Stewart Brand's Blog

September 27, 2018

Harvard geneticist George Church, who is leading efforts to de-extinct the woolly mammoth, explores a cave in Siberia. Photo by Brendan Hall.

There will be three long flights across 15 time zones before I sleep in a bed, and we still won’t be there. Our destination is vastly closer to where we start than the path we have to take.

Under the auspices of the documentary being made about Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand by Structure Films, we are heading to Pleistocene Park in Siberia, where we will be filming Stewart and a team of scientists while they visit one of the first places on Earth that is being readied for the de-extinction and re-introduction of the woolly mammoth.

Our circuitous route from San Francisco to Siberia.

After driving to the San Francisco airport with Stewart, we met up with Long Now board member Kevin Kelly, check in baggage, and rendezvous with Jason Sussberg from the film team in the terminal. We immediately see our first flight is delayed an hour. That should be okay, given we had a planned three hours in New York to get to our next flight and have a longer layover in Moscow before departing for Yakutsk. We quickly learned, however, that the delay might stretch to five hours due to a storm in North East. Other members of our expedition already had their flights cancelled, and had to take a train and a car through the storm to JFK from Boston. We could feel the trip unraveling even before it began.

But moments later they updated us that the storm was moving out, and our flight would be boarding shortly. Hopefully this would be the only snafu in our long chain of travel. We made it to New York and began checking in for our next flight, where we got our first taste of Russian bureaucracy at the Aeroflot ticket counter. Even though we had sent our passports to the embassy a month before, and had all the visas affixed, it took at least 30 minutes of mysterious typing to check us in and give us horrible middle seats.

Geneticist George Church travels very light.

Twelve hours later, bleary-eyed and stumbling through the Moscow airport, we were finally able to meet up with the rest of the group. David Alvarado, the other half of Structure Films, Gerry Ohrstrom, the executive producer, and Brendan Hall, who would be operating the drones and still cameras, would round out the film team. On the science side was the eminent geneticist George Church from Harvard, who is doing the primary work on de-extincting the mammoth, as well as one of his post doctoral researchers Eriona Hysolli, who would be collecting mammoth tissue on this trip. Raja Dhir, a young biotech entrepreneur protege of Church focused on bacteria, and Anya Bernstein, a Moscow born Harvard professor of anthropology specializing in Russian futurism.

Jason Sussberg, David Alvarado, Gerry Ohrstrom, George Church, Stewart Brand, Alexander Rose, Eriona Hysolli, Raja Dhir, Kevin Kelly, Anya Bernstein. Photo by Brendan Hall.

After a few hours of chatting and recharging devices we were back on an Aeroflot plane bound for Yakutsk, the capital of the Sakha Republic. Kevin Kelly pointed out the marked change in the people on this flight. While the people on our last flight had the fair complexions and chiseled features I normally associated with Russians, the people on this flight looked to have heritage from both Mongolian and Eskimo cultures. The vastness of Russia rolled by for hours under the plane. We traversed 6 time zones and had only crossed about two thirds of Russia. Our destination, the Sakha Republic or Yakutia, is an autonomous cultural region of Russia that is nearly the size of India and boasts the lowest temperatures ever recorded in the Northern hemisphere.

Landing in Yakutsk.

After landing I was stunned to see that the bags we checked in San Francisco with another airline actually rolled out of the conveyor… all except for one. Apparently the case with all the sound equipment had become separated from us at some point, and Aeroflot did not know where it was. This was a major setback for the filming team, as it was going to be very difficult for the equipment to catch up with us on the remainder of the trip — if it was ever found. Nonetheless, we headed out to our hotel, the Azimut Polar Star, which was complete with a stuffed Mammoth in the lobby, and had a delicious dinner of Georgian cuisine.

I woke up in dazed disbelief that we had to go to the airport yet again in the morning to board a plane for another 4 hour flight. On the Russian-made twin propeller plane we found they had removed many of the seats and replaced them with cargo bound for Cherskiy, our destination on the northern coast. Our group certainly stood out on this flight. As we flew north crossing the Arctic Circle and east across two more time zones, there was no sign of habitation. Almost everyone in Yakutia lives in a few major cities, leaving the 1.2 million square mile area — larger than Argentina — almost completely untouched. As we approached Cherskiy we could see the mighty Kolyma River beneath us, infamous as the region of the Russian Gulag labor camps in the 01930s-50s, and the watercourse we would be spending the next 10 days on.

The Top of the World

The moment the plane door opened after landing on the dirt strip, two Russian soldiers stepped in blocking our exit.

“Passports,” they said, just to our group.

We produced our documents.

“All with Zimov?”

We nodded.

They checked our names against a list and gave our passports back. After walking by scores of derelict planes, we met Nikita Zimov in the parking lot. With him was Luke Griswold-Tergis, a filmmaker who has spent the last 6 seasons with the Zimovs making a documentary about them and the Pleistocene Park. Generously, Luke was going to be able to loan the film crew some sound equipment while they hoped for their equipment to come in on the next flight — at best two days out.

Some of the many planes that never left Cherskiy Airport

The Cherskiy logistical hub was one of over a hundred polar outposts during the Soviet times. When the Soviet Union collapsed, so did the support and resources, leaving just a few places like this to scrape by. The 20,000 souls in Cherskiy at the height of the Cold War have dwindled to less than 2,000, and most of those are native people from local tribes. The city is replete with abandoned buildings and infrastructure, and if there were ever any paved streets, they are now long gone. We bounced through the two or three blocks that make up the town in a bit of a blur, and were taken down to the water just off one end of the air strip where a barge was waiting. Nikita was boisterous and cheerful, and rattled off facts about his hometown as we peppered him with questions. We loaded all the gear on to the barge and were joined by Nikita’s wife Nastia, two of their young daughters, and were soon underway on an amazingly warm and buggy evening up the river.

Sergey Zimov, Nikita’s father, arrived by speedboat after we loaded gear into the cozy bunk rooms. Pleistocene Park is Sergey’s brainchild, and he has been working on it with his family and a small staff for over 30 years. He has piercing eyes and kind of mythical presence that is both calming and demands your attention. Nikita explained that we would be cruising up river for about 20 hours to get to our destination, an eroding mud bank called Duvanii Yar (roughly translated to “windy cliff”) where we would search for mammoth bones. We sipped vodka and settled in for a long ride.

Sergey Zimov

Almost every meal on board included moose meat. Lucky for us it was delicious, as were all of the meals. But we quickly learned the limitations of living above the Arctic Circle at a remote outpost. If it cannot survive 10 months of winter, grows in the ground, or won’t keep indefinitely, it is a delicacy that has to be flown in. Everything else comes by barge in the summer, or is hunted and foraged locally — like moose. There are a few greenhouses in town whose soil beds are heated by the local coal-fired steam plant, where a few precious vegetables can be grown during the months when there is light. Everything else has a cripplingly high cost of shipping. Something like a potato or chicken meat could be the most expensive thing on your plate.

The sun was nearly always setting, and would barely dip below the horizon from midnight to 3am. It made for gorgeous “golden hour” lighting, and our trip up-river was glassy and calm in a way I had never experienced on the water. Even understanding that a body of water this large could be a river seemed to defy my definition of the term. The Kolyma is one of the last major wild rivers in the world. While it has a few interventions at its headwaters, the vast majority of it is untouched by civilization, and here, where it meets the Siberian Sea, it is wide enough that you can barely see both shores.

