photo by Bill Anders (1968), courtesy NASA

On Christmas Eve 1968, as mankind first orbited the moon while millions of people watched it happen, astronaut Bill Anders took a special picture. To allow NASA to investigate possible locations for lunar landings, he was shooting images of the lunar surface. As Apollo 8 circled the moon for the first time, the astronauts suddenly saw the Earth ‘rising’. Anders didn’t hesitate and captured the view. It would turn out to be one of the most influential photographs of all time, later named Earthrise.

Against the pitch-black backdrop of an infinite and virtually uncharted universe, the Earth suddenly takes on color, depth and perspective. It’s an emotional and inspirational image that shows us that we inhabit a blue planet with a rich ecosystem, exceptionally suitable for life. A house that promises a prosperous future.

But it’s a vulnerable house, an ecosystem that we are all responsible for, warns the Club of Rome almost immediately, in 1972. With the new perspective of our house, twinkling against the backdrop of the dark universe, comes the understanding that the conditions under which our habitat thrives are not self-evident and in any case temporary. Our planet is not inexhaustible, it’s clear from the start: there are limits to growth.

Fast forward to 2020. We can now all zoom in from ‘space’, anywhere, anytime. The blue planet has become Google Earth™. But what we see is not always that inspiring anymore. Our house is not in order. Rather than instilling responsibility, Earthrise made us arrogant. Drunk from the view, we’ve brought down the Anthropocene upon ourselves. Blind to the consequences, we’re exhausting the planet, as if we are its last inhabitants.

Since that Christmas Eve in 1968, the world population has doubled and the number of people living in cities has tripled. The extractive fossil economy, which enables dizzying growth, places a huge burden on the land, on nature, on the Earth, on our habitat. And indeed, the planet is not inexhaustible. Climate and biodiversity are under threat, at least a million species will soon be extinct. We are the most dangerous poachers in the ecosystem on which we are completely dependent.

Exactly 50 years later, in the autumn of 2018, a second warning followed, this time from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. If we want to prevent a catastrophe, we have until 2030 to fully adapt the way we use the Earth. This lies at the heart of Agenda 2030, the need for change on a scale for which ‘there is no documented historical precedent.’

We’ve taken out an irresponsibly large mortgage on our house. It’s imperative that we realize that we’re facing the greatest crisis humanity has ever known. And that there is no time to lose.

Bleeding Tears, Study 3, Perth, Western Australia

Tailing ponds, the byproducts of mining, contain toxic substances and heavy metals such as lead, copper and mercury.

In 2020, the coronavirus has put the whole world on hold. This offers a truly unique opportunity to take a look behind the backdrop of the Anthropocene.

We’ve virtually ruined our relationship with the planet. Like the climate and biodiversity crises, but with a much more immediate effect, the pandemic is a result of human activity. Especially of our global economic and financial systems, with their emphasis on endless compound growth and the need to exploit nature to the fullest, in an increasingly violent maelstrom of people, money and goods, with no regard for the consequences. But there is no Planet B. Behind the backdrop, we discover, there is no behind the backdrop.

Covid-19 uncomfortably exposes how vulnerable and shockingly unequal we have become. It’s time to realize that we can no longer fool ourselves and cling to the idea that we function in an autonomous ecosystem, independent of the rest of the biosphere. It is simply not sustainable. Things have to change completely. The choice is now ours. But how are we supposed to proceed? Can we still pay off our mortgage? And how do we find a new way to live in our house, in time?

Wearing face masks and head-dresses, members of the Pataxo Ha-ha-hae tribe look out over the concrete jungle of the Vila Vitoria favela near Belo Horizonte, Brazil

Rewind back to 1968. Earthrise. Let's imagine coming from behind the moon and seeing the blue planet looming in front of us. The image is emotional and inspirational. Where can we land? Can we re-settle on Earth, as it were, in a sustainable balance with other lifeforms? Can we, as philosopher Bruno Latour puts it, redesign our living environments ‘as that on which a terrestrial depends’ and always ask ourselves ‘what other terrestrials also depend on it?’

For this is now inevitably our new political task, we have to redefine all of our actions as that which takes us back to earth. DOWN TO EARTH.

George Brugmans
head curator DOWN TO EARTH