A Necessary Perspective
Conceptual Visualization by Makoto Shibuya
The science and data forecasting our climate challenge are available, but a distant and abstract threat is often intangible. Out of sight, out of mind. Threats that we can see, feel, and smell somehow ignite a response, while silent threats can prevail in plain sight until it is often too late.
"To mobilize people, this [climate challenge] has to become an emotional issue. It has to have the immediacy and salience. A distant, abstract, and disputed threat just doesn’t have the necessary characteristics for seriously mobilizing public opinion.” —Daniel Kahneman
The same week that I backpacked the Timberline trail, traversing up and over grueling ridges and valleys, I learned that if I were to hold the earth in the palm of my hand, it would feel as smooth as a cue ball.
Timberline Trail is a 41.4-mile loop around Mt. Hood. As I navigated around the mountain, I couldn't help but notice differences in the mountainsides. The topography played a role in shaping unique environments around the mountain—some parts never received direct sun, while others endured harsh winds. Yet, others are near waterways that are home to a constant flow of water. From my point of view, the landscape was expansive, and the sky was infinite. After the third and final day of hiking, my legs were inclined to agree.
Days later, I learned that if I were able to shrink the same earth to fit in the palm of my hand, it would feel as smooth as a cue ball. Naturally, I started to wonder about the dichotomy between the depth in the landscape I had witnessed and the smoothness of a cue ball when I picked it up to break a game of billiards. Notwithstanding the evidence, the idea inherent in the juxtaposition was not lost on me.
This realization reinforced the value of multiple vantage points—a lesson I have held close growing up in a multicultural environment where I learned that my view of the world is not the only view. To see a fuller picture, it is helpful to see the world through the eyes of others. While it can make us uncomfortable at times, it is necessary to understand the world around us.
In the words of David Foster Wallace:
These two young fish are swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually, one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?” —David Foster Wallace
Sometimes, you don't know what you don't know.
Maps, by definition, are a representation of something. They are simplified to serve a particular purpose. Having a map of the world at a scale of 1:1 would not help you get around because it would not fit in your pocket. Therefore, it is simplified to serve a particular purpose. A map that distills the necessary information around us can be a valuable tool, but it is essential to understand how that information is getting distilled. We get into trouble when we do not realize the map we are using has been distorted to serve a particular purpose.
For example, the most popular map of the world that many of us grew up with (and is also used by google maps) uses a cylindrical projection called the Mercator projection, which exaggerates the size of objects approaching the north and south poles to fit in a rectangle.
It is mathematically impossible to project a sphere onto a plane. While the Mercator projection is a useful tool to help sailors navigate the globe, it can affect our perception of the world without knowing how it distorts our planet. Modern criticism is that it fosters an ethnic bias by exaggerating the size of certain countries.
Similarly, the globe many of us grew up in a classroom exaggerates the texture of mountains, so they are perceptible when you run your hand across it. Without exaggerating the topography, our fingers would gloss over many of the mountain ranges around the world.
For this reason, cartographers use different types of maps and projections depending on the task at hand. Maps help give us other vantage points, but it is imperative to understand how they distort reality. Without this knowledge, we may be misguided.
We use maps to navigate our physical environment, and then there are mental maps that we use to navigate our social environment. Culture is another lens we use to navigate our social environments. When we are born into a culture, it is often hard to see foreign points of view. We become insular and can be naive to the very influences that shape our own point of view because we are too close to them.
We are reminded of this when we travel to different parts of the world and experience a culture from the "outside." Our behavior does not always translate because we bring a foreign perspective. From the inside of a system—in this case, a culture—we often fail to see the system itself. Hence, the reaction: what the hell is water?
The overview effect is a cognitive shift in awareness reported by some astronauts while viewing the earth in its context from outer space. I have to think Buckminster Fuller was aware of this when he coined the term "Spaceship Earth." He understood he could change our mental models simply by changing the language he used.
When I first heard about the overview effect, it gave me a vantage point that I did not know I needed. It was another one of those things "I didn't know that I didn't know." While I could not send myself out to orbit, with some pictures from NASA and a little imagination, I was able to witness the world in a way I had never seen before, never thought to see before.
It became clear that despite the vastness of the big blue sky we look at every day, we are protected by a paper-thin atmosphere. In this context, our sky is not vast and infinite but relatively shallow and negligible. Our seemingly vast and abundant bodies of water are so thin as if you could wipe it dry. The natural borders of the landscape dissolve national boundaries, and it is evident that nothing but a delicate veneer protects the home we all share.
The thing that really surprised me was that it [Earth] projected an air of fragility. And why, I don’t know. I don’t know to this day. I had a feeling it’s tiny, it’s shiny, it’s beautiful, it’s home, and it’s fragile. —Michael Collins, Apollo 11
A vantage point looking back at the earth that few astronauts have experienced may be the vantage point we all need to round out our perspective. From here, it is evident our environmental challenges are shared and know no boundaries. If conventional maps and mental models are distorted without our knowledge, we may embrace decisions and strategies with inadvertent consequences.
"If widely-held mental models of complex systems are faulty, people may inadvertently favor policies that yield outcomes they neither intend nor desire." —John Sternman and Linda Booth Sweeney
Becoming a cyclist made me a better driver because it gave me a different perspective and situational awareness of our streets. Similarly, when looking back at our planet, the distant and abstract threat to our climate becomes palpable—it gives us a necessary perspective.
Video by Jol Acen.
Marshall, George. Don't Even Think About It.
Sternman, John and Linda Booth Sweeney. The Big Picture.
Wallace, David. This is Water.