Duvanii Yar

Inthe slowly developing dawn, the muddy cliff of Duvanii Yar emerged on our port side. From a distance it did not stand out in any way, but this place is famous in the world of mammoth hunters. A mammoth tusk sells for $40,000 and is the last legal source of wild ivory on the planet. Locals scour these shores after large storms, or when the water is lowest revealing new bones. The windfall of a mammoth tusk find is like winning the lottery.

We take small boats to the shore and Sergey explains that the water is too high to find much today, but reaches down by his feet amidst the driftwood and pulls up a bone proclaiming, “Buffalo, 35,000 years old.” We soon come to realize that we are standing in a place that used to be a wildly dense ecosystem. In Sergey’s Pleistocene Manifesto he writes:

During the ice age, Northern Siberia accumulated a thick layer of loess sediments. These are the soils of the mammoth steppe. By counting bones in these frozen sediments, it is possible to accurately estimate the density of animals in this ecosystem. On each square kilometer of pasture lived 1 mammoth, 5 bison, 8 horses, 15 reindeer. Additionally, more rare musk ox, elks, wooly rhinoceros, saiga, snow sheep, and moose were present. Wolves, cave lions and wolverines occupied the landscape as predators. In total, over 10 tons of animals lived on each square kilometer of pasture — hundreds of times higher than modern animal densities in the mossy northern landscape.

This immense density of life has stacked up in the permafrost layers at a scale that is hard to comprehend until you learn how to see the bones.

Duvanii coastline

The difficulty in finding bones was not that there were so few, but that they were mixed with the driftwood that looked nearly identical. Every piece of worn wood looks like a bone at first. Those that have a reddish tint often are. One of my first finds was a 40,000 year-old jaw from some sort of grazer.

One of the first ancient bones I found

Once your eyes learn the subtle differences to look for, bones are everywhere. Over the course of the morning, scores of specimens were found: Lots of buffalo, deer and other more common pleistocene grazers, and even a few mammoth bones, including a nice large shoulder bone. I asked Sergey if bones were found in these densities everywhere, or if this place was some sort of graveyard that accumulated remains. “Like this everywhere, but here, the river digs them up for you.”

Some of the bones found at Duvanii

Another feature of this location that was exposed by the river erosion was the tundra itself, and the ice wedge structures that litter the underground landscape. Hiking up from the river through gorgeous wildflowers and swarming mosquitoes, you can look up at the natural ground level before it was cut by the river. I had heard about permafrost and understood it to be permanently frozen ground, but I had never understood that it was filled with varying structures like this. The dirty ice melting in front of us was tens of thousands of years old, and filled with smelly organic compounds and gases being released into the atmosphere.

Tundra ice wedges exposed by river erosion

The visit to Duvanii made the idea of the “mammoth steppe” extremely real. There was something elemental about being surrounded by Pleistocene bones in a melting tundra landscape. You could close your eyes and feel how rich this ecosystem was before it was hunted into extinction.

Our trip down river went faster as we traveled with the flow of the water. We stopped for the night at the tiny home of a few fishermen who live along the banks of one of the smaller tributaries. They brought dried fish aboard, and one of them turned out to be quite a singer, regaling us all with Russian folk songs. After each song, Nikita translated the plot of suffering and injustice. This guy was basically the Siberian Johnny Cash.

The North-East Scientific Station (NESS)

Returning to Cherskiy we lugged our gear up to the The North-East Scientific Station (NESS) run by the Zimovs as a kind of HQ, bunkhouse and science facility. We joined a group of Russian geologists who were there studying the tundra both in and around Pleistocene Park. The station itself is a repurposed TV Satellite dish facility left over from the Soviet era. The dish is no longer functional but it lends a bit of gravitas to the location and is easy to pick out as you approach from the land or river.

For the next week this would be our home base as we struck out for the Pleistocene Park, ice caves, and other scientific outposts. It turned out to be good timing to be returning to land. Our moment of warm Siberian summer was beginning to come to an end.

The Park

The next day we were heading to our primary destination — Pleistocene Park. We had been learning about the theory of the park over the last few days and it at least sounded simple: Bring the grazing species back to Siberia, clear the trees and brush so that the grasses could come back, expose the soil to the cold air, and increase its reflectance (albedo). This would help keep the tundra frozen, and all the greenhouse gases like CO2 and methane in the ground. One of the sticking points in scaling this plan, however, is the part where you clear the trees and brush over millions of square miles. The Zimovs can do it in the few square miles of the park, but not all of Siberia, much less Northern Europe, Alaska, Canada and Greenland. This is where the mammoth comes in. It is believed that mammoths would keep the small trees and brush in check, leaving the majority of the land as fertile grasses for grazing, and, most importantly for climate change, flat expanses for bright white fields of ice and snow reflecting sunlight.

Everyone bundled up for the one hour speedboat ride to the park. The little open aluminum boats were great workhorses on this trip, but for each excursion we made, at least one had an issue that required a bit of repair. The Zimovs and Luke fixed each problem deftly, and only once did a boat get stranded after dark, requiring someone to go back out for them.

That time they trusted me to drive the boat! In the few months where the water is liquid, pretty much all travel is by on the water. The rest of the year it all done on frozen rivers by snowcat and snowmobile.

Arriving at the park, we were met by two of the employees that live there year round in a house built on top of two shipping containers (the area floods and they have already had to go in and out of the second story windows a few times). Right at the headquarters we were able to see a baby moose they were nursing to release soon, a recently introduced herd of muskox, and a lone buffalo.

Park headquarters

The buffalo was actually a developing story while we there. The Zimovs have been trying to import 10–20 more buffalo for months and have them all ready to go out of Alaska, but the air transport companies keep backing out at the last minute. Bringing animals in from around Russia is tricky due to the distances and lack of roads, but bringing wild animals from other countries is proving to be quite difficult logistically.

Nikita walked us around the park and showed us an area where they have cleared the scrub forest mechanically (with a bulldozer), as well as areas where they were draining some of the ponds into the river, leaving fertile grassy pastures. Both of these methods are being tested to generate the desired grasslands that the mammoths and grazers used to create and maintain. As we toured around, we were stalked by a few curious reindeer while we swatted at the mosquitos.

I should take a moment to talk about the bugs. On any day above freezing we were generally inundated by mosquitos. We were told that this was not bad, and that we “should have seen it a couple weeks ago.” Indeed none of our hosts even zipped up their bug shirts, but us visitors were covering as much of our bodies as possible with netting and DEET.

Nikita Zimov and Stewart Brand. Photo by Brendan Hall.

One thing that we all noticed about this area was the profound lack of birds in the air, or fish jumping in the water. I am not sure what the mosquitoes feed on when we are not there, but it was clear the fish were not preying on them. Perhaps it was just the time of year, or that behavior is just different, but I have never visited a wilderness as devoid of visible fish and birds as this place.

After a lunch in the cozy bunkhouse structure we got in the boats to go and see if we could find one of the herds of wild Yakutian horses that were in the park. We located them fairly quickly and I think they were one of the most majestic species that they have on the property. They let us get pretty close as they are clearly not afraid of humans.

Muskox, Yakutian horses, reindeer, and the buffalo we saw in the park.

We returned to the park headquarters for our last stop of the day — the ice cave. In this area it is normal to dig ice caves to act as a year round freezer. But at Pleistocene Park, researchers wanted a window into how the soils and ice wedge structures were fairing underground, and dug an elaborate multi-level set of tunnels that access hundreds of lateral feet and at least 50 feet down. They use these tunnels to study the ongoing effects of the changes on the surface as well as soil chemistry. After several hours in these caves standing on solid ice, we were ready to head back.

Inside the Ice Cave. Photo by Brendan Hall.

We got back in our boats to take a long cold ride in the rain back to Cherskiy. Again one of the boats broke down and had to be retrieved, but we all made it home safely. Every one of us walked away in awe of how much work is being done in this far corner of the world, as well as amazed to see what a shoestring budget it is being done with. This is possibly one of the most important climate experiments underway, and it is almost completely un-funded and unnoticed. We all agreed there should be experiments like this going on in multiple places and informing each other. The world does not just need one Pleistocene Park, it needs a network of parks in Alaska, Canada, Norway, Sweden, Finland, and across all of northern Russia.

Mammoth Tissue

Many more days were spent in and around Cherskiy, returning to the park, capturing methane from lakes, visiting scientific outposts, and an evening in the recently built Russian Banya (steam bath). But the final stop for the trip was a visit to the Mammoth Museum in Yukutsk on our way home. A few of us had ventured on ahead to spend a couple days in Moscow, but George Church and Eriona Hysolli were able to acquire some small tissue samples that would allow their work to continue in identifying the genetic differences between mammoths and modern Asian elephants.

Eriona Hysolli of the Church Lab taking a tissue sample from the trunk of a frozen mammoth.

Once these two genomes are properly compared, George Church and his lab hope to be able to use modern genetic techniques, and likely some yet to be invented gestation techniques, to be able to bring the mammoth back. The most obvious place for its reintroduction is a place like Pleistocene Park. Mammoths will hopefully once again be roaming the steppe, and keeping the tundra safely frozen, after being absent for nearly 10,000 years.

Alexander Rose — Executive Director — Long Now

Learn More

Head to Revive & Restore, Long Now’s de-extinction and genomics project.
Read Ross Andersens’s 02017 cover story in The Atlantic on Pleistocene Park.
Check out more photos by Brendan HallKevin Kelly, and myself.

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Published on September 27, 2018 08:33 • 4 views

September 12, 2018

Note: If you are interested in volunteering for this special event, please  fill out a volunteer form .

50 years ago, Long Now co-founder Stewart Brand launched the Whole Earth Catalog — one of the most consequential publications of the 01960s American counterculture. The Whole Earth Catalog and its progeny (CoEvolution Quarterly, Whole Earth Review, and the WELL) inspired generations to realize their personal agency in shaping the world they wished to see, and helped usher in the modern environmental movement, the rise of the cyberculture and the web, and so much more.

A selection of pages from the Whole Earth Catalog.

The Whole Earth Catalog’s legacy will be celebrated on the occasion of its 50th anniversary on Saturday, October 13. Those who helped create the Whole Earth Catalog will reunite, and those who were influenced by it will share their stories.

Left: Some of the original staff members who worked on the Whole Earth Catalog, 01970. Middle: Stewart Brand at the Whole Earth Demise Party (01971). Right: Members of the WELL.

The evening program, which will take place at Fort Mason’s Cowell Theater, will feature an extraordinary group of guest speakers interacting on Whole Earth-related topics — in terms of then, now, and the future.

You can purchase tickets to the public program here. A livestream of the event will be on Whole Earth 50th page for those who cannot attend in person.

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Published on September 12, 2018 11:58 • 8 views

August 28, 2018

Image by George Steinmetz.

This month, The New York Times published an ambitious 30,000 word feature by Nathaniel Rich on how humanity missed its window to address climate change. In the decade of 01979–01989, Rich argues, the world came closer than it ever had to agreeing upon a binding, global framework to reduce carbon emissions.

“During those years,” Rich writes, “the conditions for success could not have been more favorable. The obstacles we blame for our current inaction had yet to emerge. Almost nothing stood in our way — nothing except ourselves.”

Based on eighteen months of reporting and over a hundred interviews, Rich’s piece is vivid and compelling. It offers a fascinating and often frustrating look at how close things were to turning out differently. Above all, it is a warning about the long-term impacts of short-term thinking.

The piece’s author, Nathaniel Rich.

“There’s a huge opportunity with climate change,” Rich said in an interview on the Longform podcast. “Because we talk a lot about the political issue with it, the industry story and the scientific story, but we don’t talk about the human story. And I would say that not only is it a big human story, but it is the human story. … With every step of the ladder that we’ve advanced, we’re borrowing from our future. I don’t think we’ve reckoned with that in a serious way.”

The piece, however, is not without its critics. A number of journalists, historians, and climate scientists believe Rich’s piece lets the Republican Party and the fossil fuel industry off the hook. Much of Rich’s argument rests on the claim that the two groups weren’t so opposed to climate change policies in the 01980s.

Image by George Steinmetz.

Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic argues that that simply doesn’t square with the facts — facts that are discussed in Rich’s own piece:

Again and again, [Rich] describes the Reagan administration going out of its way to thwart climate science and policy. […] If Rich seems a little too charitable to the G.O.P, he lets fossil-fuel interests off the hook entirely. It’s likely that oil executives knew humans were triggering climate change before Rich’s story even picks up. […] Some historians and researchers of the fossil-fuel industry have scratched their head at this element of Rich’s piece.

Rich, for his part, stands by his reporting. “I don’t equivocate about the role that the Republican party or industry has played since 01989,” he said on the Longform podcast. “And I also describe in great detail their engagement with the issue going back to the 01950s. I don’t feel like I misrepresented anything in the decade of the piece that I wrote about.”

Image by George Steinmetz.

Naomi Klein, writing in The Intercept, takes issue, above all, with Rich blaming “human nature” for our inability to deal with the crisis:

Why does it matter that Rich […] claims our fate has been sealed by “human nature”? It matters because if the force that interrupted the momentum toward action is “ourselves,” then the fatalistic headline on the cover of New York Times Magazine — “Losing Earth” — really is merited. If an inability to sacrifice in the short term for a shot at health and safety in the future is baked into our collective DNA, then we have no hope of turning things around in time to avert truly catastrophic warming.

If, on the other hand, we humans really were on the brink of saving ourselves in the ’80s, but were swamped by a tide of elite, free-market fanaticism — one that was opposed by millions of people around the world — then there is something quite concrete we can do about it. We can confront that economic order and try to replace it with something that is rooted in both human and planetary security, one that does not place the quest for growth and profit at all costs at its center.

Despite these criticisms, Rebecca Leber of Mother Jones “Losing Earth” for “expanding the conversation to include a broader audience” at a time when too few news outlets do serious reporting on climate change. “Even if reading this 30,000-word exploration doesn’t resolve the issue,” she writes, “it goes a long way to filling in more pieces of the puzzle.”

Learn More:

Read “Losing Earth” in full here.

