Almost anything you do will be insignificant, but it is very important that you do it.
— Mohandas Ghandi
Perspective is everything. Looking at a problem from the arbitrary altitude of 100,000 feet can put a whole different spin on its order of magnitude. Back on earth a problem or gift can be overwhelming, sending you reeling in desperation or euphoria. Or somewhere in between. Look at it from a distance and it becomes relative to the surrounding influences.
There was a piece online from the New York Times about a father and son who launched a space probe, basically from their backyard, to see what the astronauts see when they are orbiting the earth. They packed a digital camera, an iPhone and some hand warmers into a well insulated Styrofoam container, the kind you buy bait for fish in, attached it to a weather balloon and a small parachute and sent the whole package aloft. Picture Ben Franklin and Thomas Edison in short pants playing with kites and things that go spark.
The son was seven years old and was harbouring ambitions of becoming an astronaut. His father was eager to encourage him in his dreams. So, with a few friends and a couple of earth bound cameras they recorded the building and launching of their space probe. The resulting video is at once both heartwarming and inspiring.
The onboard camera recorded the craft’s ascent. At around 100,000 feet (that’s a few hundred thousand shy of the recognized altitude that becomes outer space) the atmospheric pressure outside the balloon was reduced to the point where it caused it to swell to almost twenty feet in diameter. Suddenly it exploded. The craft began hurtling back towards earth at 150 mph. The lens of the camera became enveloped with bits of the balloon flapping in the wind. Slowly the pieces fell away and what was revealed was a breakneck descent and a rock and roll view of the corona surrounding the earth’s horizon. Crackling radio waves interfered with the iPhone’s GPS. The experience was surreal.
In terms of accomplishment against projects like the Mars space probe or the Hubble telescope it was an insignificant moment. In terms of the bond between father and son, the accomplishment was monumental. And the view was simply uplifting.
I had the opportunity to attend a book launch not too long ago. The author is a venture capitalist who is, by the way, a scientist, concerned, gravely so, with the state of our global climate. His book is titled Kick! the Fossil Fuel Habit, 10 Clean Technologies to Save Our World. I had been drawn to the event more for the venue than the book launch. It took place on the rooftop of the not quite finished Planet Traveler Hostel in downtown Toronto. It will be North America’s greenest hotel when it is finished.
The author, Tom Rand, was introduced with much panache by an associate with whom he works, a self-described fellow Martian, at the MaRS foundation in Toronto. MaRS is a business incubator which helps companies and organizations get their new ideas realized. My misgivings about what I was about to hear, given much of the controversial hype surrounding the environment, soon gave way to rapt attention to Tom’s main message.
The global climate is in dire straits, but the ways forward to reverse it are not only within our grasp they represent real opportunities for business to reverse its antediluvian approach to the issue and make money in perhaps some of the coolest new technology. Tom has not only written a book about that technology, he is a principle backer of the Planet Traveler. It is a showcase of how to get green technology right from a carbon footprint perspective and how to make a profit from it. Perhaps it too is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But it is definitely worth doing.
The revelation came to me that the practice of the 100,000 foot view of life gets beyond the very real and scary prospects of what our planet faces in the not too distant future. Tom is a pragmatic, tough nosed businessman who has his eye on the very large picture which can only be appreciated from lofty heights.
It provides a sober assessment and, yet exciting, array of solutions that make me want to scream at those who have got us into this mess, “What the hell were you guys (and yes it is more than likely that we guys are the problem) thinking?”
Much of what we have built to make our lives more comfortable has depleted at an exponentially rapid rate the very resources that keep our planetary existence sustainable. From where Tom stands, I doubt he sits much at all, it’s way smarter to build things intelligently and reap the benefits in ways we don’t historically expect than to build things as cheaply as possible and damn the consequences.
As for that young boy and his homemade spacecraft, I believe his insignificant act was very much worth doing too. He has gained great insight by taking a peek at his universe from his 100,000 foot stool. I can only wonder where this insightful pioneer might lead his generation.