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Apollo missions pushed forward a 'one planet' ideology - but will this ever replace nationalism?

By Stefan Pedersen

Earthrise by NASA

FOREWORD -- Stefan Pedersen returns to a transformative moment in political and scientific history: the Apollo 8 Space Mission and mankind’s successful efforts to walk on the Moon. While the event is generally remembered today in the context of the Cold War, marking a “victory” for the capitalist side of the conflict, Pedersen argues that a deeper and more long-term impact was achieved. On a conceptual level, humanity gained an entirely new perspective of its shared existence on Earth. Pedersen notes the force of this cultural change, as a process was set in motion that over time could potentially “invalidate nationalism” as geopolitical system.

Scholars of world federalist thought might recall a work by world peace and anti-nuclear activist Norman Cousins, who was also editor-in-chief of the Saturday Review and professor of ethics at the University of California, Los Angeles, entitled Modern Man is Obsolete. Troubled by the devastation brought on by modern warfare, Cousins published this text in August 1945, arguing that humanity’s technological successes had completely altered its civilizational path. For Cousins, it was World War I & II and the reach of modern weapons that had transformed politics into a planetary issue, as Modern Man had “become a world warrior”.

Like many world federalists at the time, Cousins argued that humanity faced the possibility of its own destruction, having developed rapidly on a material level without having adjusted its social organization accordingly. Nations had at their disposal unprecedented scientific and technological expertise, but a political environment dominated by primitive tribalism had turned our collective knowledge into a weapon “threaten(ing) the planet itself”.

Cousins also argued, however, that a significant degree of hope could be salvaged from mankind’s current situation. Although the Modern Man had failed to transition from a “competitive” nature to a more “cooperative” one, the scale of human politics had nonetheless fundamentally shifted toward the universal. Modern Man could develop a new transnational political culture because technology had changed the conceptual scale of human society. World War II and the burgeoning nuclear threat demanded that humanity either unite under a supranational system, or face its own destruction.

Pedersen’s analysis of the Apollo Mission faces a similar paradox. On the one hand, the space race was a product of nationalistic competition under the umbrella of looming nuclear war. Instead of uniting after the defeat of Nazism, the United States and the Soviet Union developed a decades-long rivalry, risking nuclear destruction for all human and non-human life.

On the other hand, as Pedersen quotes the great Carl Sagan saying, the Apollo 8 “helped awaken our slumbering planetary consciousness”. For the first time in our civilization, images like Earthrise gave objective representation to humanity’s ultimate oneness. Planetary consciousness became a historical reality as we were able to visualize a single and whole planetary unit. As an event the Apollo mission transformed humanity’s collective imaginary.

Pedersen traces how this produced a broader shift in humanity’s cultural paradigm. The reality of our planetary existence “begun to work as a new backdrop that today’s relevant ideologies must be constructed up against”. The already world-conscious youth of the late 1960s, which had given rise to the New Left, was energized by this testament to planetary co-existence. The image of inescapable unity resulting from a natural ecosystem, planet Earth itself, also reinforced the burgeoning environmentalist movement, and laid the groundwork for the green turn among progressive and internationalist movements from the early 1970s onwards.

Our society is by and large conscious of the fact that nations can no longer exist in isolation from one another, and that the pressing issues of contemporary politics (climate change, nuclear war, democratic government, social justice) are universal and planetary in scale. Against the backdrop of returning reactionary impulses and of the inertia of nationalist conceptions, original and dynamic thinking is largely moving toward exploring the reality of interconnectedness. According to Pedersen, this could force humanity to invent a new ‘planetary politics’ in which the paradigmatic revolution brought about by the Apollo program will fully realize itself through novel political concepts and institutions.

If humanity’s celestial accomplishment invalidated nationalism as ideology, it could slowly cause it to be replaced as political fact. In the same way that the Westphalian system emerged from new historical conditions, the new consciousness Apollo 8 contributed to creating could prove to be the catalyst for a different type of world order. The progressive movements mentioned above seem to be maturing and approaching a true capacity to govern. Green parties have already been part of governing coalitions in various countries, suggesting that political transformation is indeed in motion. New institutions could spring up, ones which operate on a planetary basis, and which allow for a new universal citizenry to emerge and govern itself democratically.

Scholars of world federalism would do well to read Dr. Pedersen’s theory more broadly. The author makes a convincing argument that the shift in paradigm from the national to the planetary explicates the insufficiencies of contemporary liberal internationalism. It is the very concept of the national as a structural assumption that must be set aside. The progressive impulse born from the Apollo 8 mission has set a course that demands rethinking the very structures of international political life.

This frees up a practical space for federalism as a theory of political organization. As Pedersen writes, the politicization of environmental concerns has already introduced theories of social justice as universal and transnational projects. The next step must naturally be to devise institutions capable of giving these principles concrete expression. Pedersen’s planetarism is invaluable in that it underscores an intellectual and cultural history, from Apollo 8 to political ecology, in which federalism can potentially inscribe itself as a logical finality.

-- The Streit Council Editorial Team

(The following article was reproduced with the permission of the author. You can find the original piece at the The Conversation)

Apollo missions pushed forward a 'one planet' ideology - but will this ever replace nationalism in politics?

