The Overview Effect, A Catalyst for Systems Change (Part II)

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By Christine PX Tan

Read Part I Here

The Overview Effect
As beautifully coined by Frank White, one of the most influential space philosophers of our time, the Overview Effect is described as a cognitive shift in awareness that occurs when one views the Earth from space. This experience has often been marked by descriptions of a profound understanding of the beauty, wholeness, and interconnectedness of our home planet and a consequent shift in identity or worldview that embraces this reality. Many astronauts return with a renewed sense of responsibility, love, and deep care for our spaceship Earth and all others they share the planet with.

To learn more about the Overview Effect, please see Frank White's body of work here and Space for Humanity's page here.

How does working to amplify the Overview Effect relate to systems change? In Part Two and Three of this series, I invite you to consider the Overview Effect as a tool for systems change not just because of how it transforms paradigms but also because of the class of paradigms it moves us towards. The paradigms that emerge from the Overview Effect can not only help us more effectively solve our planetary problems but also become the foundation for a more compassionate, sustainable, and resilient future. 
Paradigm Change through Awe
As discussed in Part One, Donella Meadows theorized that systems change could be most effectively achieved by addressing and transforming the mindsets that drive a system's structure. In response to the critique that paradigms are the hardest to change and hence shouldn't be seen as the most effective way to achieve systems change, Meadows wrote: 

"But there's nothing necessarily physical or expensive or even slow in the process of paradigm change. In a single individual it can happen in a millisecond. All it takes is a click in the mind, a falling of scales from eyes, a new way of seeing."

- Donella Meadows6

This quote beautifully aligns with what occurs to a single individual when viewing our planet Earth from space. With a click in the mind, the Overview Effect acts to radically yet gently gift us with a new way of seeing and understanding the world and our place within it.

The paradigm change caused by this experience flows from a single source - awe. The emotions of awe and wonder have been proposed as one of the fastest and most powerful ways to change our values, goals, and behavior. This is because awe-filled experiences are often too grand to be reduced to pre-existing elements in one's current mental structures, resulting in the need to undergo a reorganization of our previous beliefs.7

Wonder has also been noted to lead to an abrupt decentering of the self and a consequent recentering of the self in alignment with its newfound understanding.8 In doing so, such an experience acts as the deep wake-up call we need to update our outdated mental schema. 

“The vast loneliness up here of the Moon is awe-inspiring, and it makes you realize just what you have back there on Earth.” 

- Apollo 8 astronaut Jim Lovell9

The Overview Effect, through awe, experientially expands our limited vantage points of the world by allowing us to perceive something that is often physically imperceivable to us - that the Earth is one whole system, that we all share this one planet, and that all we do within it is interconnected. In essence, it simply yet profoundly presents us with the water that surrounds us, the context that is too often invisible and forgotten. Moreover, perceiving our spaceship Earth from orbit or the Moon also presents one with the cognitive dissonance between the magnificence of our planet and the harsh realities many have to face.10

This shift in perspective, combined with cognitive dissonance, makes it almost impossible for one to remain static and continue on in their current state. Just as novel environments demand adaptation, the Overview Effect compels and motivates us to adapt how we see, think and behave in alignment with the new awareness we have gained. 

In fact, we saw the powerful and lasting impact of a global-level mental reorganization through the iconic Earthrise image taken by astronaut Bill Anders in 1968. This image presented us with a view and perspective of the planet no human eyes have seen before. Such a profound shift in awareness awarded us with a new way of behaving, as exemplified by its catalysis of the global environmental movement. Within a few years of Earthrise, the first Earth Day, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and the Natural Environmental Policy Act all came to be. The image of the one planet we call home quickly became the affective and awe-filled symbol we required to unite as a collective whole.

"We came all this way to explore the Moon, and the most important thing is that we discovered the Earth." 

- William Anders
Through its transformative ability to shift the paradigms of single individuals, the Overview Effect can be seen as a powerful application of the leverage points Donella Meadows proposed. The mission to democratize access to space for all of humanity is, hence, also a mission to transform our world through recalibrating our shared mental models and beliefs.

If the Overview Effect provides us with the opportunity for cognitive restructuring, what are the new paradigms we gain through this process? And how do they contribute to building a more compassionate and resilient future for us all? 

Read Part III Here

6. Meadows, D. (1999) Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System. The Sustainability Institute

7. Keltner, D., & Haidt, J. (2003). Approaching awe, a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic emotion. Cognition and Emotion, 17(2), 297–314.

8. Bulkeley, K. (2002). ‘The evolution of wonder: religious and neuroscientific perspectives’.

9. National Archives and Records Administration. (n.d.). America on the Move. National Archives and Records Administration, Retrieved April 28, 2022

10. Norris, D & White, F. (2015). Leadership Lessons from Outer Space: Bringing the Overview Effect Down to Earth. Journal of Space Philosophy 4, No. 1

11. The history of earth day. Earth Day. (2021, July 2). Retrieved April 28, 2022

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