UNEP at Work                
Dr. Roberta Bondar


Dr. Roberta Bondar — the first neurologist in space and Canada’s first woman astronaut — flew in the space shuttle on the First International Microgravity Mission in January 1992. For the next ten years she headed an international space medicine research team working with NASA to support two dozen missions on the space shuttle and the MIR space station and now has her own foundation which aims to inspire environmental learning through the art of photography.

My quiet epiphany took place as I floated in space far removed from the sounds, smells and tastes of Earth, touched only by the clothes on my body. My first view of the planet was, not surprisingly, over water, the sunlight reflecting from the glistening blue sheet of the Pacific Ocean, though I couldn’t hear the surf or taste the salt in the air. The light was piercing in its clarity with no atmosphere to soften the sun’s rays. The earth’s blue sky had been replaced by black, bordered by a thin band of fuzzy bright blue around the edge of the planet itself.

After observing the planet for eight days from space, I have a deeper interest and respect for the forces that shape our world. Each particle of soil, each plant and animal is special. I also marvel at the creativity and ingenuity of our own species, but wonder why we all cannot see that we create our future each day, and that our local actions affect the global community, today as well as for generations to come.

From space, to see the planet without humans certainly can be disconcerting. But we must come back to Earth changed, for only when we are on its surface can we see precious plants, trusting animals, and delicate butterflies. Humans should show their respect and admiration rather than bring destruction and extinction. Because we have developed frightening technologies and evolved quickly into a resource-depleting species, we have the ultimate responsibility of protecting others from ourselves.

We must understand that, though an integral part of the environment, we are observers and change-agents. We can induce and produce change in the environment, positively or negatively. Our beliefs, reasoning and wisdom are based on science and religious, spiritual, or moral philosophies. Humans attempting to hold the environment in a steady state may withdraw the opportunity for natural evolution. We can, however, try to protect other life forms from the superforce of our technology, and the challenges of human population including pressure on these preserved environments.

We need to find time and place for peace and spiritual refreshment. We need reflective time so things that we do can take on a higher significance and order. Perhaps we desire a sense of purpose in life that can be achieved through setting and accomplishing goals. But we also need perspective on our own lives and our own mortality. This planet will after all, also be home to future lives with novel fears and challenges.

We do not have all the answers, but we continue to live and grow through the knowledge gained by observing other forms of life. That should be reason enough to be proactive in caring for our natural environment.

The message should be clear. The expectations of future generations are unknown except for one — survival. If we do not protect the human-friendly environment of our planet, we eventually will fail to keep our souls and even our bodies nourished by our real home.

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