A little distance

More than a hundred years ago a French artist named Georges Seurat developed a technique of painting called “pointillism.” Pointillism is a style of painting in which the paint is not actually mixed on the canvas but is applied in small dots of different colors. A similar principle is used by television screens and digital photography. If you look closely at a tv screen or if you enlarge a digital photo enough you will see individual “pixels” or square of color. The picture at close scrutiny doesn’t look like much. You can’t really see the image. You see only individual dots of color.It is only when you back up and look at the whole image that the painting, television screen or digital image makes sense. From a distance the individual spots of paint can’t be distinguished and the viewer’s eye blends the colors together. Distance allows you to see what the artist or photographer intended.

One of the most impressive images of our modern age is the picture of the earth from space. Instead of the limited view of our planet visible from the spot we’re standing on, we see the whole from space. The earth has been called a big blue marble since we first got a glimpse of our home from space more than a half century ago. Some satellites have taken pictures of the earth over many years. This long term, time-lapse photography provides records of amazing changes in our planet. Satellite images can see changes in vegetation and annual snow cover. If we look at the earth from space, we see glaciers disappearing and polar ice caps shrinking. We can see the effects of nutrients running into streams and rivers. The Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico is quite obvious.

The discussion 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. On the Northern Plains in some years we have gone from the coldest summer on record to the warmest winter. We have areas with too much rain and places a few miles away with too little. Many of us can remember colder winters and hotter summers, worse droughts and hundred year floods. It is hard to understand what is going on if we look at the picture too closely either in 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 period of time can we see what is happening.

It is 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 too 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 a lot of greenhouse gasses out of the atmosphere. If millions of people make the same smalls gesture, however, the effect is significant.

It is important to not look at the picture too closely. From close up one can only see the individual little dots. Step back and look at the big picture.

© 2017 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains