understanding the geometry of sunsets and sunrises fueled an unfolding interest in all continents and their surrounding ocean.

Big numbers

Grasping the immensity of time is a necessity for geological thinking. The days, weeks, months and years of everyday talk waft into the millennia of archaeological history and then the millions and billions of years comprising the eras and eons of geological history. Somewhere between daunting and unimaginable is the fact that the world’s human population now exceeds eight billion, itself much more than the 4.6 billion years in the age of the Earth and Solar System. And lest we forget some learning at school, 4.6 billion is 4,600,000,000 and the Sun is 93,000,000 miles from the Earth. What science did not then know and as the International Science Council pointed out in its 2020 Human Development Report, “… in a relationship spanning 300,000 years, instead of the planet shaping humans, humans are shaping the planet. This is the Anthropocene: the age of humans”.

This crucial moment in Earth history

The ‘moment’ chronicled in this blog post is 1950-2050. Much less than a nanosecond, a billionth of a second, in the scale of Earth history, this century began with a momentous scientific prediction; was delayed due to NASA’s initial disinterest in photography of the Earth; has an unfinished geological revelation; and ends two decades beyond the 2015-2030 term of the UN’s ‘Transforming the World’ plan of 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

My focus since 2011 has been the Anthropocene concept with advocacy to the museum and geology professions. That was when my first opinion about it was published in Geoscientist, the magazine of the Geological Society of London: “Geology uniquely brings big time and space perspectives to the planning table as an essential frame of reference... The Anthropocene presents geology’s best chance to take its rightful place as a core contributor to the harmonious, multidisciplinary pursuit of positive consequences in the world”. And my most recent opinion that was published in Episodes, the journal of the International Union of Geological Sciences, included this statement: “Today, it does not seem premature to conclude that the Anthropocene, with all that this term can usefully encompass, looms as the most consequential alteration in the course of history”.


Preceding a photograph of the Earth was a prediction about its future preoccupation by the British astronomer Sir Fred Hoyle (1915-2001) whose theories on the origin of the Universe made him famous. Here was the pivotal point in his 1950 book: “Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available―once the sheer isolation of the Earth becomes known―a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose”.


When NASA announced its 1959-63 Mercury Program of orbital flights, and as reported by Christopher Potter in 2018 in The Space Review, it was “against the astronauts taking what they sneeringly called ‘tourist’ photographs of the Earth”. But he also noted: “The situation improved when Richard Underwood [formerly of the US Army Corps of Engineers] was appointed to head up a small advisory group responsible for photography to study the Earth’s geological features seen from the air... It was said that he could identify any region of the Earth from an aerial photograph”. Stewart Brand, editor of CoEvolution Quarterly in 1982, recalled in the New Scientist with tinges of sarcasm that when “NASA first asked geologists for advice on how to instrument Landsat satellites for useful geological information about Earth… The geologists said they didn’t expect any news from orbit and politely declined to participate”.

Here is a sidenote about John Glenn (1921-2016) who famously became the first American to orbit the Earth on 20 February 1962. Introduced by June Scobee Rodgers, widow of the commander of the ill-fated 1986 Challenger mission, I met Senator Glenn in his Capitol Hill office in 1995. He amusingly recalled that, unbeknownst to NASA, he hid a camera bought by his wife in nearby Cocoa Beach into his space suit. Potter later reported: “not surprisingly, the photographs he took were worthless”. However, as Glenn also recounted, Japan was very proud that one of its cameras was the first to go into Space, a reaction he learned during a celebratory visit to Tokyo.

The Apollo 8 "Earthrise" photo - the earth seen from a distance from the surface of the moon.
Earthrise, taken December 24, 1968.


Evocatively in 2009, journalist Steve Connor in the Independent recalled: “They went to the Moon, but ended up discovering the Earth. The crew of Apollo 8 were the first people to leave Earth's orbit and pass behind the far side of the Moon. They had been drilled and trained for just about every eventuality, save one―the awe-inspiring sight of seeing our own planet hanging over an empty lunar horizon. It later became known as ‘Earthrise’ and the image of the world rising in the dark vastness of space over a sun-lit lunar landscape became an iconic reminder of our lonely planet's splendid isolation and delicate fragility. The image was captured during Christmas Eve 1968… It was an image that would eventually launch a thousand environmental movements, such was its impact on the public consciousness”.

In 2011 Robert Jacobs, an associate professor at the Hiroshima Peace Institute in Japan, noted in The Asia-Pacific Journal that the poet Archibald MacLeish wrote in The New York Times on Christmas Day 1968: “To see the earth as it truly is: small and blue and beautiful in that eternal silence where it floats is to see ourselves as riders on the earth together”. He also noted that Stanley Kubrick was among the first artists to use this image of Planet Earth as a powerful iconic tool in his 1968 masterpiece ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’.


On 20 July 1969, as journalist Tiffany Hsu for The New York Times recalled in 2019, “Roughly 600 million people, a fifth of the world’s population, saw Armstrong set foot on the moon as ‘one giant leap for mankind’”. Often wrongly attributed to that Apollo 11 mission, the iconic photograph of the Earth, known as the ‘Blue Marble’, was actually taken three years later on Christmas Eve 1972 aboard the Apollo 17 mission about 28,000 miles from the Earth toward the Moon.

The photo known as "the Blue Marble" - a photo of earth taken from space by the crew of Apollo 17.
The "Blue Marble", taken in 1972 aboard the Apollo 17 mission.

