Seeing Different: A Visual Series

Tali Perelman

On a regular day in 1965, Stewart Brand put on his white jumpsuit, flower-adorned top hat, and homemade sandwich board, and set off to the UC Berkeley campus armed with buttons he had made for distribution. The buttons were simple: white background, black text. “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole Earth yet?”, they read. The question mark gets a line of its own; probing, insistent, self-assured. Brand found it so enjoyable and effective to “conduct street-clown seminars on space and civilization” that he kept doing it — not just on Berkeley’s campus, but also at Stanford, Columbia, Harvard, MIT. Meanwhile, he shipped off a few hundred of these buttons to NASA officials, Congress members, Soviet scientists, and anyone else he thought could benefit from such prompting.

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Credit: Stewart Brand

On Christmas Eve 1968, an astronaut aboard Apollo 8 snapped the shots that quickly became ubiquitous, bringing Brand’s campaign to fruition. There were a few different angles to choose from — the Little Blue Marble, in which the Earth was shown fully illuminated, one perfect circle, and Earthrise, which Brand preferred: the Earth rising above the lunar horizon, only partially visible, floating steadily as if moored. “A dead planet in front of a living one, the living one in all its fragile smallness,” Brand said. “[Earth] is neither small nor fragile, of course, but that’s a helpful way to think about it.”

This dichotomy is exactly what makes Earthrise such an enduring, iconic visual. On the one hand, it looks vulnerable, small, fragile. Alone in a deep, untarnished black expanse. No protections from above — the only ones around to steward the land are those living directly on it. On the other hand, Earthrise gives us a third vantage point, an external one. We are looking toward, not up from, the Earth. It’s an empowering perception that affirms that we are neither small nor fragile. New, human-made technology has enabled a fundamental shift in hierarchies. We are not powerless. The world is restorable. And we’re the ones who just might be able to fix it.

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Credit: NASA

This shift in human self-perception felt particularly pivotal in comparison to the moment it was born into. Outside Earthrise, most environmental visuals depicted devastation: polar bears on islands of ice so small they can barely contain their limbs; birds dripping with leaked oil; bare, cracked land where there once was lush green foliage. It’s no coincidence that the ensuing conversation followed this same trajectory of hopelessness: we are pitted against one another, estranged and energized by the idea of a scapegoat. Who could have possibly caused harm to such helpless creatures? It couldn’t have been me, so it must have been you.

The only other pervasive environmental images at the time grew from 20th-century conservationists, photographers with an eye toward the vast wilderness and natural beauty of the American West. Black-and-white shots of Yosemite from Ansel Adams, in particular, came to represent an idealized vision of preserved nature: untouched and pure, free from human intervention. The photographer is a third-party with an invisible trace. By positioning the camera into “natural” perspectives — where a rock might naturally lay in a stream, where a tree might naturally stand — he argues for a nostalgic vision of the present. We must not intervene. Instead, admire with quiet awe.

Earthrise is a fundamentally different kind of visual, new enough that it established a third category of environmental photography. Unlike images of devastation, it unites: literally, we’re all on this Little Blue Marble together. And unlike images of nostalgic wonder, the camera is unnaturally positioned; no human could have gained such a perspective without space travel. It’s an aspirational, forward-looking gaze that actively encourages innovation and intervention.

We have hard questions to answer now. How do we innovate and intervene thoughtfully? What kind of world should we create, with what means? Where and how do we want to live? With more aspirational images — ones that belong in that third category — we can catalyze productive conversations around tangible paths forward. Daily Overview’s shot of Barcelona presents homes organized around community courtyards, tree-lined streets, cities so thoughtfully planned that the density is an asset, not a detriment. Planet Lab’s satellite photography of a South African solar plant argues that clean energy can be simultaneously scalable, functional, and beautiful. And Third Way and Gensler’s blueprint for a very different kind of advanced nuclear reactor pushes us to rethink the way power plants fit into communities.

An abstract idea of a better future will continue to be abstract unless we give it shape. The images in Seeing Different begin to do just that.


What Cities Can Be: An Overview
Tim Dougherty

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Credit: Daily Overview, source imagery Maxar Technologies 2019

Barcelona is one of the most densely populated cities in Europe, and Eixample, shown here, is its most populated district: 36,000 people per kilometer squared (compare it to Manhattan, which sounds sparse in comparison: 25,846 per kilometer squared). Looking at this image, however, you wouldn’t know it — the striking, well-organized grid looks spacious and uncrowded.

The power of such an overhead view inspires Daily Overview’s work, which uses satellite and aerial photography to detail human impact on the planet. Seeing the earth from a great distance has been proven to provoke new cognitive frameworks, stimulate awe, increase the desire to collaborate, and foster long-term thinking. Like viewing the earth from space, taking a step back (or up) can give us insights into what kind of future we want to build: answering questions like how to prioritize land use, where to delineate humans from nature, and how to structure the spaces we live in.

It’s especially fruitful to look at cities from this bird’s eye vantage point. More than half of the world’s population now lives in urban areas, so we must be thoughtful about how we organize those spaces. Many environmentalists, including the Breakthrough Institute, have argued that cities are key to shrinking the human footprint and leaving room for nature. But if we’re going to live in an increasingly urban future, we’ll need deliberate planning to ensure the spaces we create are ones where we can thrive.

