The entire earth is but a point, and the place of our own habitation but a minute corner of it.
— Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor; Meditations, Book 4 (CA. 170)
In 1990, as it sped out of our solar system, its tour of the outer planets complete, Voyager 1 turned its camera back towards us and took a few final shots, capturing five of the eight planets in a “family photo”. The Earth is one of the planets in the pictures. Taken from beyond the outermost planet, 6 billion kilometres (3.7 billion miles) away, one of them – the famous “pale blue dot” picture – features a tiny earth caught in a sunbeam in the vastness of space; a dot barely a pixel in size which contains all of us.
The astronomer and author Carl Sagan summarised the image so eloquently in a speech at Cornell University in 1994. In his book of that year, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space he expresses his thoughts on a deeper meaning of the image. Sagan knew that the picture was the first (and probably the last for a very long time – the foreseeable future) glimpse of Earth as a visitor might see it, approaching our solar system after a long interstellar flight. His words are particularly poignant set against the present situation here on Earth of relentless war, hunger, greed, poverty, punitive austerity and climate change created by our politicians:
“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again 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 posturing, 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 harbour 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”.
I always find recalling this quote helpful when I hear the utterings of Cameron, Farage, Clegg, Blair and all the other would be Ozymandias figures. It illustrates better than any other I can think of, the complete absence of anything resembling genuine vision, empathy or moral conviction in any politician, national or international. Enter, Jeremy Corbyn.