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The Earth comes to Bristol

Luke Jerram's Earth installation at the University of Bristol. Image credit: Becky Arnold.
Humans have gazed at the moon since our origin, yet the Earth has only been visible in its entirety for the last 50 years.

The present era is a time of great need. A time where humans need to change our relationship with the planet and to change our relationship, we need to change our perspective. Luke Jerram’s Gaia hosted by the Cabot Institute is an art installation which seems at least in part envisioned to do that through simulating the “overview effect”.

The “overview effect” is a common experience described by astronauts who have seen the Earth from space. It is said that seeing the planet hanging in space, in all its majestic beauty leads the viewer towards a cognitive shift in their perception of themselves, the world and its future. It seems somewhat ironic that only by consequence of venturing into and exploring the space around our planet, do we realize how infinitely valuable our home is.
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

Luke Jerram’s Gaia gives the viewer the next best way to ponder and wonder about this planet that is our home. To feel gratitude for the richness of life that it brings, and to cultivate a resolve to protect it. Like the Moon installation, the room was full of people gazing up, captivated and motionless. We’ve all seen models of moons and classroom globes of the earth, but it's another thing to see them at scale and the company of a magnificent hall. The effect of scaling and decorating is not simply additive, it’s synergistic. It was accompanied with a surround-sound score by composer Dan Jones which featured classical music with extracts of interviews and speeches from past astronauts and Sir David Attenborough which invoked a sense profundity and urgency to arise to the challenges that our planet faces.

Luke Jerram's Earth. People gazing up, captivated and motionless. Image credit: Amanda Woodman-Hardy

Standing before it, I experienced a deep and silent state of awe, I felt a sense of sadness and remorse as my realization of its uncertain future took hold. However, not everyone immediately connected to it in the same way, some wished they could see Europe so they could connect themselves more strongly to it. It didn’t seem to mean as much if they couldn’t see where they lived. Which I think in part reflects the problem that we have at addressing global problems. We don’t live globally; we live locally, and for most of our history as a species, we’ve thought locally. Now, we live and think somewhere in between the two, we are part of a globalized economic and political framework, we travel, we communicate with people all over the world but when it comes to our consumer choices, it's difficult to connect the impacts of our purchases and actions on the rest of the world. Nevertheless, we are shifting towards the “think globally, act locally” mentality which is essential in order to transition to a sustainable and circular way of living.

It’s shifting because of installations like this, collaborative research networks such as the Cabot Institute, the passionate and relentless work of scientists, the actions and communications of climate activists and climate organizations such as Extinction Rebellion. The timing of this could not be more pertinent to the challenges and movements of today. The discussions around climate change are becoming more lucid and visceral than ever and our actions are rapidly accelerating. It’s vital that the momentum is maintained through exhibits like this to keep the conversation buzzing in our minds and our collective consciousness.

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This blog is written by Cabot Institute member Gaël Gobaille-Shaw, University of Bristol School of Chemistry. He is currently designing new electrocatalysts for the conversion of CO2 to liquid fuels.
For updates on this work, follow @CatalysisCDT @Gael_Gobaille and @UoB_Electrochem on Twitter.

Gael Gobaille-Shaw

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