NOW I GET IT: The power of the big picture

Posted in News Last updated on: Saturday, 18 June 2016

NOW I GET IT: The power of the big picture
Seeing behind things--the coal mine behind your light switch, the downed forest behind your burger--is central to solving the environmental crunch and a major focus of Eyes Wide Open.  But looking down from high above might be even more important.  Looking behind gives us added information, but looking down tells us what it means.  It does this by zooming out so we can see much more space and time, putting our facts in a larger context.  The big picture is a bolt of lightning, starkly illuminating issues and giving us sudden clarity.


I felt this when, after months of researching climate, I came upon Bill McKibben's article, "Global Warming's Terrifying New Math." The argument is simple. We know we're risking catastrophe if we warm the planet more than 2° Celsius. We've released enough CO2 so far to raise it 0.8°C. Emitting an additional 565 gigatons of CO2--an amount we could reach before 2030--would bring us up to 2°C. The amount of CO2 contained in the coal, oil, and gas that we haven't yet gotten to but are feverishly digging toward: 2,795 gigatons. Suddenly so many things are clear. Will building the Keystone Pipeline create jobs? Doesn't matter. Is fracking a danger to water supplies? Doesn't matter. Are coal companies being unfairly persecuted? None of that matters. What matters is keeping those fossil fuels buried.

I found the same bracing altitude throughout Naomi Klein's new book, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate.

thischangeseverything4"Our economic system and our planetary system are now at war."

"It is always easier to deny reality than to allow our worldview to be shattered."

"...the fiction of perpetual growth on a finite planet."

"Because of our decades of collective denial, no gradual, incremental options are now available to us."

"'Leaders are not looking after us.'...It really is the case that we are on our own and any credible source of hope in this crisis will have to come from below."

"It's time to turn this around now. Is it possible? Absolutely. Is it possible without challenging the fundamental logic of deregulated capitalism? Not a chance."

A Chinese proverb warns us that "If we do not change our direction, we are likely to end up where we are going." Politicians, businessmen, and consumers are so locked into the business-as-usual path that they fail to notice what the Big Picture shows--that we're heading toward a cliff. Candidates typically run on the small picture: lower taxes and more jobs just ahead. The here and now has always been an easy sell. "Sadly," writes the columnist Eugene Robinson, "there are few votes to be won with measures that are painful or spending that may not bring results in our lifetimes. No glory, just honor."

Prophets and writers don't need to worry about reelection and can afford the mountaintop view. The title of this 1982 anthology lifts us high in a mere five words.


Those words were descended from the big-picture subtitle of E. F. Schumacher's influential book from a decade earlier.


A year before it was published we'd all been given the ultimate big picture, courtesy of the Apollo 17 mission to the moon.


The photos taken on that expedition powerfully conveyed Earth's isolation and preciousness and helped energize a generation to fight for its long-term health. Those images continue to illuminate, inspire, and guide us. Today's newer big pictures do the same.


For an astrophysicist's big-picture view of the climate crisis, check out Adam Frank's brief and enlightening article.