Corina Thomas 

’Our century is the first in which it has been possible to speak of global responsibility and a global community.…Our capacity to affect what is happening, anywhere in the world, is one way in which we are living in an era of global responsibility.’

·     Peter Singer in New Internationalist, April, 1997

‘I really believe that if the political leaders of the world could see their planet from a distance of 100,000 miles their outlook could be fundamentally changed.’

·     Michael Collins, Gemini 10 & Apollo 11 astronaut, Carrying the Fire: An Astronaut’s Journeys, 1974.

How has the global image shaped a collective sense of responsibility for the future of humanity,  particularly in relation to climate change?

In A History of European Morals (1892) W.E.H.Lecky spoke of the ‘expanding circle’ of humanity’s benevolent affection, one which grows beyond the family to include ‘first a class, then a nation, then a coalition of nations, then all humanity until finally, its influence is felt in the dealings of man with the animal world.’ 1 Lecky could scarcely have predicted the extent to which this would become true in the 21st Century. We live, as Peter Singer writes, in an era of global responsibility, aware of suffering that we once could only imagine. Add to this the constant stream of bad news in the media, and we longer have the luxury to ignore what goes on beyond our borders, and even our lifetimes. The expanding circle has become a sphere: the global sphere.

Yet the cry for a return to a local mindset can also be heard, with Brexit and Trump indicative of rising protest against the rolling forces of globalisation. Many are urging for a slower, more sustainable way of life not based on endless growth and free trade but on community values and local knowledge. Meanwhile attempts at effective global action to combat climate change are frequently  challenged by the short-term decision-making of our political institutions. How did we arrive in this position of self-defeating tension? Why has a global worldview left us feeling so cold?


The sphericity of the earth was established in Ancient Greece during the 3rd Century BC, and the earliest terrestrial globes were constructed around this period. For a long time, globes have acted as symbols of power and knowledge, whether under the foot of the ruler or proudly placed in the aristocrat’s study. Our fascination with maps takes on a new meaning with the globe, whereby we can consider the whole earth an object for our pleasure. Furthermore, flat maps of the world are open to all kinds of subjectivity, depending on their projection, orientation, decoration, and whether they place symbolic emphasis on certain features. In contrast, a geometrically accurate globe lays claim to the objective viewpoint of an astronaut. To spin a globe is to imagine yourself as an agent of power ‘outside’ of your context.

Whole Earth Images

‘Earthrise’ and the ‘Blue Marble’ are the names of two photographs of the planet. Taken by astronauts on the Apollo 8 and Apollo 17 missions respectively, they have been hugely influential since they were first released to the public.  Finally man had freed himself from gravity to physically occupy that previously fictional point in the space outside his world. However, the bonds of accountability are not so easily shaken. Around the same time as these images hit mainstream media, scientists discovered that the processes of industrialisation were causing an environmental phenomenon we now call global warming. The NASA images came to symbolise the fragility of the planet and the need for new ecological tools and economies. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog regularly featured the globe on its cover alongside guidance for a self-sufficient lifestyle. Similarly, Buckminster Fuller is famous for popularising the idea of ‘Spaceship Earth,’ depicting the world as a fragile vessel with humanity its crew; a message made more poignant by Cold War fears of nuclear war. Both these examples position the individual in relation to the globe and their responsibility for it.


Today, the avant-garde laments the failure of these images to provoke the real long-term action required to alleviate climate change. In spite of Al Gore, the Kyoto Protocol and the Paris Climate Agreement, September 2016 saw atmospheric carbon dioxide pass the 400 parts-per-million threshold which scientists have labeled a ‘tipping point.’ We see no shortage of films playing out the potentially disastrous effects of an altered climate system, and yet this increased dramatic awareness is not so easily translated into the necessary action. Psychologist Per Espen Stokes highlights that more than 80 percent of news articles relating to the International Panel on Climate Change primarily focus on framing the issue in terms of catastrophe rather than opportunity.2 Fear and guilt are shown to psychologically inhibit creativity and counteract engagement. Instead, Stokes and others argue, we need storytelling which can evoke images of alternative good futures we could create,  alongside better publicity for the many positive statistics we are ignorant of.


As well as providing us with the first photographs of Earth from space the Apollo missions gave birth to the era of cybernetics. ‘The techniques that are going to put a man on the Moon are going to be exactly the techniques we are going to need to clean up our cities,’ declared US Vice President Hubert H. Humphreys in 1968.3 NASA developed the argument that space-borne ideas such as systems analysis could be used to tackle urban and economic challenges. Cities could be seen as flows of information and feedback; nerve centres for communication and transport. In turn, the global networks of the world would be combined into one incredibly complex but manageable system. When pushed to the extreme, this global urbanisation manifests in Star Wars’ Coruscant, or Trantor in Asimov’s Foundation, operating as one entity; a city-world.

