Seeing the whole picture

A little distance

More than a hundred years ago, French artist Georges Seurat developed a technique of painting called pointillism. Pointillism is a style of painting in which paint is applied in small dots of different colors. The picture close up doesn’t make sense. It is only when one backs up and looks at the whole image from a distance that the painting makes sense. From a distance the individual spots of paint can’t be distinguished and the viewer’s eye blends the colors. If one stands close to the painting, you can’t really see the picture. All you can see is dots of color. If you step back, the image is clear and the subject obvious.

Television screens and digital photography use a similar principle. If you look closely at a television screen, or if you enlarge a digital photograph you will see individual “pixels”’or squares of color not a larger version of the original.

One of the most impressive images of our modern age, I think, is the picture of the earth from space. That’s why I find NASA’s web site so interesting. The Space Agency has satellites that look down on the earth and gives us a view of our planet from a distance.

Some of the satellites have taken pictures of the earth over many years. This long term, time-lapse photography provides records of amazing changes in our planet. The changes that can be observed in the polar ice caps alone should cause concern. Satellite images can see changes in vegetation, and annual snow cover. If we look at the earth from space we see the polar ice cap melting. The effects of nutrients running into streams and rivers is clearly visible. The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is quite obvious.

The observation of global warming and climate change is a little like pointillism. If we look only at the weather in a very small area or for only one or two seasons, we really can’t see the picture. Here on the Northern Plains we have gone from the some of the coldest summers on record to the warmest winters. We have areas with too much rain and other places not many miles away with too little. Rivers have crested at 100 year flood levels several time in a decade. Even so, many of us can remember colder winters and hotter summers. We can remember disastrous floods, torrential rains and wind storms. It is hard to understand what is going on if we look at the picture close up in either space or time. It is only when we back up and look at the earth as a whole, from a distance and over a longer time can we see what is happening.

It is also not easy to see what the effects of our individual actions have on the world around us. If we throw away a single Styrofoam cup it doesn’t create a big an issue. Multiply that act by several million and it is a problem that will be around for a long time. Recycling a single aluminum can or newspaper seems like a small thing. Saving a few gallons of gasoline doesn’t keep much greenhouse gas out of the atmosphere. If, however, millions of people make the same small gesture the effect is astounding.

The trick is to not look at the picture too closely. From close up one can only see the individual tiny dots.
Copyright © 2013 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains