By Geoff Ainscow
“Where are you from?” It’s a question I’ve heard nearly every day for the last fifty years. The questioner, whose curiosity is piqued by my lingering accent, feels settled once they hear an answer because a location offers the mind a clue about who you are. Living in California and being born in England, I feel located somewhere in between. The realization that a person cannot eliminate their prior identity but only expand it led me to identify as a global citizen. And years of contemplating both my cultural origins and my ecological identity brought me to rest here: I’m from Earth, I am made of earth, I can’t live separate from Earth.
Yet, where did Earth come from? The Solar System was born 4.6 billion years ago from a vast cloud of gas and dust in the Milky Way Galaxy, the name we humans have given to this particular collection of billions of stars pulled together by gravity. Our solar system, centered around our star, the Sun, includes Earth along with our brother and sister planets, the asteroids, and comets, forming a unit rotating like a perfectly balanced wheel. All parts of the solar system are connected and dependent on each other to keep that balance. In light of this, my identity now expands into the solar system.
However, my identity journey doesn’t end there. My body’s essential elements, as well as the collective body of our solar system, came from a highly charged and generative expansion some 13.8 billion years ago, an event we call the Big Bang. My molecules were assembled when life arose from the oceans, my form grew through the evolution of my species, my accent came from my family. This is who I am. All of this.
In 1920, Edwin Hubble observed that this is what the universe does—it continually expands. Today, this universal force invites humans to continue to expand our understanding of who we are. A new identity is needed that embraces a new worldview. A shift from seeing Earth as a dead object to be used as our pantry, our lumber yard, and our waste dump— to a self-regulating, living community of subjects; a precious, highly relational environment from which all life has emerged. This new view of ourselves and the world is the ground from which the solutions to the many crises facing humanity will grow.
In today’s troubled world, most identities are too small, leading to separation, alienation and depression. We are club members, company employees, an engineer, a teacher, a mechanic and, when the Olympics happen, we’re Americans or Russian. But what does it mean to identify with the whole?
Identification is a mental construct, a way of thinking developed from the day we were born. And maybe even before we were born. I was once told that our identity is made up of three parts: all that we brought with us at our birth, how our family molded us and then, as an adult, what we decided about the other two. I’ve experienced this to be true, and with great relief I discovered I can do part three again and again. I can re-decide those decisions I made about myself in the light of my new knowledge and experience. To identify with the whole means nothing is out of my view, nothing is out of my responsibility, nothing is disconnected from me. I am connected to everything, all of my past, my present, and my future.
My first 26 years in England were lived under a weighty authority of rules, traditions, and dogma that I was not even aware of at the time. Only when I stepped off the boat in San Francisco, hired into Hewlett Packard, and was asked to call my boss by his first name did I realize how much I carried overseas. I couldn’t do that. The conditioned authority in my head said, “No, you only call your boss ‘Sir’.” It took me two years to separate my feelings of fear and shame from the new thinking that invited me to relax and expand my sense of relatedness— my boss invited me to step beyond my hierarchical upbringing and expand into a relational template. He simply wanted me to call him “Bill.” Emigration, along with its required expansion of thinking and behavior, was an obvious physical move that changed me, and my worldview.
In 1968, a single photo of Earth from space likewise changed everything. It was like a mass emigration for all of humanity. We saw the Earth for the first time as one beautiful finite planet, suspended in space, in orbit around the Sun. The definition of home had suddenly expanded. Many years have passed since then and we’re still in the process of absorbing and internalizing this new identity: We are all citizens of Earth.
The next breakthrough photo, which has not yet been taken, could be of our entire solar system viewed from the perspective of deep space. How might I imagine myself in light of that photo? I can’t know for certain until that moment arrives, but I suspect my view of home, and my experience of belonging, will continue to be expanded by the revelations of cosmic discovery for the rest of my current life on Earth. The story of who I am, and where I am, keeps getting bigger and bigger and appears to have no end.
And, perhaps this is just what the universe has in mind?
Geoff Ainscow is a tireless spokesman for planet Earth. In parallel with his professional career at the Hewlett-Packard company, he became a passionate advocate for causes that benefit all life on the planet. He worked as a full-time volunteer for the Beyond War Foundation, a global organization dedicated to moving the world’s thinking beyond war and eliminating violence as a way to resolve conflict. He was a member of the team that created the “Walk Through Time” exhibit, and this year published the walking audio book, Deep Time Walk, a history of the living Earth. Geoff lives in Sunnyvale, California with his wife, Beverly.