Watch over 40 Long Now Seminars and Conversations At The Interval related to Climate Change, including:

Kim Stanley Robinson, How Climate Will Evolve Government and Society (02016)
Saul Griffith, Infrastructure and Climate Change (02015)
Laura Cunningham, Ten Millennia of California Ecology (02011)
Gavin Newsom, Cities and Time (02009)
Saul Griffith, Climate Change Recalculated (02009)
Paul Ehrlich, The Dominant Animal: Human Evolution and the Environment (02008)
Craig Venter, Joining 3.5 Billion Years of Microbial Invention (02008)
Brian Fagan, We Are Not The First To Suffer Through Climate Change (02007)
Francis Fukuyama, The End of History Revisited (02007)
Ralph Cavanagh and Peter Schwartz, Nuclear Power, Climate Change, and the Next 10,000 Years (02006)

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Published on August 28, 2018 05:37 • 225 views

August 3, 2018

10 years ago, Joe Keane placed a Long Bet that the Large Hadron Collider will destroy Earth by 02018. He was challenged by Nick Damiano. The stakes were $1,000. If Damiano won, the winnings would go to Save the Children. If Keane won, the world would end, and the winnings would (theoretically) go to the National Rifle Association.

The Large Hadron Collider is the world’s largest and most powerful particle collider, and was launched in 02008, the year Keane placed his bet. Such awesome power, Keane reasoned, could bring about some unintended consequences. In placing the bet, Keane argued that “theoretical physics is incomplete regarding what processes can occur at such high energies. No one knows what is going to happen.”

Today, we’re pleased to announce that the Earth still exists, and that Damiano has won the bet.

Was just notified that I won a 10-year Long Bet that the Large Hadron Collider wouldn’t destroy earth: Pretty cool to win after all this time, and I’m also pretty stoked that the earth still exists. @longnow

— Nick Damiano (@nickd717) July 20, 2018

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Published on August 03, 2018 03:52 • 3 views

Changing demographics will do more to shape the future than the politics of Washington, says George P. Shultz. The politics of Washington is something Shultz knows well: now 97, Shultz served in four cabinet positions over two decades. Under Nixon, he served as the Secretary of Labor, the Director of Office of Management and Budget, and Secretary of the Treasury. He was also the Secretary of State under Reagan.

From George P. Shultz’s Long Now Seminar “Perspective.”

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Published on August 03, 2018 03:50 • 3 views

July 31, 2018

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Published on July 31, 2018 00:06 • 5 views

July 30, 2018

Star Axis by Charles Ross.

In  Part I of our exploration of Land Art in the American West , we covered the birth of the Land Art movement in the 01960s and some of the seminal works created by Robert Smithson, Michael Heizer, Nancy Holt and James Turrell, which expanded the definition of art and opened up new possibilities for the location of artworks. Drawn to the desert for its long vistas, compelling terrain, beautiful light and dark night skies, these artists pushed through the boundaries of art in their day to create monumental works that explored the expansiveness of earth and time. Though the early death of Smithson dampened the momentum of the movement, the ideas around Land Art had taken hold.

In Part II of our series, we move out of the 01960s to explore the work of three artists who created their major works during the 01970s and 01980s. We see a shift with these artists to a focus on complete control over the exhibition of their work and meticulously curating the experience the viewer has coupled with a goal of permanence of the artwork in situ. Marfa, Texas is only about 80 miles from our Clock Site, making Donald Judd’s work there especially relevant to us.

Donald Judd and Marfa, Texas

Donald Judd, untitled work in concrete.

Donald Judd began his artistic career as a painter in New York in the late forties. He graduated from Columbia University with a degree in philosophy in 01953 and was soon making almost exclusively three-dimensional artwork. Like many other artists in the 01950s and 60s, he rejected traditional painting and sculpture — as well as the museum gallery system of exhibiting art — as too limited.

Donald Judd.

This reaction against the conventional art world manifested itself in different ways for different artists. Early large-scale Land Art such as Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jettyand Michael Heizer’s Double Negative was created in direct opposition to the idea that art was an object which could be exhibited in a room in a museum, or even purchased and mounted on a wall.

Land Artists literally fled New York City for the desert, where few art collectors ventured, and, in Heizer’s case, made negative artwork — excavations in the earth which could not be commercialized. Similarly, the subject of Judd’s artwork came to include “the relationship of the object to space and the larger environment.”¹ But as Judd’s work matured he strove to create art that was in the American Southwest, not simply outside New York City museums.

Judd had the opportunity to develop and articulate his own artistic perspectives by writing art criticism for major art journals in the early sixties. His 01964 essay Specific Objects defined an emerging approach to art. “The work is diverse,” he wrote, “and much in it that is not in painting and sculpture is also diverse. But there are some things that occur nearly in common.”

One main characteristic that Judd identified is three-dimensionality. He argued that this art “resembles sculpture more than it does painting, but it is nearer to painting.” Judd wanted to avoid both the composed nature of traditional sculpture (“Most sculpture is made part by part, by addition, composed. The main parts remain fairly discrete.”) and the illusionary nature of traditional painting (“Actual space is intrinsically more powerful and specific than paint on a flat surface.”).

“Judd’s art produces local order, meaning that there is no framework surrounding creative experience.” — Art historian David Raskin²

Judd’s concern for the relationship between an art piece and the space surrounding it led him to develop very particular standards for how art should be displayed. He was extremely critical of the way most galleries curated their exhibits and made it one of his highest priorities to control the circumstances in which viewers experienced his art. Former Tate director Nicholas Serota writes that

his attention to the installation and presentation of his own work, and that of artists whom he admired, established new parameters for the display of art, challenging and eventually changing the conventions of museums.³

Judd wanted exhibits that were not only carefully installed, but also permanent. He observed that artists’ work could be distorted not only by improper display but by the passage of time. In later years, when he established The Chinati Foundation to permanently maintain the artwork at Marfa, Texas, he made his intentions clear:

Somewhere a portion of contemporary art has to exist as an example of what the art and its context were meant to be. Somewhere, just as the platinum-iridium meter guarantees the tape measure, a strict measure must exist for the art of this time and place.⁴

Judd’s first opportunity to design his own exhibition space came in 01968 when he purchased a former garment factory in SoHo at 101 Spring Street.

101 Spring Street. Judd Foundation.

Judd cleared the cast-iron-frame building out to create open and brightly sunlit floors — each one designated for either living, working or exhibiting art. Soon after, though, his aspirations outgrew the dense urban setting of New York City and he began searching the southwestern U.S. for a site where he could permanently house comprehensive collections of his own and other artists’ work. This search led him to Marfa, a small town in western Texas where he was to spend much of his life converting old industrial buildings into meticulously designed living, working and exhibition spaces.

Donald Judd first encountered the landscape of western Texas in 01946 while en route to Los Angeles and sent a telegram from Van Horn — about 75 miles from Marfa — to his mother:

“dear mom van horn texas. 1260 population. nice town beautiful country mountains love don.”⁵

Judd began renting a house in Marfa in 01973 and purchased two former army buildings which he began to renovate, though he did not make Marfa his permanent residence until 01977. With the help of the Dia Foundation, whose mission “to commission, support, and present site-specific long-term installations and single-artists exhibitions to the public” conforms remarkably well to Judd’s philosophy, Judd began purchasing more land and buildings. He also started working on the art pieces for Marfa, and in 01980 fifteen concrete sculptures were among the first pieces to be completed.

