Deprovincialization

That’s us.

Much of human history can, I think, be described as a gradual and sometimes painful liberation from provincialism, the emerging awareness that there is more to the world than was generally believed by our ancestors.

Earth day was this past Monday, a good reason to give some extra consideration to that ‘pale blue dot’ that every human being that has ever lived has called home. Will there ever be a day when that will no longer be true?

Carl Sagan, owner of the above quote (from Broca’s Brain) and a chief proponent of space exploration, was always a forward thinker, often extrapolating in the most hopeful ways from present realities to future possibilities. Some of his visions may have been a bit too hopeful, such as his conjecture that “perhaps by the early twenty-first century there will be interplanetary regattas competing for the fastest time from Earth to Mars”, but in general I think he stays square on the optimistic side of realistic. And he, like another famous astrophysicist/communicator, is a huge proponent of manned space flights.

Some of the reasons for space exploration are very much down to earth, addressing such practical realities as overcrowding and resource scarcity. To put it bluntly, minerals and elbow room are limited on the planet, unlimited outside of it.

But apart from such practical considerations, Sagan also encouraged space exploration for its metaphysical returns. He speaks of this ‘deprovinciaiization’ of mankind. As we learn more about places we visit, we understand more about how where we come from, the ideas and the culture of the place we call home, fits into this larger scheme. It gives us perspective. It fills in blank areas on the map and expands our sense of the relationships between places and people. One extreme example of this is the overview effect, in which astronauts experience a change in awareness concerning the earth and its place in the universe. From space there are no divisions between countries and people.

This deprovincialization of mankind has been aided powerfully, I believe, by space exploration – by exquisite photographs of the Earth taken from a great distance, showing a cloudy, blue, spinning ball set like a sapphire in the endless velvet of space; but also by the exploration of other worlds, which have revealed both their similarities and their differences to this home of mankind.

This kind of thinking is mirrored by Steven Pinker (Violence Vanquished), who argues that the world today is far safer than it has ever been before, largely due to the growth of government and global organizations and a more educated and worldly population.

A third peacemaker has been cosmopolitanism—the expansion of people’s parochial little worlds through literacy, mobility, education, science, history, journalism and mass media. These forms of virtual reality can prompt people to take the perspective of people unlike themselves and to expand their circle of sympathy to embrace them.

Both Sagan and Pinker are addressing some very important ideas. The more we know about how we relate to people in other places, whether historical or geographical, and the more we know about the natural world, the better we understand our own circumstances at a specific place and time. Travel makes the world more peaceful. So it’s important to read and explore, to remove the barriers of ignorance. I often find that a simple walk around the block teaches me a lot about my neighborhood and a bike ride teaches me a lot about my city. The further I travel from my origin, the more I find out things that challenge my assumptions, that shake me up a bit and reveal a world I never knew existed.

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