Illustration by Pete Ryan

Near the end of his recent book, An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, the world’s arguably most recognizable living astronaut shares the sense of personal obligation he brought home after several months in orbit. As he circled the planet, Chris Hadfield saw with his own eyes the deforestation, soil erosion, air pollution and land shaping that has resulted from decades of resource extraction and consumption. Changes to the planet’s surface are often natural, “but we make matters infinitely worse through poor stewardship,” Hadfield writes. “We need to take a longer term view of the environment and try to make things better wherever we can.” His own sense of mission has manifested itself in unexpected ways since his descent back to earth last May, he explains. “I now pick gum wrappers up off the street.”

Buzzing around the planet at 28,000 kilometres per hour, Hadfield tells Corporate Knights he snapped about 45,000 photos of the earth during his five-month stint on the International Space Station, two of those months as mission commander. Hundreds of those photos, along with snippets of commentary, became a huge draw on social media sites such as Twitter, where the moustachioed Hadfield attracted more than one million followers. Capping it off, of course, was his zero gravity cover of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” complete with his history-making music video showing a floating guitar and images of earth passing by outside the space station’s windows.

Hadfield announced his retirement shortly after his return. After three trips to space and a career spanning more than three decades – a career far too long and storied to detail here – Canada’s space cowboy is shifting gears. He’s writing. He’s speaking. He’s teaching. In October, he was appointed adjunct professor of aviation at Ontario’s University of Waterloo. He also plans to be a regulator contributor to Canada’s CBC radio and TV networks. When CK spoke with Hadfield in early February, he had just moved into his new house in Toronto’s High Park community after 26 years away from Canada. As you’ll read below, it is in Canada where this 54-year-old space veteran plans to play a more active role educating himself and others on some of the world’s most pressing environmental issues.

CK: You’ve circled the earth more than 2,500 times from the darkness of space, giving you a unique perspective of what for all of us is home. From that vantage point, to what degree could you see humanity’s impact on the planet?

HADFIELD: You see both the natural cycles and the human effects. The first time I flew in space was in 1995, fairly shortly after Mount Pinatubo (in the Philippines) had erupted. It put millions and millions of tonnes of sulphur dioxide into the atmosphere, and you could see those particulates, which manifested as a layer cake. The man-made effects you can see tend to be more regional, and there are a few examples that are easy to point to. The most egregious is the Aral Sea, which was (once) the fourth-biggest sea on earth. The first time I flew in space it was pretty much still intact as a large in-land sea with a fishing industry. By the time I flew over it 17 years later in 2012 it was essentially gone. The fourth-biggest sea is gone, completely due to human deliberate action. The shoreline has moved dozens of kilometres away from fishing villages. Ships are nowhere near the water now, and of course all of the stuff that flowed into the river, into the Aral Sea for years – fertilizers and others – is now dry lakebed, which is like a desert.

CK: Has the drying up of the Aral Sea led to other local impacts?

HADFIELD: Yes, even more interesting are the glaciers. It was really a snow belt up there. Water that would evaporate from the Aral Sea surface would be picked up, carried up the hill there in Kazakhstan, and deposited on the mountains. The water source is now gone, so those glaciers are retreating at an accelerated rate. We’ve taken pictures of it almost since the dawn of human space flight, so there’s extremely good photography showing the changes. To me it’s extremely visible, but it’s also very poignant to Canada because of the effect we’re having on the Great Lakes. The Great Lakes are currently at the lowest level since we’ve been measuring. They tie the lowest level we saw in the early 1920s and mid 30s. The fact it was at those levels in the early 20s and mid 30s shows it’s within the scope of natural fluctuation, but is this one reversing? Is it continuing to trend down? Is it man-made? Is it natural? Is it a combination of both? It’s one of those things where it’s very difficult to know.

CK: What else caught your eye?