Another seminal work by Judd, 100 untitled works in mill aluminum, reveals his deep commitment to both the works of art and the context in which they are exhibited. The 100 works were created over a number of years and installed in two large former artillery sheds. Extensive reworkings of these two buildings opened the interior space up to a flood of natural light through the replacement of the garage doors with walls of glass. Vaulted roofs were added to heighten and refine the proportions of the buildings; these proportions were echoed in the installation of the 100 works. The works themselves, 100 aluminum boxes with identical outside dimensions, but with different interior treatments, offer a subtle and continuously shifting experience of the artwork as the angle of the light outside changes and plays off the metal exteriors and varied interiors. The viewer is rewarded with patience and the piece reveals itself over time.

In 01986, Judd formed The Chinati Foundation to ensure that the site would continue to develop and to be maintained, and the following year he held an open house in Marfa with the town’s residents, understanding that a permanent installation there would be an important part of the community. The complex now includes 15 buildings — mostly old military facilities — as well as ranch land, and permanently displays bodies of work installed not only by Donald Judd, but by Carl AndreDan FlavinRichard LongClaes Oldenburg and Coosje van BruggenJohn Chamberlain, and several others.

Judd’s careful execution of his vision for Marfa allowed him and the artists he invited there to create artwork on their own terms. An artist’s control over their work often diminishes or disappears once it leaves their studio, entering the world of art collectors or museums where it can continue to change hands indefinitely. Marfa offered the opportunity for Judd to be both artist and curator, and it assured that his installations would remain unaltered as long as the institutions that maintain them survive. For Judd, these conditions were paramount.

Judd’s own buildings and those of the Chinati Foundation manifest his ideals: his demands on art and on the manner of its installation; its connection to life as it is lived, to architecture, and to the landscape.⁶

Donald Judd passed away in 01994, having established The Chinati Foundation as a caretaker for Marfa as well as The Judd Foundation to maintain and preserve his own work there and in New York.

My first and last interest is in my relation to the natural world, all of it, all the way out. This interest includes my existence […] the existence of everything and the space and time that is created by the existing things. Art emulates this creation or definition by also creating, on a small scale, space and time. — Donald Judd

Charles Ross and Star Axis

Like James Turrell, Charles Ross came to the art world with a scientific background. He attended UC Berkeley, graduating with a BA in mathematics before completing his MA in sculpture in 1962. His early work was mainly focused on installations using welded steel, plexiglass, prisms and lenses, sometimes in collaboration with theater and dance groups.

Coffin, Dwan Gallery 01968

Amongst the materials Ross worked with early in his career, prisms played an especially important role. In 01965 he developed a new technique for building large, clear prisms and began exploring the possibilities of prisms as sculptures. He’d been spending his time working and exhibiting in both San Francisco and New York and came to know Michael Heizer and the other artists in the Dwan orbit. Ross’s transition from multi-media installationist to prism expert prompted Heizer to write an obituary for Ross, marking the death of his early work period.

Truncated Cubes, Dwan Gallery 01968

Ross exhibited his new prisms at the Dwan Gallery in New York three times between 01968 and 01971. Over those years, Ross’s inculcation into the scene that gave birth to Land Art seems to have turned his thinking about prisms inside-out:

In 1969 Ross shifted the emphasis of his artwork from that of the minimal prism object, to the prism as an instrument through which light revealed itself so that the orchestration of spectrum light became the artwork. This began his life long interest in projecting large bands of solar spectrum into living spaces. — Charles Ross Studio

Dwan Light Sanctuary, 0996.

Rather than objects on pedestals for people to gather around and look into, prisms for Ross became a tool to create an artwork that instead surrounds its viewer.

In his progression from creating sculptural objects to immersive gallery installations, Ross sought communion with light. The next step in that direction took him, along with the Land Artists he’d met working at the Dwan Gallery, beyond what New York could offer and into the American Southwest. In 1971 he conceived Star Axis, his signature Land Art piece.

After four years of searching for a suitable location, Ross began construction on what he calls an “architechtonic sculpture,” a sculptural representation of stellar alignments and the ways they change over long time periods. The piece is meant to evoke the deep history of humanity’s relationship to the stars. Built on a mesa in the New Mexico desert, Star Axis has been under construction for decades and will be eleven stories tall when complete. As a naked-eye observatory, Star Axis features alignments with the Sun on solstices and equinoxes, as well as a long stairway and tunnel that are aligned with the Earth’s axis, allowing the axial precession cycle currently centered on Polaris to be viewed while climbing the structure.

Star Axis features, among other things, an opening at the top of the Star Tunnel that is aligned with Earth’s Axis so that it points directly at the celestial pole — the point in space around which we observe the stars rotating over the course of a night. For most of human history, Polaris has been very close to this point and so has been known as the North Star or the Pole Star — it appears to remain motionless while all the other stars spin around it. The Earth’s axis wobbles, though, every 26,000 years and this axial precessioncauses Polaris to appear to move away from the celestial pole. As Polaris shifts farther from the celestial pole, it begins to rotate through the sky in a wider circle.

Standing at the base of Star Axis’s Star Tunnel, a viewer sees only a tiny portion of the sky surrounding the celestial pole. This signifies Polaris’s extreme position within the precessional cycle at its closest to being our true North Star. While ascending the tunnel, a visitor’s perspective shifts so that more sky is revealed, which signifies Polaris’s shift away from the celestial pole and towards a wider circular motion in the sky. The peak of the tunnel is the opposite extreme — Polaris’s orbit when it is farthest from being our North Star.

Ross hopes to incorporate these astronomical details along with alignments with solstices, equinoxes, the equator and more into an experience combining site and structure that communicates our multi-millennial relationship with the stars.

It’s about the feeling you get when you’re grasping your relationship to the stars. Ultimately, it’s about the earth’s environment — both in time and space — extending out to the stars. — Charles Ross

Turrell, Ross and others create experiences that can only be had in particular places, often at particular times. These experiences are meant to create for the viewer a relationship with the surrounding environment and to expand, temporally and spatially, what constitutes that environment. A small contingent of Long Now Staff and Board members was able to visit the site in 02000 and found the scale and multi-decade effort impressive. Stewart Brandpointed out after the visit:

Astronomical alignments can be pretty exciting, and they are intensely educational. We don’t usually sense the grand orientations, but when we do we take on something deep.

The Precession of the Equinoxes and its 26,000 year time frame can be apprehended personally and thrillingly. — Stewart Brand

Walter De Maria and The Lightning Field

Walter De Maria, The Lightning Field, 1977. © Estate of Walter De Maria. Photo: John Cliett

Walter De Maria’s most well-known piece, called The Lightning Field, is a great example of Land Art’s interest in crafting experiences. It is physically made up of 400 stainless steel poles set out in a grid in western New Mexico. Nearby, there is a cabin for visitors to spend the night in hopes of catching a glimpse of thunderstorms. The experience designed by De Maria is a specific one and includes strict instructions for visitors (no vehicles, cameras, or outside food) that are enforced by the caretakers of the piece, the Dia Art Foundation.

