The Blind Men and the Earth: An Environmental Parable. (End Paper)

By Goldin, Daniel S. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2002 | Go to article overview

The Blind Men and the Earth: An Environmental Parable. (End Paper)


Goldin, Daniel S., Harvard International Review


In the parable about the blind men and the elephant, each man, concentrating on the single feature of the animal he touched first, confidently maintains his opinion on the nature of the huge beast. The blind man who touches the elephant's leg is sure it is a tree. The one who grabs the trunk claims with certainty it is a snake. And so it goes: the ear is a fan, and the tail is a rope with a brush on the end. The blind men each studied the elephant but were each limited to a single point of contact. They based their judgment on individual experience, not on the object as a whole. As a result, they were all wrong.

In a significant way, this story is a fitting metaphor for our approach to global warming and planet Earth, from the irresponsible denials of the scientific validity of climate change to the worthwhile questions about its cause and ultimately to the all-important issues about how far too often our conclusions are based only on our very limited perception.

Few are alarmed when they hear of deforestation or melting sea ice halfway around the globe. But to understand the complexities of our planet, we can no longer turn a blind eye to the world around us. We must see the Earth as it truly is--an interconnected living whole.

Fortunately, we have the means to do just that. We just have to broaden our individual experience and look from space. From space we can see Earth as a whole in its larger planetary context. We can see and feel the pulse of our entire planet by studying the dynamic system of land and oceans and atmosphere and life.

When I led the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), I was always inspired when the astronauts described our planet. In stunning detail, they would talk about how you could see the continents and the oceans and how they fit together. But they also talked about what you could not see.

Borders. From near-Earth orbit, it becomes immediately apparent that those shaded lines in an atlas do not project up. Borders between nations become meaningless. The only line astronauts routinely talked about is the beautiful, thin, and illuminated turquoise line that separates our planet from the infinite black backdrop of space.

That line, of course, is our atmosphere, and it means everything. Our atmosphere is why Earth, alone among its neighbors in the solar system, supports abundant and diverse life. It is what distinguishes us from our lifeless neighbors Venus and Mars, even though during their formation they were probably very similar to Earth. Our atmosphere outlines a unique planet that is both robust and balanced and at the same time fragile and precarious. But most of all, our atmosphere, along with the oceans and the land masses it interacts with, is shared-by developed countries, developing countries, and all of those in between. Pictures and measurements of the Earth taken from space prove this beyond a doubt.

The view astronauts have of Madagascar, for instance, is striking. Needing more farmland to feed a growing population, Madagascar's residents have destroyed about 80 percent of their indigenous forests. Once almost entirely green, the image from space is now one of a brownish-red barren land that is literally bleeding topsoil off the coast into the ocean. The continuing encroachment of coastal forests requires slashing and burning with a double-edged machete. At the local level, entire ecosystems become, endangered. On the global scale, precipitation patterns are upset. As greenhouse gases and ash are generated and released into the atmosphere, they absorb or reflect solar radiation, thereby suppressing the rainfall that helps wash away pollutants in many areas of our planet.

Other satellite images have tracked pollution plumes--both tropical smoke aerosols and tropospheric ozone--from scenarios not unlike that of Madagascar. In the spring of 2001, a giant natural dust storm originating in the Gobi Desert was monitored by satellites as it traveled east over Beijing, Japan, the Pacific Ocean, and, just over a month later, Death Valley in California, bringing haze to an area known for clear skies. …

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