Eixample, Barcelona, for instance: it wasn’t always so thoughtfully-designed. In the mid-1850s, the industrial revolution drove up the city’s population faster than officials could make room for it. Barcelona’s residents paid for the resulting unplanned density in life expectancy rates, which were far lower than those in both Paris and London — 36 years for the rich, 23 for the working class. Factories and daily life were crammed together into the old walled city, prompting town hall cries to the tune of “Down with the walls!” Eixample — literally, “expansion” in Catalan — was the response.

Catalan engineer Ildefons Cerdà proposed a radical, latticed design for this new district, and in the process, turned urban planning into a highly precise science. His vision was informed by a comprehensive study on what people need to live healthy lives, including factors like proximity to hospitals and the volume of atmospheric air an individual requires. Cars didn’t exist at the time, but he predicted them, imagining small, individual machines that would require streets designed for easy traffic circulation. His plan — visible clearly in the photograph — included wide avenues, octagonal blocks with chamfered corners, tree-filled communal courtyards, and public services equally accessible to the rich and poor. It’s a true modernist vision, one whose legacy lives on.

Now take a look at the lower, center edge of the image: the old city, pre-Eixample. Despite a similar population, it looks congested, muddled. This, for me, is a clear argument for the power of aerial photography — an opportunity to see the distinctions between (for example) different methods of urban planning. Or, perhaps more accurately: the difference between deliberate urban planning, and unplanned growth. I, at least, am more excited by Cerda’s vision for Eixample than Barcelona’s old walled district, but I wouldn’t have seen that contrast so sharply without this point of view. By embracing the clarity enabled by big-picture thinking, we can begin to construct a future we’re all excited to live in.

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The Heart of Africa's Clean Energy Future
Brittany Zajic

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Credit: Planet Labs Inc.

Some think that solar power is at the heart of the clean energy revolution, so the heart-shaped appearance of the Khi Solar One (KSO) is arguably apt. The KSO is the first solar thermal tower power plant on the African continent — and it’s a big step toward improving the lives of millions of Africans who have long lived without electricity. The plant is 50 megawatts, covers 346 acres, and will reportedly have enough power to electrify 45,000 local homes. This is a pretty big deal, considering the electricity challenges sub-Saharan Africa has historically faced.

The electricity grids south of the Sahara are known to be weak, and supply shortages cause regular blackouts. With the demand for electricity expected to increase by four percent each year in Africa, reliable power is becoming increasingly necessary. Renewable energy is cheap to generate, but the set-up costs a pretty penny, and because sub-Saharan Africa is seen as “higher-risk” due to factors like political and economic instability, it can take a while to get the permissions and sufficient finances to kick the project off.

The ability to chart and track the completion of solar energy projects, like the KSO, are vital to our understanding of how energy use is changing on Earth and how its implementation might improve quality of life. That’s why Planet — an integrated aerospace and data analytics company that operates history's largest commercial fleet of satellites — collects daily high-resolution imagery of Earth’s entire landmass. It gathers imagery and data on a multitude of things, including the spread of solar power plants. This can help educate us on which countries are embracing solar energy, how long solar plants take to construct, how communities who use solar energy change over time, and more. Without plainly seeing what our world looks like now and what it takes to build something new, we cannot make critical decisions about our changing planet, ignite environmental debates, or imagine a sustainable future.

I think it’s vital to be able to visualize positive change, not just hear reports of its impact. How many people have actually seen a solar power plant in person? Oftentimes, we miss out on the opportunity to observe and appreciate positive change in the world solely because it isn’t in front of us. Satellite imagery can bring us all closer to understanding the progressive transformations that happen every day, and perhaps inspire us to act and be a part of those transformations.

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Envisioning Tomorrow's Nuclear Energy Systems
Suzanne Hobbs Baker

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A microreactor powering a remote arctic village. Credit: Third Way and Gensler

Climate change is here and it’s making demands. To keep our environment safe and habitable, we need to reimagine and recreate nearly every aspect of our world – our cities, transportation, agriculture, and of course, our energy systems. Thankfully, that’s exactly what’s happening. Ideas, technologies, and policies that even recently seemed impossible are being taken seriously, and passionate minds are generating new ideas about how to tackle this multifaceted challenge every day.

Nuclear energy sits at a strange intersection of this process. A zero-carbon darling in the technology world and a radioactive pariah in most environmental circles, it has a mixed reputation and an unclear future. A new generation of advanced reactor developers are innovating novel iterations of this technology with ambitions to leverage new manufacturing techniques so they can compete with natural gas and partner with and enable renewable energy technologies. They’ll have to act fast and with a much higher degree of social awareness than their predecessors, but this cohort could break the nuclear energy stalemate.

It’s an opportune moment to explore how we can further transform and ultimately leverage nuclear energy in the climate fight in ways that might satisfy technologists and environmentalists alike. But first we need the vision: a tangible visual that can serve as both inspiration and a literal blueprint toward a clean energy future. That’s why I turned to Gensler, a firm with a design process that’s propelled by community needs. They depicted advanced nuclear reactors embedded into a variety of scenarios, like powering a remote arctic village, an electrified transportation hub, and a revitalized industrial site. With the right team and tools in place, we can finally see how truly different these new technologies are and how they might fit into our world now.

As I see it, and as Gensler designed it, the future of nuclear is small. It’s governed locally, and acts as a gathering site. It’s clean, cheap, and effective.

It’s beautiful.

Climate change changes everything. That includes nuclear energy.

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The historic EBR-II dome at the Idaho National Laboratory, reimagined to house a modern microreactor and a new visitor center. Credit: Third Way and Gensler