Walter De Maria

Created in 01977, The Lightning Field is an experience of the land and the sky and the ways they interact, but it also explores our attempts to quantify our environment. Measurement is a theme throughout much of De Maria’s work and it is embodied in the dimensions of The Lightning Field. The grid of poles measures one mile along one side and one kilometer on the other, mixing normally incompatible systems and illustrating their arbitrariness. Along similar lines, De Maria’s Silver Metersand Gold Meters feature plugs of precious metals inserted into plates of steel. The total precious metal contained in each plate is one troy ounce, but it is distributed over an increasing number of plugs (the squares of the integers 2–9) for each successive plate.

…in its exploration of the numerical in relation to the serial, De Maria’s trajectory has been singular. It ranges from the vast scale of The Lightning Field — a Land Art work in New Mexico realized under the auspices of Dia Art Foundation in 1977 — whose grid of four hundred stainless steel poles spans a field a kilometer by a mile in dimension, to this more modest pair of works, which similarly incorporates both metric and English (or Imperial) systems of linear measurement. Common to both, too, is the use of highly polished metal components and pristine workmanship, together serving to impart to the piece a sense of absoluteness — of indubitability — as if it existed outside the vicissitudes of chance and the inchoate. — Dia Art Foundation

Top: Silver Meters, 01976. Bottom: Gold Meters, 01976–77.

During a visit to The Lightning Field in 02000, a small group of Long Now Staff and Board Members found the experience, given the actual extreme rarity of lightning, more focused on the surrounding landscape:

There was no sign of lightning but we had an incredible sunset and the cabin is actually the best part. At the least this is probably the coolest place to stay in New Mexico. The Lightning Field itself is great at sunset/rise and almost unseen otherwise. Each 22ft tall by 2 inch diameter solid stainless pole is parabolically tapered at the top to a sharp point. The stainless has remained shiny for 23 years. An interesting effect occurs as the sun angles down toward the horizon and picks up reflection off the taper, they almost look as though they have lights at the tops.

Since lightning can never be guaranteed, the experience of visiting the piece is often more about meditation and exploration than it is about watching a particular phenomenon. The possibility and implication of lightning hints at the power of the environment, while the grid and its measurements allude to our hopes to quantify and bring order to it. Through simple, minimal creations, Land Art or otherwise, De Maria creates experiences that evoke the world’s complexity and defiance in the face of our attempts to understand it.

Land Art started in many ways as a rejection. The early participants all consciously sought to escape the limits and the commodification of the modern, minimalist gallery scene and so defined much of their work in the negative (Heizer’s Double Negative making it explicit). As the scene grew and pulled in more artists, the ideas being realized through Earthworks began to take on a positivity. Donald Judd wanted full control over the environments in which his sculptures were viewed and he wanted them to remain where he put them permanently. Charles Ross’s explorations of the sun and stars led him away from the bright city lights to a place where the sky is a defining characteristic of the landscape. Walter De Maria envisioned an experience that could only be sufficiently crafted and controlled in an isolated natural setting.

Fully immersive, designed experiences, in touch with the natural environment and evocative of our relationship to it, often installed with the intention of permanence (or at least of letting nature decide how and when to end the show instead of a curator) came to be the hallmarks of the genre. These characteristics describe some of the 10,000 Year Clock’s aspirations as well; the paths and tools forged in the Land Art movement’s workshops and sketchbooks are a resource for Long Now’s attempts to provide an experience that encourages long-term thinking through The Clock. In a third installment, we’ll take a look at more contemporary efforts within Land Art — some of the original artists are still working away while many newcomers have helped to keep the movement vital.

Written by  Austin Brown Danielle Engelman , and  Alex Mensing . Edited and updated by  Ahmed Kabil .

Learn More

NPR’s Weekend Edition profiled Donald Judd and his Marfa artworks in 02009.
Ross Andersen visited Charles Ross’s Star Axis in 02013 and recounted his experience in Aeon.

Works Cited

[1] Chinati: The Vision of Donald Judd, Marianne Stockebrand p. 272)

[2] Raskin, David. Judd’s Moral Art. In Donald Judd, edited by Nicholas Serota. Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., New York: 02004pp. 2.

[3] Stockebrand, Marianne. Catalogue. In Donald Judd, edited by Nicholas Serota. Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., New York: 02004, pp. 272.

[4] Ibid., 280.

[5] Serota, Nicholas. Donald Judd: A Sense of Place. In Donald Judd, edited by Nicholas Serota. Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., New York: 02004, pp. 246.

[6] Stockebrand, pp. 12.

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Published on July 30, 2018 11:50 • 5 views

July 29, 2018

Medium’s “Future Human” essay collection explores the scientific, technological, social and medical advances that are changing where and how we live. The collection features work by and about various members of the Long Now community, including past speakers (Andy Weir and Annalee Newitz), collaborators (the geneticist George Church), and staff (Long Now Editor Ahmed Kabil).


Digitocracy by Andy Weir

The author of The Martian and Artemis offers a vision of a future where computers rule. Weir spoke at The Interval at Long Now in 02015 about what a real world mission to Mars would require.


Sex Robots Could Save Your Relationship (And Other Good News on the Future of Love) by Annalee Newitz

“In a nonbinary, nonmonogamous future,” writes Annalee Newitz, “kids’ lives could be full of many loving caregivers.” Newitz spoke at The Interval at Long Now in 02018 about how science needs fiction.


Predictions from the Most Influential Geneticist of Our Time by Matthew Hutson

Matthew Hutson interviews Dr. George Church, who has collaborated with Revive & Restore in bringing back the woolly mammoth.


What Happens When A Computer Runs Your Life by Ahmed Kabil

Long Now Editor Ahmed Kabil interviews Max Hawkins, an ex-Google programmer who lets an algorithm pick where he lives, what he does—even what tattoo to get.

You can read the rest of the collection here.


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Published on July 29, 2018 03:53 • 1 view

July 26, 2018

What makes a species invasive? What makes a species native? Ecologist and evolutionary biologist Chris Thomas on the need to think on a global, international scale when it comes to conservation. From Chris Thomas’s Long Now Seminar “Are We Initiating the Great Anthropocene Speciation Event,” which you can watch in full here.


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Published on July 26, 2018 00:20

May 29, 2018

“Once a photograph of the Earth, taken from outside, is available…a new idea as powerful as any in history will be let loose.“ — Astronomer Fred Hoyle, 01948

I. “Why Do You Look In A Mirror?”

InFebruary 01966, Stewart Brand, a month removed from launching a multimedia psychedelic festival that inaugurated the hippie counterculture, sat on the roof of his apartment in San Francisco’s North Beach, doing what he usually did when he was bored and uncertain. He took some LSD and got to scheming.

Stewart Brand and Ken Kesey, 01966. California Historical Society.

“There I sat,” Brand later recalled, “wrapped in a blanket in the chill afternoon sun, trembling with cold and inchoate emotion, gazing at the San Francisco skyline, waiting for my vision. The buildings were not parallel — because the Earth curved under them, and me, and all of us; it closed on itself. I remembered that Buckminster Fuller had been harping on this at a recent lecture — that people perceived the Earth as flat and infinite, and that that was the root of all their misbehavior. Now from my altitude of three stories and one hundred mikes, I could see that it was curved, think it, and finally feel it. But how to broadcast it?”

