The concept of Spaceship Earth goes back to the visionary thinker Buckminster Fuller, and now is the time to pay heed to it. Spaceships carry a limited supply of food and water with them, and the crew must be disciplined about those limited reserves. It would be fatal to run short, but it would also be fatal to contaminate even a small portion of food and water. Because we haven’t seen Earth as our spaceship, we’ve lost all discipline. After centuries of human influence, there is contamination everywhere.

The toxic oil spill in the Gulf is heartbreaking and so massive that it cannot be overlooked. But thirty years ago the pioneering ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau reported that every square mile of the world’s oceans is covered with a thin film of oil. It’s barely visible, if at all, but it’s there. Because there are seemingly endless stretches of ocean — just as there seemed to be endless stretches of ice at the poles — human beings could afford to pretend that we aren’t living on a spaceship.

That time is at an end. Technology will eventually bring us an end to fossil fuels. Water diversion can bring drinking water to the overcrowded cities where clean, potable water is quickly running out (several in India, including Mumbai, are reaching the critical point). Genetic therapies may one day bring down cancer rates by more than a trifling amount. In other words, if you are an optimist, the hazards of climate change and overpopulation are waiting for solutions that will one day emerge, hopefully sooner than later.

But what kind of a solution is it to survive on a toxic planet? This is like telling a patient that he is well because he’s not about to die. We need to adopt a new kind of consciousness in which the wellness of Spaceship Earth is true wellness, not simply the absence of potentially fatal conditions. Right now, we face the potential for ecological disaster on many fronts, from the melting glaciers of the Himalayas that threaten to dislocate millions of refugees to the rising seas that could submerge the Maldives to dying coral reefs all over the globe.

Our choice is to stand back and passively let bad go to worse, or we could become active stewards of the planet. A new consciousness involves networking and group efforts. It involves political influence and the development of new leadership. But all activity begins in consciousness first; you must be aware enough to look reality in the face. We aren’t doing that except in fits and starts. Overwhelmed by bad news on the ecological front for more than a decade, all of us find it easier to shut down and tune out. But there’s another alternative: the invigorating, energizing call to action that leads to personal fulfillment and empowerment.

Healing this planet would be empowering for all of us. What won’t empower us is sitting at the sickbed watching Mother Nature grow sicker until signs of death appear. Planetary wellness needs to become a global movement, yet it begins with you and me, and the time to act is now.

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– Originally published in the San Francisco Chronicle