Aiming high

Written by Veronica Manfredi on 26 September 2019 in Opinion

The ambition of the Apollo missions showed how fragile our planet is; we should show the same ambition in preserving the planet’s safety., writes Veronica Manfredi.

Photo Credit: Adobe stock

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. This incredible technological feat – a genuine high point in a century otherwise dominated by war and conflict – is likely to endure as one of the defining moments in the history of humanity.

Indeed, the Apollo missions captured the imagination of the whole world and produced a wealth of scientific knowledge and technological innovations that are still present today, from solar panels to pacemakers and CAT scanners.

Interestingly, they also managed to influence life on Earth in more subtle ways. The image known as ‘The Blue Marble’ is a photograph of our planet snapped by the Apollo 17 crew on their way to the moon in December 1972.


It was taken shortly after the landmark United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (also known as the Stockholm Conference).

This image of a perfect, gleaming sphere floating in a dark void is beautifully iconic, and so it was used to advance the cause of modern environmentalism in the 1970s, which then focussed on issues such as oil spills, acid rain and the fight against the infamous insecticide DDT.

Five decades on, the environmental conversation has evolved, notably with the emergence of climate change and plastic pollution as well as the shift from linear to circular economies.

Yet ‘The Blue Marble’ remains a powerful illustration of the beauty and fragility of our home – our only home.

Unfortunately, of late we are reminded that the fragility on an almost routine basis.

In the recent weeks alone, we have been shaken by news of natural disasters that strike us as unusual from a European point of view.

Recent events such as the unusually destructive – even deadly – flash floods in Spain, the wildfires in southern Europe, the early summer heatwaves in the north or the reports of melting glaciers in Greenland are all signs that the Earth is ‘sick’ and gradually becoming a less hospitable place.

These, and other events, have made it abundantly clear that planetary health and human health are two sides of the same coin.

“It is understandable, therefore, to ask how we should act to protect the health of this blue marble of ours and our own wellbeing at the same time”

There can be no truly healthy environment for humans without clean air, water and soil. Likewise, we cannot ensure a safe, climate-resilient society unless we protect biodiversity and our natural capital.

The global environmental and health problems facing us are manifold and inseparable. In many cases they are — quite literally — inescapable matters of life or death: according to WHO estimates for 2016, ambient air pollution caused 4.2 million premature deaths worldwide.

Climate change also comes with severe health implications stemming from exposure to extreme temperatures, wildfires, drought and famine, flooding and increased incidence of vector-borne diseases.

It is understandable, therefore, to ask how we should act to protect the health of this blue marble of ours and our own wellbeing at the same time.

It is clear that our individual and collective choices and actions – from individual dietary preferences to climate policy, from the small, ‘green’ gestures we make as citizens and consumers to fully-fledged circular economic systems – have a direct impact on our personal health and well-being.

They reverberate on a global scale. This systemic view, this connectedness between society, economy and the environment, lies at the heart of the European Green Deal proposed by President-elect Ursula von der Leyen in her political guidelines for the new European Commission.

She is taking on the challenge of making Europe the world’s first climate-neutral continent by the year 2050.

Simultaneously, these guidelines also recognise the need to adopt a zero-pollution ambition to protect the health of EU citizens.

They advance a cross-cutting strategy for protecting citizens’ health from environmental degradation and pollution, addressing air and water quality, hazardous chemicals, industrial emissions, pesticides and endocrine disrupters. These are big problems demanding big ambitions.

Hopefully we will be as inspired and become as successful as the Apollo missions. Let’s not forget that NASA’s rockets were a triumph of sheer ingenuity, hard work (it was genuinely rocket science) and unbridled ambition that paid off.

Keeping in mind that we have not been to the moon since 1972, and that the colonisation of Mars is – if we are being generous – still a long way off - does it not make sense to be bold and focus our best efforts on cleaning up and preserving the health of the only planet we currently have?

About the author

Veronica Manfredi is Director for Quality of Life at the European Commission’s DG for Environment.

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