From the discovery of intelligent life somewhere else to a web-based revolution in education, certain future milestones seem to hold the power to change everything that happens afterward. The online intellectual forum The Edge recently posted ideas about what those keystone events might be, in our own lifetimes and beyond.
More than 150 thought leaders, including philosophers, writers, archaeologists and scientists, answered the 2009 Edge Question of the Year: "What Will Change Everything?" And, more specifically, "What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?"
Two particularly good answers addressed climate change. As we know, climate change is already impacting the atmosphere, the oceans and the land on Earth. A few months ago, we wrote about how it is beginning to affect our minds. And as we begin to notice how climate change is rapidly reshaping big pieces of our mental and physical worlds, we might also want to take a closer look at how it will affect other aspects of our lives, writes William Calvin, a neuroscientist at the University of Washington and author of Global Fever: How to Treat Climate Change. Answering this year's Edge question, Calvin writes that climate is changing the practice of science itself:
Climate may well force on us a major change in how science is distilled into major findings. There are many examples of the ponderous nature of big organizations and big projects. While I think that the IPCC deserves every bit of its hemi-Nobel, the emphasis on "certainty" and the time required for a thousand scientists and a hundred countries to reach unanimous agreement probably added up to a considerable delay in public awareness and political action.
Climate will change our ways of doing science, making some areas more like medicine with its combination of science and interventional activism, where delay to resolve uncertainties is often not an option. Few scientists are trained to think this way — and certainly not climate scientists, who are having to improvise as the window of interventional opportunity shrinks.
Calvin writes that climate will not only change the way scientists report their findings, but it might also affect what scientists conduct research on, suggesting that many scientists may soon be called to participate in one of the most concerted problem-solving efforts in history, the likes of which haven’t been seen since World War II.
Although it is already vital that we act quickly, there are a few events that could change how rapidly and forcefully we should take on this challenge. Geoscientists have identified seven “sleeping giants” -- events like the disappearance of the summer ice sheets over the Arctic Ocean -- that, if awoken, could change the way we play the game. The other sleeping giants include an increased melting and glacier flow of the Greenland ice sheet, "unsticking" of the frozen West Antarctic Ice Sheet from its bed; rapid die-back of Amazon forests; disruption of the Indian Monsoon; release of methane, an even more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, from thawing frozen soils; and a shift to a permanent El Niño-like state.
West Antarctica and Seven Other Sleeping Giants was Laurence C. Smith, professor of Geography and Earth & Space Sciences at UCLA, answer to "What Will Change Everything." Smith suggests that by continuing to pump climate changing greenhouse gases into the air, we are to poking these slumbering giants with big sticks.
Unfortunately, the presence of sleeping giants makes the steady, predictable growth of anthropogenic greenhouse warming more dangerous, not less. Alarm clocks may be set to go off, but we don't what their temperature settings are. The science is too new, and besides we'll never know for sure until it happens. While some economists predicted that rising credit-default swaps and other highly leveraged financial products might eventually bring about an economic collapse, who could have foreseen the exact timing and magnitude of late 2008? Like most threshold phenomena it is extremely difficult to know just how much poking is needed to disturb sleeping giants. Forced to guess, I'd mutter something about decades, or centuries, or never. On the other hand, one might be stirring already: In September 2007, then again in 2008, for the first time in memory nearly 40% of the later-summer sea ice in the Arctic Ocean abruptly disappeared.
Although the consequences of waking these giants are terrifying, it’s certainly no time for paralyzing fear and loss of hope. Quite the contrary; this should be a motivating call to devise and mobilize action to decrease our climate changing emissions. We can take this opportunity to be the biggest game changer of them all – human action to greatly reduce our impact on the Earth.
So what do you think will be the biggest game-changing ideas and events? What will change everything?
Image: Planet New York::Hall of Science. Credit: Flickr/Sam Rohn - Location Scout, CC License.
What will change everything this century? Summers being too hot to grow non-irrigated crops:
Few seem to realise that the present IPCC models predict almost unanimously that by 2040 the average summer in Europe will be as hot as the summer of 2003 when over 30,000 died from heat. By then we may cool ourselves with air conditioning and learn to live in a climate no worse than that of Baghdad now. But without extensive irrigation the plants will die and both farming and natural ecosystems will be replaced by scrub and desert. What will there be to eat? The same dire changes will affect the rest of the world and I can envisage Americans migrating into Canada and the Chinese into Siberia but there may be little food for any of them. Dr James Lovelock's lecture to the Royal Society, 29 Oct. '07
We underestimated the risks ... we underestimated the damage associated with temperature increases ... and we underestimated the probabilities of temperature increases. Sir Nicholas Stern, author of The Stern Report, April 17, 2008
The marketing of a solid state power generator. Wind a solenoidal coil around a magnet, and apply electricity. The magnetic field is amplified, and the magnetic gradient can be exploited to yield more electricity than was used powering the solenoidal coil (today, most of our electricity is produced by "electromagnetic induction," where a magnet is moved in and out of a coil of wire in a closed circuit). A private company in California exceeded breakeven (i.e. produced more electricity than it used) with a prototype in late 2004.
Choosing to embark on another fool's errand and to relentlessly "stay the course" until a colossal ecological wreckage is precipitated.
