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Searching for Planetary Icons

The Guardian,, Photograph: Will Oliver/EPA

Placards and banners of recent climate protests frequently show whole earth icons, accompanied by slogans such as ‘Save our mother’, ‘Don’t let go’, and ‘There’s no planet B’. These icons stand for a planet in peril, exploited, overheating, dying. Such icons are now widespread and seem uncontroversial.

 Yet look again. They belong to a tradition of ‘whole earth’ images that began with the photographs taken by the ATS-3 satellite in 1967, but especially the several photographs taken during the Apollo missions, most famous of which is the ‘Blue Marble’ taken by the crew of Apollo 17 on 7 December 1972. These photographs entered the visual culture of the environmental movement with the likes of the Whole Earth Catalog (1968-1998) and Earth Day, which first took place on 22 April 1970. This whole earth visual tradition shows a planet that meets our expectations – ‘our planet’, ‘our mother’. Consider the Blue Marble itself. First, orientation. AS17-148-22727, the original photograph for the Blue Marble, had Antarctica oriented to the top. This was corrected in the subsequent image to satisfy the bias that North is up. Second, cropping. The Blue Marble sits securely within the surrounding space, which provides a consistent frame. In AS17-148-22727, by contrast, the Earth is not centred and appears to drift away as it turns its most inhospitable continent upwards.

Beyond these biased corrections, many criticise how the planetary togetherness promoted by whole earth photographs depoliticises, and disavows the uneven responsibilities and consequences of, the environmental crisis.[1] These images also lack depth. ‘Instead of broadening one’s grasp of the earth’s ecological predicament’, James Nisbet writes, ‘they tend to simplify these systemic issues into an object, a flat disk’.[2] Bruno Latour is the most scathing: the Blue Marble has ‘poisoned thought in a lasting way’, because it combines NASA-led military technocracy with the older theological tradition of a nature unified under God, a holism and vitalism exemplified by the Whole Earth Catalog’s motto, ‘We can’t put it together. It is together’.[3]

In search of better icons for the planet, uncoupled from this whole earth tradition, icons that show the planet as complex, dynamic, composite, and deep (spatially and temporally), we might start with the composite of 450 photographs produced by the TIROS IX weather satellite in February 1965. Here, the planet emerges not as a ‘whole earth’ but as a composite, networked image, a ‘photomosaic’ that we have put together. Although not a data image, this anticipates the computational and modelling techniques of a different planetary imaginary that has emerged in the climate sciences, which I will now consider in more detail.

The planet emerged as a set of data images before it was photographed from space. As historian Paul N. Edwards argues 'Long before astronauts stared down in awe from outer space, notions of a "global Earth" had begun to emerge in language, ideology, technology, and practice'.[4]

Edwards discusses in detail how, from the late nineteenth century on, meteorology and climatology constructed a ‘global knowledge infrastructure’, a ‘vast machine’ to collect, model, and disseminate environmental data. Two processes shaped this history: making global data and making data global. As Jennifer Gabrys notes, such infrastructures now have made the planet and its environments computable and programmable. The planet emerges as a set of networked, remote data points, which are then collated, parsed, modelled, and visualised.

Earth System Science Committee (chaired by Francis P. Bretherton), Earth System Science: Overview, A Program for Global Change, (Washington: NASA, 1986), 24-25. 
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This is the planet of Earth Systems Science, first visualised  in 1988 in the so-called Bretherton diagram of the Earth System, and now in a diverse range of initiatives such as the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project (CMIP) run by the World Climate Research Programme and the Future Earth initiative sponsored by the Science and Technology Alliance for Global Sustainability. Bretherton and his co-authors constructed a flow diagram to show the Earth System as a composite of interdependent complex sub-systems (Marine Biogeochemistry, Terrestrial Ecosystems, Atmospheric Dynamics, and so on) operating across different timescales.[5] This diagram leaves the ‘flat disk’ of whole earth icons far behind, but it is not flawless. It is schematic, of course, and although it includes Human Activities, these feature only as a black box. More recently, the likes of Future Earth have sought to integrate ASSH into ESS to direct its agenda away from improved quantification and predictive modelling and toward political engagement.[6] Human social, economic, and cultural systems now enter planetary projections.

Far from lacking depth or disavowing politics, the planetary imaginary that emerges through ESS is contested as it projects correlated human and non-human planetary boundaries as a domain of future action and government. ESS is an interdisciplinary ‘science of integration’.[7] Its models now include human systems and possible solutions, from geoengineering to biosphere protection to transforming social values and behaviours. Thus, these models now belong to Earth System governmentality.[8] This occurs even though these models, firstly, visualise what for many remains unimaginable,[9] and secondly, schematise complex adaptive systems whose behaviour is non-linear, to assess limit cycles, tipping points, and possible future ‘stability landscapes’.[10] The graphs, maps, diagrams, and plans of ESS – primarily data visualisations that use the conventions of information design – have epistemic, ontological, and political agency concerning planetary futures.[11]