For architects and planners it made sense to address the environment at a series of hierarchical scales to zoom between - building, territory, nation. However, this ‘Russian doll’ approach has recently come under scrutiny for over-simplifying global issues. Ola Söderstrom suggests that it ‘invites us to see global-local determinations between phenomena where in fact there are complex assemblages with emergent properties.’4 We underestimate the extent to which  the space age has influenced our approach to problem-solving on the planetary level.

Globalisation Effects

Currently the dominant force behind the global worldview is globalisation; that phenomena of increased interconnectedness and interdependence of people and countries. Primarily thought of in economic terms, globalisation has resulted in a psychological shortening of the distance between two places, enhancing our ability to consider things as a cohesive whole – ‘global network’, ‘global community,’ ‘global citizen.’ This has been further driven by the advent of digital communication and social media.

It is interesting that in the process, the image of the globe has been abstracted and lost much of its prior power, becoming merely the logo of global brands, or the backdrop of newsrooms.


Today the developed West seems to be experiencing a backlash against globalisation. A growing dread of ecological disaster brought about by overconsumption; massive immigration shocks leading to a rise in nationalism; and a general fear of the loss of local culture and business to multinational corporations - all of these could be attributed with generating this retreat into localism. Economists and sociologists are grudgingly coming to acknowledge the deepening divide between ‘those who have the skills and resources to take advantage of global markets and those who don’t.’5 The recent obstruction of the Canada/EU Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement by Belgian dairy farmers demonstrates the power of local concern to derail the machines of globalisation. The Guardian’s Natalie Nougayrède is nonplussed at the strength of these reactions. ‘There are so many daunting international issues,’ she says, ‘from mass slaughter in Syria to refugees drowning off European shores, yet these tragedies fail to produce the same kind of grassroots mobilisation that free trade agreements do.’6


It is too simplistic to say that humans are only capable of selfish, short-term thinking . The Effective Altruism (EA) movement believes the main issue is connecting people’s desire to do good with impactful actions. This growing collective of thousands of workers, researchers and academics aims to create a global community of people who have made helping others a core part of their lives.7 By quietly refusing to abandon a sense of global responsibility, they are tackling major issues head-on (alongside organisations such as the Future of Humanities Institute and Global Priorities Project). Naturally, at their recent international conference in Oxford, the familiar image of the globe made its way onto all the publicity material. It seems that as long as we hold onto a sense of responsibility for one another, we will continue to hold on to this image of our planet.

However, overexposure to negative global images can create a sense of powerlessness that makes it easier to accept the status quo, or only fight for our small corner. As Arthur Schopenhauer writes, ‘Every person takes the limits of their own field of vision for the limits of the world.’8 When facing the incomprehensible scale of the globe is it any wonder we retract our vision?

In the 1920s biologist Jakob von Uexküll wrote that our error was to turn the world into ‘a single soap bubble which we have blown up so large as to go well beyond our horizons and assume infinite proportions.’ Instead, he argues that we should think in terms of ‘millions of closely demarcated soap bubbles that overlap and intersect everywhere.’9 Taking this approach, we are responsible for those our ‘bubble’ touches. In our hyper-connected world, who might this mean?

 1.  Richard Buckminster Fuller, Operating Manual For Spaceship Earth, 1968
2.  Bernard J. S. Cahill, Unfolding butterfly map projection, 1909
3.  Landsat images of Las Vegas, 1984 (top), 2011 (bottom)
4.  Isaac Asimov, Foundation Trilogy, cover art by Fred Gambino, 1994
5.  NASA image AS17-148-22727 - ‘The Blue Marble’, 1972

1.  W.E.H. Lecky, The History of European Morals, 1892.
2.  Per Espen Stokes, Yale Environment 360 interview -’ How Can We Make People Care About Climate Change?’ 9 July 2015
3.  Hubert H. Humphrey in a speech at the Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 7 May 1968.
4.  Ola Söderstrom, ‘How Images Assemble the Urban World,’ New Geographies  4, 2004 5.  Dani Rodrik, ‘The Abdication Of The Left.’ Project Syndicate, 11 July 2016. 6.  Natalie Nougayrede, The Guardian, 7 November 2016
7. Jan 2017 8.  Arthur Schopenhauer, Studies In Pessimism, 1851
9.  Jakob von Uexküll, Theoretical Biology, 1926.