About all that can be said about the upcoming election has already been said. All the promises, assertions, hope, disdain, lies, fact-checking … done to death. Many people have already voted; lots more have made up their minds. What we’re at risk of missing now is the big picture.
The picture I have in mind was the brainchild of the late astronomer Carl Sagan. In 1990, he persuaded NASA to command the Voyager spacecraft — launched 13 years earlier — to turn around and take one last look at its origins.
The result isn’t terribly arresting — an inky black void with a weird multi-hued streak running through it. The streak isn’t real; it’s refracted sunlight in the camera lens, an example of the limitations of 1977 optics. But a closer look will reveal, suspended in that sunbeam, one pixel wide … a pale blue dot.
Here’s some of what Sagan had to say about that picture:
“That pale blue dot? That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. Every saint and sinner; every hero and villain; every king and peasant; every young couple in love; everyone you’ve ever known or heard of — they all lived out their lives on that pale blue dot, on a mote of dust in the vast cosmic darkness.”
It looks so insignificant. No surprise there. The dot is only 8,000 miles across, and the picture was taken from 4 billion miles away. There’s nothing quite like astronomy to humble you and make you feel small.
And yet … that pale blue dot is really not insignificant at all. It is the only place in the universe that we know of, and likely ever will know of, where life has been able to evolve that can not only look at the night sky and wonder, but answer all the questions about our origins, history, and ultimate fate using only the light that reaches our eyes.
So this jewel that we’ve been given is very special indeed. And so, by the lights of our scientific achievements, are we. Unhappily, though, our worst impulses have come to the fore all too often. We poison the jewel. We pollute it. We seem bent on exhausting its natural resources as quickly as we can. We fight over every scrap of land. And we seek to dominate, if not eradicate, anyone who may be the slightest bit different — in skin color, religion, worldview, philosophy, or creation story. Our predominant motives in all this have been hatred, and childishness, and greed.
These awful impulses, always in need of address, have been encouraged and intensified in the last four years by the most important, powerful, influential person on the planet. He now seeks another four years of authority, almost totally for the gratification of his own ego and the pleasure of exercising his own bullying power — all at the peril of those who call the pale blue dot home.
Think about the big picture. This election isn’t only a debate over whether Black lives, or blue lives, or all lives matter; it isn’t only about the Second Amendment; or solely about the separation of powers, or income inequality, or the Paris accords on climate change. It surely isn’t about hoaxes, conspiracy theories, fake news, or porn stars.
It’s about the nearly 8 billion souls who live here, and — now the big picture comes into focus — about the possibility that those may be the only souls in the entire universe.
That idea is not as outlandish as it may seem. Think first about all the imperfections, anomalies, and asymmetries that had to occur to make this planet what it is, where it is. Add to those all the random minuscule-probability events — like the asteroid that killed all the dinosaurs — that were necessary to allow us to evolve and flourish. And finally, consider — even with only an incomplete sample size of one — what is very likely the extremely limited lifespan of advanced civilizations before they destroy themselves or cause their own extinction. Reflect on all that — and it’s then conceivable that maybe, just maybe, at this brief moment in cosmic time, this pale blue dot is the only place in the universe where there’s something that’s aware that there’s a universe at all …
If that’s the case, the responsibility to preserve that awareness is ours alone. The person we elect to lead us would need to shoulder much of it. And along with that responsibility, he would have power — to do many things. He could lead the effort to keep the Earth habitable by combating climate change; or he could accelerate catastrophic wildfires, floods, and hurricanes by doing nothing. He could take the point in containing and eradicating the pandemic; or he could mock the efforts to do so and allow it to spread and take even more lives. He could work with other nations to keep the peace; or he could provoke global conflict, including nuclear confrontation, with the worldwide bonfire that might follow.
In short, the person we elect would have the power to end, not only life on this planet, but quite possibly all sentient life in the universe.
So what’s it going to be? A continued life-sustaining Earth, and perhaps the continued self-awareness and consciousness of the entire universe … or the utter self-absorption of one unhinged narcissist?
I don’t believe I’m overstating the stakes here. That’s the big picture. Think about that as you cast your ballot.