HADFIELD: The other thing you can see from space very clearly – or very unclearly – is pollution. The fact is that it’s hard to get a good picture of the major cities, especially in the developing world. The cities in China are almost always a grey smear. You can only take a picture on the days where there happens to be a strong wind blowing the smog away. Los Angeles is often that way as well. My son lives in Wuhan (China), and the pollution there is just excruciating. When I was in Beijing you could stand on the street corner and stare at the sun because it was so thickly filtered by the pollution in the air. The sun was just a big orange glow. But it’s not just that, you can also see the straight human influences. We have changed the shape of coastlines – Tokyo harbour or Toronto harbour or Vancouver harbour, for example. There’s also the big roads and power lines where we cut straight lines across a natural contour. We’ve clearly modified our local environment. You have to for civilization. That’s how agriculture exists. Dogs, birds, animals, we all modify our local environment. But when it gets to the scale when you can see it from orbit, it’s remarkable.

CK: When you’re up there, do you see the earth as fragile or robust?

HADFIELD: The earth is tough. The earth is going to be fine. The earth has been here 4.5 billion years and it has withstood a lot worse than us. We were having an ice age 20,000 years ago, and that’s due to natural process. People say the world was a ball of ice 700 million years ago – the entire earth. And it’s withstood horrific asteroid impacts, and millennia of volcanic eruptions that have poisoned the atmosphere and huge electromagnetic pulses from exploding and misbehaving stars in the universe. The earth has withstood all of those. We’re just a parasite on the surface from the earth’s point of view. We’re not going to destroy the planet, but what we’re really doing is messing things up for life on earth, particularly for ourselves. The real question is: What do we do? Not a whole bunch of ifs. What actual actions do we take and how do we take them? It’s one of the hardest things to get to. I know through the efforts of your magazine and organization over the last decade, you’re very much addressing those issues. It’s something we think about in orbit at great lengths as we see the world from directly above.

CK: It must put things in perspective.

HADFIELD: If you look down, think how thin the crust is. We can’t go down more than a kilometre before it’s already too hot for human life. And if you go straight up, we’ve got about five kilometres. We live in the teeniest little bubble, and it seems big, but if you look at the world, look at the actual bubble that sustains our life compared to even our solar system, it’s ridiculously tiny. We are incredibly self-important goldfish in a very fragile bowl. We don’t recognize this, and we tend to make things someone else’s problem, and the problems are long enough term that we don’t see the need to address them. So it’s a very difficult problem to solve, or even to get people to properly prioritize and address. I’ve definitely been doing a lot of thinking about it and looking at what I can do to have a positive effect.

CK: There’s strong growth and momentum around the use of clean energy these days, but some have suggested we may have to go to space to get more of our energy if we want to eventually wean ourselves from fossil fuels. As someone who knows how difficult it is to get to and get things done in space, do you have any thoughts on the promise of space-based solar power?

HADFIELD: I’d be surprised if that’s our solution. What you’re trying to do then is gather real-time solar energy and concentrate it using a very complex construct – a huge collector that focuses it and then converts it to a frequency that can make it through the earth’s atmosphere, and then sends it to the surface, puts it through some sort of transformer, and distributes it. Boy, that’s a complicated way of using energy from the sun. If you look at it the other way around, with every pebble you pick up, the minerals in it were formed in the centre of a sun. There is a tremendous amount of energy that came from a sun – a previous sun that already exploded – that is already just lying around on the surface of the world that we haven’t figured out how to tap. So I’m not sure that the right solution is to use the relatively feeble emissions from our own sun and try to concentrate it, when we already have it immensely concentrated in every bit of matter that exists here on earth. Also, the actual construction of large flexible things in space, and then maintaining them and pointing them and controlling them, is far, far harder than any science fiction story ever written. The space station is a much more rugged structure than anything we’re talking about with solar power collection, yet it is a very complex thing – it takes a full-time team to keep everything working all the time. And assembly is hard. Building things in space is hard.

CK: I suppose this is what has made fossil fuels such a compelling source of energy over the decades.