By Stefan Pedersen

It’s now been 50 years since the US won the space race and put two men on the moon for the first time. It was a tremendous technological achievement, rightly celebrated as one of the major feats accomplished by human civilisation.

But the Apollo programme had cultural reverberations that have yet to make their full ideological and political impact.

The programme was originally mired in Cold War nationalism and the direct result of the competition for prestige between the US and the Soviet Union. Yet, arguably its greatest result was that, as the late astronomer and astrophysicist Carl Sagan argued, it “helped awaken our slumbering planetary consciousness”. If Sagan is right, then politicians are yet to take full advantage of a smouldering existential challenge to the politics of nationalism that has dominated the last couple of centuries.

The Apollo missions introduced people to the Earth as seen from space, through iconic photographs taken by the astronauts such as Earthrise, from Apollo 8, or the Blue Marble, from Apollo 17, which shows one side of the entire planet with Africa visible beneath swirling clouds.

For Sagan, these pictures were the true “gift of Apollo”. Many of the astronauts and cosmonauts that got to see this view firsthand, experienced what the author Frank White christened “the overview effect”. White quotes astronaut Rusty Schweickart, part of Apollo 9, who said that seeing the Earth from orbit made him realise that:

What it is you identify with begins to shift. When you go around the Earth in an hour and a half, you begin to recognise that your identity is with that whole thing.

For White, this newfound identification with the planet that Schweickart described could serve “as the foundation of planetary civilisation”. He also observed that this fundamentally new worldview had since been “assimilating itself into global society’s awareness”.

Sagan eloquently condensed a key realisation from this overview effect when he claimed that from now on “we are one planet”. Crucially, for Sagan this grasp of reality was in direct opposition to a world centred around competing nation states.

With nationalists now emboldened, Donald Trump in the White House, and ethnic nationalism still very popular, Sagan’s hopes that strong nationalist sentiments would be on their way out might well seem an optimist’s dream. Still, a recent surge in support for Green parties and environmentalism in general could prove otherwise.

An ideological shift

The birth of environmentalism is often said to coincide with the first Earth Day celebrated on April 22, 1970 – less than a year after the first moon landing. Though environmentalism has earlier roots than this, the first pictures of Earth certainly gave the environmental movement both a boost and an iconic mascot in the Earth itself.

But seeing ourselves as primarily members of a planetary community also has deeper political implications. What gives the planetary perspective on human civilisation provided by the Apollo missions its most potent force is its unique capacity to conceptually invalidate nationalism, the primary ideology of our age.

Nationalism, which grew out of both the Enlightenment and the later Romantic reaction to it, has provided the most durable and foundational framework for understanding the world. The globalisation theorist Manfred Steger argued in 2008 that nationalism provided the central backdrop for all other contemporary ideologies. Every ideology, be it liberalism or Nazism, has had to find a way to function within this broader ideological framework before it can appeal to large groups of people.

But Steger also noted that since a watershed moment in the late 1960s, when the Apollo missions coincided with the rise of the “new Left” and the cultural rebellion of the hippies, the globe itself has begun to work as a new backdrop that today’s relevant ideologies must be constructed up against. This is exactly the point Sagan appears to have understood at an earlier date.

Environmentalism is one new ideology that takes the planet as its primary point of reference. Neoliberalism, which is sometimes referred to as “globalism”, is another recent example. But neither of these are comprehensively planetary – environmentalists care primarily about preserving the natural environment and neoliberals concentrate on the functioning of the world economy.

Their proponents are looking to change aspects of how national politics works, and not to present an existential challenge to nationalism itself. But if a worldview emerged that had a truly planetary frame, it could offer a fundamental challenge to nationalism.

Planetary politics

In conceptual terms, such a planetary worldview would introduce a new logic: instead of the national people you have humanity, instead of the nation’s territory you have the Earth, and instead of the nation-state you have planetary civilisation.

What hugely complicates any such shift is of course that a true planetary politics will require a completely new institutional architecture – where nations no longer take precedent. We would have to figure out new ways, and perhaps prioritise viewpoints held in common by large swathes of humanity.

That there are few signs of any political programme aiming for this type of transition yet is a testament to how firmly rooted nationalism is in our societies. But as Sagan fittingly put it: “You spend even a little time contemplating the Earth from orbit and the most deeply ingrained nationalisms begin to erode.”

For every new mind that grows to share Sagan’s viewpoint, nationalism will continue to erode. As this process slowly moves forward, we can only hope that this new type of planetary ideology can unite humanity on peaceful terms.

However this plays out politically, the Apollo missions were a key driver behind a transition towards a planetary ideology. This latent gift of Apollo might still impact the next 50 years in profound ways.

Stefan Pedersen, Ph.D., is a member of the Advisory Board at the Streit Council for a Union of Democracies. He is also an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Advanced International Theory at the University of Sussex (2022-23). Since 2018, he has been a Research Fellow with the Earth System Governance Project, currently based at Utrecht University, where he is a co-convenor of its Taskforce on Planetary Justice. Pedersen's notable works on planetarism and world order include Navigating World Order: Neoliberalism Between Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism (2020), Planetarism: A Paradigmatic Alternative to Internationalism (2020), and Kantian and Wellsian Cosmopolitanism: A Critical Distinction (2015)


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