Tatyana Woodall recalled last year in Popular Science that “With one snapshot, Apollo 17 transformed our vision of Earth forever becoming easily one of the most recognizable space images ever made and moreover the only picture of the entire, round Earth taken by human hands to date”. Referring to ‘the overview effect’, Ashley Strickland of CNN reported last year on “the unique vantage point astronauts have of Earth as a planet against the vast backdrop of the universe and that many astronauts feel more protective of our home and its thin atmosphere, both of which appear so fragile from space, after gaining this perspective”.

It was also in 1972 that NASA, in a major turnaround from its stance and advice from geologists a decade earlier, launched a revolutionary new satellite to document the entirety of the Earth’s surface. This became the Landsat program of the US Geological Survey. As recently reported by NASA, all-time downloads topped 100 million scenes in 2020.


As poignantly recalled by The Planetary Society: “… on 14 February 1990, when Voyager 1 was about four billion miles away as the spacecraft was departing our planetary neighborhood for the fringes of the Solar System, it turned it around for one last look at its home planet… it captured this portrait of our world. Caught in the center of scattered light rays (a result of taking the picture so close to the Sun), Earth appears as a tiny point of light”.

The Pale Blue Dot - a photo taken by Voyager 1 when it was about four billion miles away from Earth.
Known as the Pale Blue Dot, taken by the Voyager I spacecraft, roughly 4 billion miles from Earth.

In his 1994 book The Pale Blue Dot, astronomer Carl Sagan (1934-1966) wrote: “Look again at that dot. That's here. 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 hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar’, every ‘supreme leader’, every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there--on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. 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. The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand. It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.”


As this century began, Nobel laureate Paul Crutzen and his colleague Eugene Stoermer conceived of the Anthropocene, stressing that “a daunting task lay ahead for scientists and engineers to guide society towards environmentally sustainable management and that this will require appropriate human behaviour at all scales”. As Jan Zalasiewicz at the University of Leicester, the first chair of an Anthropocene Working Group (AWG) to attempt to define this term geologically, remarked in Environmental Science & Technology in 2010, “The Anthropocene represents a new phase in both humankind and of the Earth, when natural forces and human forces become intertwined, so that the future of one determines the fate of the other”.


There are two highly relevant, but still unconnected, developments.

The UN has declared that its 2015-2030 ‘Transforming the World’ plan of 17 Sustainable Development Goals urgently needs rescuing: “It’s time to sound the alarm. At the mid-way point of our way to 2030, the SDGs are in deep trouble. A preliminary assessment of the approximately 140 targets with data show only about 12% are on track; close to half, though showing progress, are moderately or severely off track and some 30% have either seen no movement or regressed below the 2015 deadline… If ever there was an illumination of the short sightedness of our prevailing economic and political systems, it is the ratcheting up of the war on nature… The capacity for humanity to use science, technology and innovation to confront crises in transformative ways and to deliver for the public good was clear during the pandemic”. With a preparatory meeting on the Sustainable Development Goals on 18-19 September 2023, the UN’s ‘Summit of the Future: Multilateral Solutions for a Better Tomorrow’ will be on 22-23 September 2024.

The geoscience profession is divided over how to best define the Anthropocene. Should it be an ‘epoch’ that suddenly began with mid-20th century atomic bomb testing―the fervent opinion of the AWG―or a much longer and ongoing ‘event’ that profiles the gradual nature and cumulative impacts of human evolution? And can the latter pave the way for a ‘renaissance’ to pursue the need for greater harmony among and between environmental and societal movements.

In hindsight

There is a striking parallel between NASA’s initial sole interest in space travel from a technological innovation and national prestige standpoint and the AWG’s sole interest to define the Anthropocene in mid-20th century ‘golden spike’ terms. The same 22-year duration―1950-1972 and 2000-2022, respectively―of these separate developments is uncanny. NASA’s initial disinterest in Earth photography was superseded in 1972 by its new Earth-mapping satellite and worldwide public interest in its iconic ‘Blue Marble’ image which immediately became a paragon for environmental concerns. And 2022 was when the epoch and event proposals for the Anthropocene became contested alternatives.

Writing about Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859), the renowned German naturalist, Stephen Jackson surmised in a 2019 issue of Science, the magazine of the American Association for the Advancement of Science: “The Anthropocene discussion focuses attention on a fundamentally Humboldtian observation: humanity and nature are deeply intertwined… nature would persist in the absence of humanity, but humanity cannot exist without nature”.

In 2017 in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, Yadvinder Malhi at the School of Geography and the Environment, University of Oxford opined: “Irrespective of the process of formalization, the Anthropocene has spilled out of its natural sciences origins to become a cultural zeitgeist, a catalyst for numerous cultural, philosophical, and political debates about how to understand and respond to human domination of the Earth”.

In a similar jolt to today’s human conscience, the conclusions of a 2020 treatise on rethinking science in the Anthropocene by Jürgen Renn at the Max Planck Institute for the History of Science include “a need to realign science with the challenges of humanity… In our period, the grand challenges are encountered in their aftermath. They no longer concern the local fate of city-states but all global society under the conditions of the Anthropocene… We can no longer categorically segregate culture from nature but must face the fact that these spheres are inescapably mingled”.

Has a new idea as powerful as any in history been let loose?

As a reminder, this was Hoyle’s anticipation in 1950: my response is no, not yet. An overdue step is greater involvement of Indigenous peoples with their traditions of sustainable ways. It clearly remains to be determined if and how Planet Earth has a managed future beyond 2030. At this juncture, my assessment is that NASA and Anthropocene related delays as well as dismaying midterm SDG results oblige a nature-and-culture renaissance mentality with a new Earth-Human System approach to be an imperative for the world. Meanwhile, I am struck by the motivational commentaries which surfaced in this chronological recap.