Half a century ago, one of the first photos taken of the Earth from the moon—showing the planet rising as a vulnerable blue sphere against a background of darkness—helped spark the growth of the modern environmental movement. Sixteen months later, 20 million Americans took to the streets for the first Earth Day.
Overview, a project inspired by the “overview effect” experienced by astronauts seeing Earth from space, collects daily satellite and aerial images that document how humans have impacted the planet. One image shows a sprawling parking lot in Alabama filled with thousands of cars; another, looking like an abstract painting, shows swirling pink waste from iron mining. Other images show housing developments, massive solar or wind installations, and agriculture, all at a scale that isn’t visible in daily life.
Humans have now transformed the majority of the planet—by one estimate, a staggering 95% of land on Earth has been changed in some way by civilization. Some of those changes are small, in areas that conservation organizations still consider critical to preserve as habitat. Other areas, from mines to cities, have been more fundamentally transformed.
“It’s interesting to think about that intersection between humans and nature,” says Benjamin Grant, who launched Overview in 2014 and has been scouring collections of satellite images since then. “Even the fact that we can observe how much impact we’re making through something of our own creation, from the engineers and geniuses who made the satellites, put them into outer space, and put the cameras on them—there’s something about looking back at ourselves which is pretty interesting, in and of itself.”
Seeing these views of the Anthropocene might help inspire more support for doing things differently. Does it still make sense to extract copper from places such as the Bingham Canyon Mine, a 2.5-mile-wide open-pit mine that has been in operation since 1906, or should we be mining it from recycled smartphones instead?
“I hope by us sharing an image like [the mine] it gets brilliant people to think about different ways of doing it, or ways to make it more efficient, or less of it,” Grant says. Similarly, he says, seeing the scale of other infrastructure can lead to new thinking about better ways to build cities, obtain energy, or grow food. “I think by understanding more of what’s going on right now there does not need to be as much destruction of nature, and our interaction with nature can be more in balance.”