What is more, these are dynamic, ‘live’ images. Recent studies in the philosophy of science show that models and their visualisations have a mediating role in scientific experiment and data measurement is model dependent.[12] Models are a ‘fundamental organising principle’ of climate science, including ESS.[13] More than representations, they construct the global atmosphere ‘in a social and semiotic sense’.[14] This makes the information design used by ESS what Horst Bredekamp, Vera Dünkel, and Birgit Schneider call ‘technical images’, which is to say ‘cultural technologies’, material objects, and ‘epistemic agents’ operative at all stages of the research process and through public dissemination.[15]

The information design of planetary systems modelling performs at this intersection of the digital and physical. It is used to mediate model-data relationships, to assess the predictive and projective value of models, to tune parameters,[16] for building multi-model ensembles, and for comparing future climates, as shown by the CMIP, which provides material for IPCC Assessment Reports. It also performs ESS as policy tools and more broadly in the public domain, through press releases, popular science magazines, news features, and so on. It is thus both world-making and at the centre of world climate politics, even though the complex, probabilistic character of visualisations often disappears as they aim to guide policy and persuade stakeholders and publics.[17]

How we imagine the planet we aim to manage, govern, let flourish, correlates intimately with how we image it. Of course, icons and their slogans are, by definition, simplistic, but this simplification hides contestable histories and biases. There is a challenge, then, to reimagine the visual strategies of climate protest to realign with the most current scientific planetary imaginary, to compose new  icons that show a complex, dynamic, contested planet for which we are responsible, and which we put together as we observe and study it, for better or worse.

[1] Jessica L Horton, ‘Indigenous Artists Against the Anthropocene’, Art Journal 76, no. 2 (Summer 2017), 53.

[2] James Nisbet, Ecologies, Environments, and Energy Systems in Art of the 1960s and 1970s (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2014), 80.

[3] Bruno Latour, Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime, translated by Catherine Porter (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 136.

[4] Paul N. Edwards, A Vast Machine: Computer Models, Climate Data and the Politics of Global Warming (Cambridge, MA.: MIT Press, 2010), 3.

[5] Earth System Science Committee (chaired by Francis P. Bretherton), Earth System Science: Overview, A Program for Global Change, (Washington: NASA, 1986), 24-25.

[6] Myanna Lahsen, ‘Toward a Sustainable Future Earth: Challenges for a Research Agenda’, Science, Technology, and Human Values 41, no. 5 (2016): 876-898. Also, Future Earth, Future Earth Initial Design: Report of the Transition Team (Paris: International Council for Science, 2013).

[7] Will Steffen, et al. ‘An Integrated Earth System’ in Global Change and the Earth System: A Planet Under Pressure (Berlin: Springer, 2001).

[8] Eva Lövbrand, Johannes Stipple, and Bo Wiman, ‘Earth System Governmentality: Reflections on Science in the Anthropocene’, Global Environmental Change 19, no. 1 (2008): 7-13.

[9] Introduction to Birgit Schneider and Thomas Nocke, eds. Image Politics of Climate Change: Visualisations, Imaginations, Documentations (Bielefeld: Transcript, 2014), 13-14.

[10] Will Steffen, et al. ‘Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene’, Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, August 2018, doi: 10/1073/pnas.1810141115

[11] Paul N. Edwards, ‘Representing the Global Atmosphere: Computer Models, Data, and Knowledge about Climate Change’, in Changing the Atmosphere: Expert Knowledge and Environmental Governance, edited by Clark Miller and Paul Edwards (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001), 33.

[12] See Mary S. Morgan and Margaret Morrison, eds. Models as Mediators: Perspectives on Natural and Social Science (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) and Isabelle Peschard and Bas van Fraassen, eds The Experimental Side of Modelling (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2018). 

[13] Edwards, ‘Representing the Global Atmosphere’, 64.

[14] Edwards, ‘Representing the Global Atmosphere, 64.

[15] Horst Bredekamp, Vera Dünkel, and Birgit Schneider, ‘The Image – A Cultural Technology: A Research Programme for a Critical Analysis of Images’, in The Technical Image: A History of Styles in Scientific Imagery, edited by H. Bredekamp et al. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2015).

[16] See Frédéric Hourdin, et al. ‘The Art and Science of Climate Model Tuning’, Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 98, no.3 (March 2017): 589-602.

[17] Birgit Schneider, “Climate Model Simulation Visualization from a Visual Studies Perspective.” WIREs Climate Change 3, no. 2 (2012): 185-193.


Published: 08 Apr 2020  Categories:

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Timothy Stott is Senior Lecturer in Art History and Visual Culture at Technological University Dublin. His research interests focus on the convergence of art, design and science since the 1950s. He has published in Art History, Art Journal, Thresholds, and Journal of Design History. He is co-editor of Nervous Systems: Art, Systems and Politics since the 1960s, forthcoming from Duke University Press, and is completing a monograph on Buckminster Fuller’s World Game. Tim is Chair of the Environmental Humanities Working Group at the IHA.