The Broader Picture: The planet, warts and all

Click to follow
ALL MAPS are artists' impressions of the planet; now we have the photographs. Modern environmental consciousness began with an image - the first picture of earth from outer space, taken by an Apollo astronaut in 1968. It confirmed Fred Hoyle's prediction of 40 years before: that once we saw an image of our planet from outside for the first time, an idea as powerful as any in history would be unleashed. And in the 25 years since that first picture, the range and quality of such imagery has expanded enormously. Satellite cameras and computer- enhancement let us 'see' the planet in a wide variety of dimensions and on many different wavelengths.

It is also a medium that lays bare humanity's stains: the concentration of ozone in the atmosphere, the corrosive effects of acid rain, the destruction of the tropical forests, the night-light of giant fishing fleets hoovering the oceans. Through clouds, mist and fog, day and night, nothing is hidden.

Kevin Kelley was a 38-year-old handyman in Bolinas, California when he decided to try and 'manifest his visions' by making books of such pictures. Embracing Earth (Thames and Hudson, pounds 24), from which these pictures are taken, is his second compilation. The first, The Home Planet, produced in co- operation with the Association of Space Explorers, juxtaposed remarkable images of the planet with the moving words of the astronauts and cosmonauts who have been privileged to witness these views themselves. This new work, co-authored by Payson R Stevens, a consultant to Nasa, demonstrates the growing ecological consciousness of the space community. The year of the Rio Earth Summit was also International Space Year; its theme was 'Mission to Planet Earth'.

Kelley says that the roots of his desire to produce these books may have stemmed from the period he spent as a weather observer for the US Air Force at Gila Bend, Arizona, when he lived in a little shack with only the desert and the sky for company. Born in Utah, he lived in four different states and attended nine different schools before studying art and photography. College was followed by a wide range of jobs, including boat building and harvesting wild rice.

In the two photographs reproduced here, the colours have been computer- enhanced. The larger shows Canada's Peace River as it flows through the checkerboard farmland of northern Alberta. The smaller picture is of the Gibson Desert in Western Australia, and demonstrates how wind-driven processes have moulded a rippling patchwork of colour and texture. The faint red areas are sparse grasses and shrubs which stabilise the dunes. The dark areas are scars from the fires that burn back the vegetation. Brilliant blue highlights show water collected in shallow depressions.

Thanks to such images, we can begin to gain a sense of the scale and inter- relatedness of natural systems: patterns, flows, rhythms and textures in chaotic harmony; microscopic views confirming that this complexity also exists on the smallest levels. Here are worlds within worlds.

This extension of our vision of ourselves has profound implications. From this perspective all national boundaries are invisible, reminding us that these are recent intellectual constructs imposed on broader, deeper and older ecological patterns. For some, these images seem to call for a profound readjustment of human affairs: they underline the need to develop human values that are both global and interconnected.-

(Photograph omitted)