I’m currently watching the docuseries “One Strange Rock,” narrated by Will Smith, on Netflix. Since I was young, I’ve been fascinated with the human project of space exploration. I even have memorabilia from several shuttle launches, which I was fortunate enough to watch in person. I was interested in both the science of space exploration as I was fascinated by the unknown and uncharted, and the kinds of hypotheses that could emerge from confronting the unknown. My creative spark often gets ignited when I’m faced with endless possibilities, like the expanse of space, the depths of the ocean, or the ever-shifting processes of the human psyche.
After all, as Carl Sagan has said, “We are a way for the universe to know itself.”
And, how cool is it that these astronauts being interviewed for this show are all experts on the subject of Earth? Who knew that the more one ventures into space, the more one learns about where we come from.
Something that “struck me” (pun intended) while watching the first episode of “One Strange Rock” is the theory of Theia, Earth’s twin. In the “giant impact hypothesis” of Earth’s formation, it is said that Theia, a smaller planet in the same orbit as Earth (also known as Gaia, as early Earth was called), was on a collision course with Earth. When the two collided, they combined, and the impact formed our moon. The impact also tilted the Earth onto its axis, which creates this perpetual balance-seeking effort on the part of our planet’s climate to constantly work to balance itself.
On other planets whose axes are not tilted, the side facing away from the sun is frozen and inhospitable to life as we know it. The side facing the sun is a boiling inferno which also could not tolerate life as we know it.
Our Earth, because of its axial tilt, is constantly searching for balance, from its dry sanded deserts to its wet, dense rainforests. The jet stream circulates currents of air between continents, impacting weather patterns and temperatures. These are all elements of a planet which is neither too hot nor too cold; it is the Goldilocks of planets, always trying to respond to changes in the climate and environment so that nothing gets stuck in one particular pattern.
This balance, the show suggests, is precarious. The atmosphere is the planet’s container, which holds in all the bits and parts of Earth, including our precious oxygen. This atmosphere is thin yet powerful, and provides a firm but precarious boundary between us and the vacuum of space that is at great risk of being irreparably damaged.
This precarious balance can show up in us humans, too, particularly those of us who do not pay close attention to our boundaries. Always seeking homeostasis, we run the risk of repeating patterns that are self-destructive when we don’t allow change to happen. We run the risk of forgetting our axis tilt, so to speak, and staying firmly put in a frigid or fiery position. Balance is key, but there is a difference between the balance between frigid and fiery, and the swirling, ever-changing, shifting tides of the planet Earth. I suspect us humans have a bit of both in us: We like things to stay the same, sometimes even to our own detriment (black and white thinking), while the chaos of the perpetual shifts in our own environments, moods, even growing older, and shifting desires can sometimes feel like too much.
It seems important to get to know more about our home and to discover the ways we ourselves are reflected in our planet. We are constantly responding to the chaos of nature, the chaos of our moods, the chaos of the unexpected. Even the systems we’ve created for ourselves are chaotic and often unjust. Balance isn’t about sitting somewhere in the middle of two stark options. Balance, at least when it comes to Earth and its people, is about oscillating between stillness, and participating in the swirling, chaotic streams of atmospheric and planetary change that are constantly reinventing, dying, being born. Balance is about finding agency amidst the chaos - the agency to be mindful, the agency to slow down, and to pace yourself with the seasons: Not to avoid the devastating reality that things will change, but to know this, and to go forward anyway.
Why? Because life can absolutely beautiful. The views of our planet from space are stunning. Life as we know it is based on these perpetual shifts. This means we have a great impact each other and our environments, and we can actually become participants in this vivid and ever-changing dynamic planet. What if this is what being alive on Earth is all about?