HADFIELD: A five-gallon pail of gas is a wonderful invention. The technology, the standard of living, the things you can do with a five-gallon pail of gas is incredible. But it has a harmful environmental effect. At the same time, to try and generate that same amount of power using just solar energy, it’s very difficult given our level of technology. We may need to do it as a stopgap. We may need to use those types of energy as fossil fuels start to run out or as our environmental problems continue to grow or change, but look, there are no solar-powered bulldozers.

CK: Speaking of tough things to do in space, you told William Shatner (or Captain Kirk, as we all know him) that you would be willing to participate in a mission to Mars. Would you seriously go to the red planet?

HADFIELD: I wouldn’t go to Mars to die, but it’s a hopeful question. If we invented machines that could take us to Mars, if we had a machine that could somehow descend into the Martian atmosphere and safely land, and if on the surface of Mars we had something we could somehow inhabit that could sustain life – well, if we had all those things it would radically change the game. Then it would just be a matter of who do you go with. If I could choose who I could go with then there are definitely some scenarios in which I would go to Mars. But I wouldn’t launch with a technology that I can’t trust or that doesn’t exist, which amounts to where we are now.

CK: I imagine you’d need to take a lot of movies with you for the long voyage.

HADFIELD: That’s another thing. There’s a whole psychological side if the voyage is really going to take six months. The crew has to be very carefully selected, but also they need to be kept productively busy the whole time. It’s not a matter of killing time; it’s a matter of filling time. There’s also going to be the fact that after a couple of weeks, earth will just be another spot in the sky. Your sky will be perpetually kept in the dark, and after a few weeks you would never be able to communicate in real time with earth. Everything will be by message. So your crew will become Martians, they will no longer be Earthlings. Mentally, a schism will occur very quickly that will be complex and difficult to deal with.

CK: We ask this of many of the politicians, authors and business leaders we interview. Are you optimistic? When you see, from space, the impact humanity has on the earth and the many environmental challenges we face, do you feel we can lift ourselves out of the mess we have created?

HADFIELD: I’m very optimistic, but of course you have to be very optimistic to fly in rocket ships. We dug ourselves this hole through deliberate human invention and we’re not done being deliberate humans inventing. We keep coming up with pretty incredible human invention that changes our standard of living and ways of communicating and ways of doing everything. Look at the technology that goes into a car compared to two generations ago, or aircraft or fuel efficiency, or how to build products or communicate. There’s a huge variability in it. When we have one very largely supplied source that allows us to feed more people on earth than in history – and the average standard of living is higher than it’s ever been – that’s a pretty big credit to us. There’s been a huge infrastructure built around petroleum, but we built it all. What we’re really looking for is the next logical successor, and we went through that with coal and whale oil. That’s just a change in technology and a change in human expectation and how things work. Also, having been around the world 2,500 times, that makes you optimistic.

CK: What do you see as Chris Hadfield’s role in this larger discussion?

HADFIELD: How do you actually determine what part of this is natural and what part is man-made? It is much harder to do than it ought to be. That’s the part of the phase I’m in right now, just trying to become actually educated so I can first present to myself some very airtight examples of our impact on the climate. Local examples are pretty easy to find, like the Aral Sea. But global examples are very difficult to build an airtight case on, just because of the variability of the data and inconsistency of it depending on where you’re getting your data from. You can’t just come to the conclusion that something has changed, therefore we did it. It’s not that I don’t think we have, but you have to be able to prove the science conclusively to yourself. I’m still gathering all that information.

I don’t just want to stand up on the oil sands and say we need to stop doing this, because it’s an unbalanced view. We need gasoline. We need to feed people. Shut off the gasoline to everybody in Canada for three days and see what people think. So we have to draw a balance. But at the same time we need to figure out what part is damaging the ecology of the world? What things have the worst effects? What areas? Why are the Great Lakes at their lowest level? How much is our effect? How much is natural?

CK: Sounds like you’ll be busy searching for those answers.

HADFIELD: This is one of the issues I think is important and hopefully one I can add my voice to in a positive way.

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