Viewing the earth from a spaceship—or looking at the pictures taken from one—the observer can visualize the wholeness of our planet as well as the interconnectedness of its ostensibly disparate parts. To this day, the Apollo photographs of 1972 symbolize the age of environmentalism and the new awareness of the fragility of the biosphere and of the chemical, geological, oceanic, and atmospheric systems that the earth is comprised of. And yet, such a view demands a literal detachment from the earth itself. Other environmental and earth sciences display the same paradoxical tension: While they enable new ways of experiencing the world around us, they also seem to require us to go beyond—and perhaps leave behind—our local surroundings.
Etymologically, the environment is what surrounds. In its earliest scientific uses, the thing thus surrounded was the single organism. In the early twentieth century, biologist-turned-philosopher Jakob von Uexküll defined the Umwelt at the level of the individual and theorized how different animal species would experience their respective environments according to the physiology of their sensory organs. Today, however, the environment is often referred to as a singular global entity, not only comprising, but also anteceding and surviving, all organisms. The phrase "global environment," which captures this new meaning, made its appearance as recently as the late 1960s and then exploded in usage. 50 years later, we can hardly avoid the term in any assessment of the anthropogenic challenges facing our societies.
The two meanings of environment—both local and global—stand in a productive tension that begs to be explored further. And the apparent contradiction between the small-scale, individual environment and the global environment poses new questions: Is it possible for single organisms to experience the environment at a global scale? What is the role of individual experience as mediated through new instruments and technologies in conceptualizing a global environment? And which experiences and approaches to understanding our surroundings survive, and which are lost (or possibly gained) in the historical transition to global environments?