If it turns out to be true and real that the global economic and ecologic challenges presented to the human family in our time are primarily the result of the gigantic scale and fully expected unbridled growth of worldwide consumption, production and propagation activities by the human species, then it is plainly untrue to suggest that human beings can make no difference now with their efforts to ameliorate these human-induced and -driven conditions.
Unfortunately, we have 'experts' among us who have widely reported, of all things, that what is required of the human community now is "to have the courage to do nothing" in the face of the daunting challenges. This is purely music to the ears of the economic powerbrokers, their bought-and-paid-for politicians and the absurdly enriched 'talking heads' in the mainstream media who are intent on doing nothing more or less than protecting their wealth, power and privileges. Nothing else matters to them.
The family of humanity will soon enough stand up and speak out loudly and clearly to those who maintain the status quo because the very future of our children and life as we know it is in eminent danger, even in these early years of Century XXI.
Any problem or condition the human family can cause to exist is a situation over which human beings have at least a modicum of control.
For example, what is to keep people from consuming fewer resources.....and sharing them with those less fortunate? What keeps large-scale producers of stuff from "right-sizing" their organizations.... and making them sustainable? What prevents a human being from making a decision about bringing offspring into the world? These are distinctly human choices. Ours and ours alone to make, I suppose.
It is supremely ironic but the horrendous leadership provided by the self-proclaimed Masters of the Universe in my "Not So GREAT GREED GRAB Generation" may have inadvertently pushed the real issues of our time to the front of the world's stage. Were it not for the colossal mistakes of such woefully inadequate and remarkably selfish leaders, the dire circumstances of the current situation presented to the human family by the explosive growth of global human overgrowth activities would not be so easily seen or understood by all of us.
Steven Earl Salmony
AWAREness Campaign on The Human Population
Sarah, your post reminded me of one I read last year.
It goes as follows:
The essential elements of an effective global panic consist of two parts:
First, one needs to identify a potential source of a world-wide catastrophe. Second, one needs to convince everyone that that actions of man are about to trigger that catastrophe. This is best illustrated by this following theoretical example:
It is well known that a “Super Volcano” lies under Yellowstone park. This volcano went undetected for many years, because its sheer size is so large it escaped notice when looking for something more familiar in size.
The consequences of another eruption of this monster can be fairly well predicted. First, it will simply blow away a fair-sized piece of Montana, and falling ash will bury cities for many miles beyond. The atmospheric ejecta will blanket a large portion of the earth, blocking out the sun and producing a “nuclear winter” for a significant portion of mankind. Crop failures and other effects of rapid cooling will lead to the death of untold billions of both human and animal inhabitants.
In fact, there are some significant geothermal and other indicators in Yellowstone that suggest this monster is again on the move. This has sparked at least one major television presentation discussing the potential for another eruption and the obvious catastrophe that would follow if it does. But this information in itself has not created much in the way of panic. Most citizens are resigned to the fact that mega-disasters, should they occur, can not be prevented by human action because they are part of the natural behavior of the planet and worrying excessively can not change anything. Don’t worry, be happy, we’re all in this together.
To turn the Yellowstone Super Volcano into a world-wide panic, we need a convincing piece of junk science as a trigger. Taking our cue from the “man-made CO2 is causing global warming” hoax, here’s one distinct possibility as far as Yellowstone is concerned:
Professor Wilfred Brimstone at the University of Mongolia has developed a model which clearly shows the buildup of human population on both the east and west coast of the United States is putting excessive pressure on both sides of the North American plate. The accumulation of vast amounts of additional weight in the form of people, buildings, automobiles, and other man-made items is creating such an excess of plate pressure at the edges, that magma is being forced laterally toward the center of the country, and in particular towards a weak crust zone in Montana centered at Yellowstone park. In the same manner as popping a pimple by squeezing from two opposing sides, the “coastal weight effect” is squeezing the magma beneath the crust and causing a rapid pressure buildup of the Yellowstone Super Volcano. Man’s greed to live near the ocean has tipped the balance of nature, and it is now only a matter of time until Yellowstone blows its top.
….. unless we take quick action to arrest and reverse this process.
It is critically important to immediately evacuate everyone from both coasts, and dismantle all heavy structures and begin transporting them to the center of the country, redistributing them evenly over a wide area until the overall plate pressure has been suitably equalized and the danger has passed. Senator Barbara Boxer has introduced a bill which will impose a stiff tax on any item weighing more than six ounces in order to pay for the weight relocation. A new $100 million Center for Building Weight Studies is currently under construction in Santa Barbara.
If you do not want to be dislocated from your present home, former Vice President Al Gore has just formed a new company, Relocation Unlimited, in which you can invest in “weight offsets” and not have to move. For a price, Mr. Gore will arrange have an equivalent weight of ordinary dirt dug up and relocated instead of your own 3 bedroom ranch.
It is also of immediate importance that we educate our children in the nature of this pending disaster that their parents’ over-building has created. Children everywhere should quickly make costumes that resemble blocks of concrete and conduct ritualistic marches in the general direction of the central Midwest. This, combined with the waving of signs and the singing of Kumbaya will quickly spread the word throughout the public school system and draw the attention of the mainstream media which is also critical to this effort. Working together, we can all stem this rapidly looming disaster.
incidentally, you can purchase your STOP YELLOWSTONE NOW t-shirts by visiting our online store, and our book by the same name is available on Amazon.com. A prime time television special is currently in production.
Did I get it right?
James A. Peden
Shoreham, Vermont on a chilly Sunday Morning