Let's Celebrate Universe Day!

For small creatures such as we the vastness is bearable only through love.

— Carl Sagan

By Joe Romano,

Marketing Manager

640px-Andromedas Colorful RingsOn Dec. 7, 1972, the people of Earth saw something that none of us had ever experienced in all of the hundreds of thousands of years we have been in existence. It was the first full-view image of Earth, taken from space. Quickly dubbed the "Big Blue Marble," the photo accomplished something that nothing prior had. It made concrete the concept that we were all citizens of a single place — our home, the Earth. Our petty squabbles with one another, our utter waste of resources, and our mass-production of countless toxins were instantly placed in an all-too-finite context.

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we've ever known.

These were the words of an esteemed Ithacan, and a leading scientist of the era, Carl Sagan, who made it his life's work to educate Earthlings that we are global citizens, indeed, that we are citizens of the cosmos.

The photo of our Earth came at an important time and became an important visual icon. Because we were becoming aware of ourselves as citizens of one planet, tiny and vulnerable, the 1970s would become the decade of the Earth. It was as if we could see ourselves, floating alone in a vast, empty, and indifferent universe, and like the technological teenagers we were, we finally realized the value of cleaning up our room.

The first Earth Day had only taken place 19 months earlier, and was observed in only a few US cities; it had yet to become a global event. Locally, the Ithaca Real Food Co-op, which would eventually evolve into GreenStar, was just getting started, with a mindful focus on the web of life.

Nationally, the Clean Air Act and the Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1972 were becoming law. The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) would establish the US Environmental Protection Agency and the Council on Environmental Quality. Then came the Marine Protection, Research, and Sanctuaries Act of 1972, the Endangered Species Act of 1973, the Safe Drinking Water Act of 1974, the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act of 1976, the Water Pollution Control Act Amendments of 1977 (which became known as the Clean Water Act), and the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, commonly known as the Superfund Act, in 1980. Earth Day was the day for environmentalists to celebrate these achievements.

In 1980, Carl Sagan took the blue ball and carried it over the finish line; his PBS television show, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage, showed audiences where Homo sapiens stood in space, in time, and in the context of history, science, and ideas. Sagan told us that, "The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies, were made in the interiors of collapsing stars." He told us that we were "made of starstuff."

500 million people watched, and in so doing, gained a respect and understanding of who and what we humans are, and how we relate to the other beings and objects in the universe. In other words, we began to truly understand our environment, and once we understood, it became that much more likely that we would care for it.

We had become environmentalists. People and the planet had become more important than corporate interests. In the years to follow, however, those briefly endangered corporations were able to exert enough economic pressure on people that their own survival became paramount once again. As the economy began to fail more and more people, corporate lobbyists could dangle jobs or lucrative-sounding contracts before an increasingly desperate and dwindling middle class. This would cause good people to backpedal on their environmental commitment and once again accept dangerous technologies like nuclear energy or fracking, or limit government regulation on industry in the hope that it was "good for jobs and the economy."

As a result, laws that regulated public drinking water, protected wildlife, or regulated toxic substances, pesticides, and ocean dumping have slowly been eroded. Money for pollution research, contaminated site cleanup, monitoring, and enforcement has slowly diminished.

But we are still the same people, on the same planet that we ever were, and we are still starstuff.

The truth is, not only are we made of stars, but stars, planets, even other life forms, will eventually be made of us. Our stuff will travel to other galaxies, and perhaps already has. We are not just citizens of the Earth; we are citizens of the rest of the universe.

There is a school of thought called panspermia, which posits that life on Earth did not begin on Earth, but rather traveled through space to get here. Cosmologist Steven Hawking believes that "life could spread from planet to planet or from stellar system to stellar system, carried on meteors."

In fact, a project of the European Space Agency called TARDIS has already launched Earthlings out into the harsh environs of space, strapped, completely unprotected, to the outside of the spacecraft, and returned them to Earth safely to show that life can survive a trip through space. These creatures are called tardigrades, and are from a class of Earth dweller known as extremophiles, that can withstand the dehydration and extreme cold of space, the extreme heat of reentry, and the lack of air or water. These unusual concepts and creatures expand the boundaries of the web of life we hold sacred at GreenStar. Yet, in the vastness of the night sky, throughout all those stars and planets, we are the only tiny speck that we know of that contains life.

Happily, this Earth Day there is a new thirteen-part Cosmos being broadcast not by Carl Sagan, but as a collaboration between his wife, Ithacan Ann Druyan, and his mentee, Neil deGrasse Tyson, and animator Seth MacFarlane. According to deGrasse Tyson, Sagan passed him the baton that led him to host the new Cosmos right in front of our West-End Store, at the Ithaca bus station. That the message of these powerful Ithacans is being exposed to a new generation offers some hope that the only spark of life we know exists will continue to light the darkness. Happy Earth Day to all Earthlings, Ithacans, and to our beautiful GreenStar family.

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