Monday, July 03, 2006

EarthBall Ironies

"At a few hundred kilometers altitude, the Earth fills half your sky, and the band of blue that stretches from Mindanao to Bombay, which your eye encompasses in a single glance, can break your heart with its beauty. Home you think. Home. This is my world. This is where I come from. Everyone I know, everyone I ever heard of, grew up down there, under that relentless and exquisite blue." --Carl Sagan, Contact

I've long been fascinated by world maps and photographs of Earth from space -- and taking a geography class that put them in historical perspective didn't help the situation. So, when I saw the EarthBall, it was a must-buy.

An EarthBall is an inflatable photographic globe. The image on the ball is a composite of satellite photographs, since you cannot take a picture of the whole planet at once. This means there was never a moment when the clouds, oceans and continents looked precisely the way they do on my globe. Yet this depiction of Earth is much closer to reality than a conventional globe would be. There's a nice paradox here. In order to approach the truth, you have to lie.

Exact photographic veracity aside, the EarthBall is lovely. Subtle shades of brown, green and blue convey the rich diversity of environments on Earth. (Look at the African rift lakes in the photo.) Cloud patterns suggest air circulation. Although the cities on my EarthBall don't glow in the dark the way they're supposed to, you can still see clusters of human settlements. All in all, it's a wonderful globe.

The EarthBall comes with an edicational handbook that combines information, games and quotes, mostly from astronauts. My favorite part is the list of tips on caring for the globe:
  • The EarthBall does not like extremes in temperature. A hot stove or very, very cold weather can be harmful. For optimum operating temperature try to maintain an average distance of 92 million miles to the sun.
  • Toxic chemicals can also damage your EarthBall and pollute valuable groundwater supplies, lakes, streams, and oceans. Avoid exposure to these. An abundance of fresh, clean water is very beneficial.
  • Excess radiation is extremely hazardous. Do not expose your EarthBall to unnecessary nuclear warfare or nuclear power plant accidents.
  • Too much ultraviolet radiation can also be harmful. Avoid excessive sunlight and ozone depleting substances.
There's just one problem that I must discuss. Opening the package the EarthBall came in released a very strong chemical smell that clung to the ball for several days. I don't know what it is, but anything that smells that irritating can't be good for you. Worse, according to the packaging, the EarthBall is made of vinyl and while that word can refer to several types of plastic, it most commonly means PVC.

PVC is an environmental bad actor. Like almost all plastics, it's made out of fossil fuels. It is hard to recycle, releases poisons when burned and usually contains toxic additives. Worst of all, its manufacture and incineration produce extremely toxic chemicals known as dioxins. Dioxins disrupt hormones in the body and have been linked to cancers, reproductive problems and immune system dysfunction in humans and wild animals.

Ironically, dioxin is a truly global pollutant. Being stable and fat-soluble, dioxin that gets into the environment travels through food chains and ends up in top carnivores, particularly in the Arctic. Inuit people who eat fish and marine mammals are exposed to especially high dioxin concentrations.

I've come full circle in this post. Images of global interconnectedness are powerful and necessary, but we must act on the reality of that interconnectedness. (Here, that might mean using a more benign plastic or natural rubber.) I will continue to enjoy and learn from my EarthBall -- and hope that in the future, its message might change its medium.

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