Scribbled in his journal entry for that day was the answer, in the form of a question: “Why haven’t we seen a photograph of the whole earth yet?”

Stewart Brand’s journal entry when he conceived of his “Why Haven’t We Seen A Photograph of the Whole Earth?” campaign. Stanford University Special Collections.

In the aftermath of World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union competed for nuclear dominion on Earth. With the 01957 launch of Sputnik, the contest expanded to space. But in the race to the moon, neither side had given much thought to the value of training their satellites’ apertures on the world left behind. Brand glimpsed the power such an image could hold.

Brand in the midst of his Whole Earth campaign, 01966.

“A photograph would do it — a color photograph from space of the earth,” Brand said. “There it would be for all to see, the earth complete, tiny, adrift, and no one would ever perceive things the same way.”

Brand mounted a spirited campaign selling buttons that posed the question “Why Haven’t We Seen A Photograph of the Whole Earth?” on college campuses across the country. He often showed up in costume, and he often was chucked out by security. He sent buttons to Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, NASA officials, and members of Congress.

According to a 01966 Village Voice article, a student at Columbia asked Brand: “What would happen if we did have a picture? Would it eliminate slums, or meanness, or anything?”

“Maybe not,” said Brand, “but it might tell us something about ourselves.”

“What?” asked the girl.

“It might tell us where we’re at,” said Brand.

“What for?” asked the girl.

“Why do you look in the mirror?” asked Brand.

“Oh,” said the girl, and bought a button.

The first color photograph of the whole earth, from ATS-3 (01967).

Brand would soon get his photo. On November 10, 01967, the NASA geostationary weather and communications satellite ATS-3 captured the first color photograph of the whole earth. Brand used a reproduction of the photo for the cover of the first Whole Earth Catalog, a countercultural bible and forerunner to the World Wide Web that Steve Jobs once called “Google in paperback form.”

But the image didn’t enter the mainstream, as the first copies of The Whole Earth Catalog seldom strayed far from the communes. (That would change by 01972, when The Last Whole Earth Catalog won a National Book Award).

The moment of revelation for a global audience came in 01968, at the conclusion of a year of violence and unrest that saw the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy, the escalation of war in Vietnam, and the brutal suppression of student protests across the globe.

During the Apollo 8 lunar mission on Christmas Eve, 01968, Astronauts Frank Borman, James Lovell, and Bill Anders left Earth’s orbit for the moon, traveling further than any humans before. And then they looked back.

The first time humans saw the whole earth (01968).

Anders later said the view of a fragile earth hanging suspended in the void “caught us hardened test pilots.”

“Here we came all this way to the Moon, and yet the most significant thing we’re seeing is our own home planet, the Earth. “— Astronaut Bill Anders

The descriptions of awe, connection, and transcendence Lowell, Borman and Anders said they felt that day when they looked back at Earth would be echoed by future astronauts.

“You develop an instant global consciousness, a people orientation, an intense dissatisfaction with the state of the world, and a compulsion to do something about it. From out there on the moon, international politics look so petty. You want to grab a politician by the scruff of the neck and drag him a quarter of a million miles out and say, ‘Look at that, you son of a bitch.’” — Astronaut Edgar Mitchell

Psychologists call this cognitive shift of awareness during spaceflight the “overview effect.”

The view of Earth for TV audiences during the Apollo 8 Christmas Eve broadcast.

The Apollo 8 astronauts reached for their cameras and started snapping photos. Later that day, in what was, at that time, the most watched television broadcast in history, the astronauts read from the Book of Genesis as the cameras showed a grainy, black and white image of the Earth.

When the astronauts returned to Earth three days later, they brought with them the boon of their new whole earth perspective in the form of a photograph. Earthrise captured what the grainy television cameras could not.

“Earthrise, Seen For The First Time By Human Eyes” (01968). NASA.

“Up there, it’s a black-and-white world,” James Lovell later recalled. “There’s no color. In the whole universe, wherever we looked, the only bit of color was back on Earth…It was the most beautiful thing there was to see in all the heavens.”

Earthrise and its companion Blue Marble (01972) are among the most widely disseminated images in human history. By approximating the overview effect for the earthbound, the photos helped launch the modern environmental movement and reframed how we think about our relationship to the planet.

Blue Marble (01972).

“The sight of the whole Earth, small, alive, and alone, caused scientific and philosophical thought to shift away from the assumption that the Earth was a fixed environment, unalterably given to humankind, and towards a model of the Earth as an evolving environment, conditioned by life and alterable by human activity,” writes historian Robert Poole.² “It was the defining moment of the twentieth century.”

Be that as it may, historian Benjamin Lazier argues that by the twenty-first century, Earthrise and Blue Marble became victims of their own success.

“Views of Earth are now so ubiquitous as to go unremarked,” he writes. “These two images and their progeny now grace T-shirts and tote bags, cartoons and coffee cups, stamps commemorating Earth Day and posters feting the exploits of suicide bombers.” The whole earth’s very omnipresence means that “we ceased, in a fashion, to see it.”

Perhaps. Benjamin Grant, founder of the Daily Overview, believes we just need to look closer.

The Mount Whaleback Iron Ore Mine in the Pilbara region of Western Australia. 98% of world’s mined iron ore is used to make steel and is thus a major component in the construction of buildings, automobiles, and appliances such as refrigerators. Daily Overview.

II. An Amazing Mistake

In02013, Benjamin Grant, then a brand strategist at a buttoned-up consulting firm in New York City, found himself thinking less about marketing and more about outer space. Earlier that year, a meteor whose light shone brighter than the sun exploded into fragments across Russian skies. In September, NASA confirmed that the Voyager space probe entered interstellar space, becoming the first human-made object to leave the solar system. And SpaceX was making strides with the rockets it hoped would one day carry humans to Mars. Grant was fascinated, and decided to start a space club at work.

“It was not a normal thing for anyone at my job to start a club of any kind,” Grant says. “But I figured I would do it and if I got fired for doing it then it probably was not the right place for me to work anyway.”

Grant started giving talks at the firm, and soon became known to his colleagues as the space guy. One introduced him to a short film by Planetary Collective called Overview.

The film explored the overview effect in meditative detail and shared astronauts’ reactions to seeing the earth from space.

“It was so powerful to me, so profound,” Grant says of watching Overview. “Maybe I was searching for something like that.”

Grant began sharing the video with everyone he knew. The overview effect was very much on his mind when he started preparing for a space club talk on GPS satellites. As he was pulling some satellite imagery for the talk, he entered “Earth” into the Apple Maps search bar, hoping it would take him to a zoomed out view of the whole earth. What he saw instead stunned him: Earth, Texas, a small town in the Northern part of the state with a population of 1,048.

The screenshot Benjamin Grant took of Earth, TX, seen from above. Benjamin Grant

Viewed from above, Earth, Texas is dappled by perfect circle after circle of fields, looking not unlike a pattern of verdant vinyl records.

“I had no idea what I was seeing at the time, but I’d studied art history and was dabbling in photography,” Grant says. “This was so stunningly beautiful and I had absolutely no idea what it was. It was this amazing mistake that set me off on this adventure.”

Grant went back to his apartment, plugged his computer into his big-screen, and showed the image to his roommates. They discovered that they were looking at pivot irrigation fields. The image inspired an evening of searching for similarly arresting satellite imagery of man-made systems. A friend from Europe showed him the shipping containers of the Port of Rotterdam, Europe’s largest sea port. Another friend who worked in energy asked if Grant had ever looked at solar concentrators before. A friend’s girlfriend who worked for an NGO at the time showed them the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Kenya.

Top left: The Port of Rotterdam. Top right: A solar farm in Seville, Spain. Bottom: The Dadaab Refugee camp, Kenya. Daily Overview

In an epiphanous moment not unlike Stewart Brand’s whole earth vision—sans LSD—Grant realized that these seldom-considered perspectives might inspire something akin to what seeing the Earth from space did for astronauts.

He launched the Daily Overview on Instagram soon after. Each day, the account shares an image of the Earth from above, called an Overview, that is optimized to capture fleeting attention on social media. Underneath each arresting image is a bite-size caption of two to three sentences describing what you’re seeing, along with geocoordinates. Daily Overview is one of the most popular blogs on social media. On Instagram, no account with an environmental focus has more followers.

“I think we’re inundated and saturated with so much information all the time now,” Grant tells me, “that if you can focus it to a few simple things it can actually stick with someone.”

The Eixample District in Barcelona, Spain. The neighborhood is characterized by its strict grid pattern, octagonal intersections, and apartments with communal courtyards. Daily Overview.

There’s a key difference between these Overviews and the whole earth photographs of yore: Blue Marble and Earthrise showed a planet seemingly unaffected by human activity. (“Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilences don’t show from that distance,” Apollo 8 astronaut Frank Borman said). Zooming in changes that.

What one witnesses from this vantage — intricate and vibrant patterns of human activity, construction, and destruction— is still aesthetically-pleasing. But in asking how those systems came to be, and learning about their impact, Grant hopes that one gains a planetary awareness, and, ideally, a motivation to act in a way that ensures planetary flourishing.

Ipanema Beach, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Daily Overview.

“If people have a better understanding of what is going on they’re more likely to behave in a way that serves the planet rather than serving themselves,” Grant tells me. “These images are a way to introduce things that people would never look at. If you were like, ‘I want you to look at waste ponds from this iron ore mine,’ people would say, ‘Why would I spend my time doing that?’ But if you can do that in a beautiful way that gets people engaged and gets people to ask questions about why it looks a certain way or is a certain color that’s an opportunity to educate and potentially change behaviors.”

Left: Iron Ore Mine, Tailings Pond, Negaunee, Michigan, USA. Right: Tulip fields in Lisse, Netherlands. Daily Overview

For Grant, inspiring awe with his overviews is as important as inspiring awareness.

“The things that stimulate awe, such as exposure to perceptually vast things, that you can experience if you go to the Grand Canyon or look out your airplane window, results in fascinating behaviors,” Grant says.

02014 study found that exposure to perceptually vast stimuli that transcend current frames of reference (i.e., awe) resulted in increased ethical decision making, generosity, and prosocial values while leading to decreased feelings of entitlement. “Awe,” the study’s authors concluded, “may help situate individuals within broader social contexts and enhance collective concern.”

Evaporation ponds at a Potash mine, Moab, Utah. The mine produces muriate of potash, a potassium-containing salt that is a major component in fertilizers. Daily Overview.

For Grant, stimulating awe with an overview comes down to not just what the satellite image portrays, but its artfulness. Each overview is stitched together out of as many as 25 images, purposefully cropped with balance and composition in mind. Many of Grant’s overviews evoke the works of Piet Mondrian, Mark Rothko, and Ellsworth Kelly.

“My favorite art is abstract expressionist painting—very simple, almost flat two dimensional painting,” Grant says. “When you look at the world from outer space it also appears flat and two dimensional.”

A juxtaposition of an Overview with a Piet Mondrian tableau. Via Benjamin Grant.

“If I can get people to experience awe,” Grant says, “not only because they’re seeing something that’s visually vast, like seeing an entire city in one frame or an entire mine in one frame, but if also I can compose it in such a way that the artistry of the image itself gets someone to feel awe, perhaps I’m being doubly as effective at getting them to think more prosocially or think beyond themselves or think of the collective.”

The first fully illuminated snapshot of the Earth captured by the DSCOVR satellite, a joint NASA, NOAA, and U.S. Air Force mission (02015).

III. A New Icon?

Grant’s notions about his overviews as art reminds me of something Stewart Brand once said when asked to elaborate on his intentions with getting NASA to release an image of the earth from space

“I saw the whole earth as an icon, mainly,” he said, “one that did indeed replace the mushroom cloud as the main image for understanding our world.”

These days, Brand’s focus has shifted to a creating a new icon for a different age, The Long Now Foundation’s Clock of the Long Now. “Ideally, it would do for thinking about time what the photographs of Earth from space have done for thinking about the environment,” Brand writes. “Such icons reframe how people think.”

Brand’s co-founder at Long Now, Brian Eno, sees both the whole earth photographs and The Clock of The Long Now as works of art that are imbued with a “mythic, metaphorical presence.”

“The 20th Century yielded its share of icons,” Eno writes. “In this, the 21st century, we may need icons more than ever before.”

Grant’s overviews present the Earth in piecemeal — fragments of a larger whole delivered to a global audience on platforms engineered for ephemerality.

When asked if he thinks it’s possible for a single image of the Earth to serve as an icon for our current age like the whole Earth photos did half a century ago, Grant says he doesn’t think so.

“I don’t know if you could unify people in that way now,” he says. “It’s certainly necessary.”

Elon Musk recently sent a Tesla roadster into space.

Nonetheless, Grant believes advances in technology and the current space revolution will make the overview effect more and more a part of our lives. Geostationary satellites with better cameras are creating new Blue Marbles. Space tourism is on the rise, with trips to Mars on the horizon. The perspective the whole earth icon points to could—for those fortunate enough to “slip the surly bonds of earth”—become a direct experience.

“The overview effect is going to become more of a thing,” Grant says. “Whether or not it’s called that, or whether or not people are experiencing it first hand…if awe is generated, regardless of how it happens, it will lead to more prosocial values and more collaboration, and that will create a better planet.”


[1] The Long Now Foundation uses five digit dates to serve as a reminder of the time scale that we endeavor to work in. Since the Clock of the Long Now is meant to run well past the Gregorian year 10,000, the extra zero is to solve the deca-millennium bug which will come into effect in about 8,000 years.

[2] Poole, Robert. Earthrise: How Man First Saw the Earth (02008), Yale University Press, 198–9.

Learn More

Watch Benjamin Grant’s Long Now talk and conversation with Stewart Brand.
Read Benjamin Grant’s book about the Daily Overview project, Overview(02016).
Read “The Overview Effect: Awe and Self-Transcendent Experience in Space Flight” in Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice (02016), Vol. 3, №1, 1–11.
Read “Awe, the Small Self, and Prosocial Behavior” in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (02015), Vol. 108, №6, 883–899.
Read “The Man Who Changed The World, Twice” by David Brooks.
Watch Benjamin Grant’s 02017 TED talk.

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Published on May 29, 2018 11:23 • 71 views

Stewart Brand's Blog

Stewart Brand
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