Conflict on the Surface: An Excerpt from The Orbital Perspective

During my half year in space, I was moved by many other views of Earth from the windows of the space station besides the India-Pakistan border. One such scene occurred while we passed over the Mediterranean Sea. I was struck by the contrast of colors, the dark blue of the sea against the bright tans and reds of northern Africa, all framed by the curvature of Earth and its paper-thin atmosphere. I quickly grabbed a camera and started snapping away. As it happened, Libya was framed within the picture, which I took on August 24, 2011, the day that Tripoli fell during the Libyan Civil War. Looking at the photo, I found myself thinking deeply about what was occurring at the microscopic level within the frame of this beautiful scene. The violence and suffering that was imperceptible from the orbital perspective was all-encompassing when you zoomed into the details of the two-dimensional plane of the conflict.

Most of the many conflicts raging around the world involve complex factors of history, ethnicity, class struggle, poverty, religion, and so forth. Usually, these conflicts adhere to the ideology of scarcity; actions tend to be based on a fear that the other side might attempt to take control of material things such as water, land, oil, or some other resource. But for the most part, these conflicts are, at heart, two-dimensional conflicts. There exists an "us" and a "them," and both sides tend to demonize and dehumanize the other. If one side gains, the other side loses.

When we pull back to the orbital perspective, however, we see the field of conflict in a new light. We see combatants engaging in violence against each other in a small slice of an apparent paradise. Each side in an armed conflict tends to diminish the humanity of the other, but the orbital perspective provides the view that both sides are fully human, and that by degrading the human dignity of one we degrade the human dignity of all.

The currency of the orbital perspective draws upon the unlimited resources of respect, compassion, empathy, and creativity. If I offer compassion or share an idea, it doesn't lessen my supply of creativity or empathy. Those involved in conflict usually see their opponents as completely separate from themselves, but if those combatants could pull back to the orbital perspective and employ some elevated empathy, they would discover the unity and interconnectedness they were missing. If they were able to look at the long-term effects of their actions, they would see there's a better way forward.

This is really no different from the joint interests that led the United States and Russia to collaborate in space, or that enabled astronauts and cosmonauts to work together for their common survival in the face of fire or cabin depressurization. Pulling back to the orbital perspective helps us to realize that, like those space travelers, we're all riding through the universe together. There are no passengers on Spaceship Earth, only crewmates, and we all have a responsibility to mind the ship and take care of our crew-mates. In fact, when we pull back temporally and look at long-term effects, it becomes apparent that we must collaborate, for the survival of life on Earth.

Reprinted, with permission, from the book, The Orbital Perspective: Lessons in Seeing the Big Picture from a Journey of 71 Million Miles, by Ron Garan - 2015 Berrett-Koehler Publishers