To See: George R. Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision Realized

George R. Stewart was an “inventor” of the Whole Earth Vision – the recent realization that Earth, in an immense universe, is one small, blue, life-bearing place, only fully understood if it’s explored from two perspectives – that of the ecologist, who studies it from ground level, and that of the astronaut, who examines Earth from space.

Stewart used that vision for the first time in Ordeal By Hunger.  He begins the book by asking the reader to “imagine yourself poised in space” in what we would now call LEO or Low Earth Orbit, about 200 miles up.  In the book’s Foreword, he describes northern Nevada precisely, as photos taken by the International Space Station reveal. Stewart used the techniques of fiction to make the history dramatic and engaging and did it so well that some readers think they’re reading a novel.  They’re not; they’re reading history.

The book then moves into the ecologist’s point of view, ground level, as Stewart makes the case that the Donner Party’s tragedy was the result of the party’s ignorance of the ecosystems it passed through.  At the book’s end, he writes, “It should be obvious … I consider the land a character in the work.”

The land, of course, is the ecosystem.

Today, most of us can wander our ecosystems easily. So far, the perspective of the astronaut is restricted to a lucky few.  But, would Stewart not love this?

NASA Strategic Planner Jesco von Puttkamer suggested we are now living in the “New Enlightenment of Spaceflight.” The Enlightenment began with Stewart’s Whole Earth Vision. The New Enlightenment expanded its reach exponentially with the first photos of the Whole Earth from space, most dramatically “Earthrise” from Apollo 8. Von Puttkamer’s slogan for the age, borrowed by Star Trek for the series’ first movie, is:

Space:  The Human Adventure is Just Beginning

Today, we know Stewart’s pioneering Whole Earth vision from both perspectives – of the land, and from LEO.  We have joined von Puttkamer’s New Enlightenment of Spaceflight, and gained Stewart’s Whole Earth vision and have a greater understanding of and love for our home planet.

We have become enlightened.


Image Credit: NASA/Goddard/Arizona State University\


Categories: Author, Book Review, Books, Ecology

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4 replies

  1. I think Karl Sagan had much the same to say. They are true visionaries.


  2. What a lovely essay to read first thing in the morning! It’s hopeful. It reminds us of the beauty and wonder of it all. I needed that this morning. Thank you, Marilyn.


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