Op-Ed Issue 6

This issue of Op-ed begins a series of essays by Fellows of the Academy on the power of ideas to change the world. The first set of articles will examine ideas which in the past have had the greatest power for the transformation of human life. The second set will explore emerging ideas with the potential power to effectively guide humanity toward a safer, more prosperous and fulfilling future. Your contributions are welcome.

All Fellows are invited to send in contributions (500-1000 words) for publication in this newsletter or on the Academy's SEED IDEAS website. Comments by Fellows on contributions will be published on the website and in subsequent issues of this newsletter. Mail to op-ed@worldacademy.org

The Symbol Dawn - Garry Jacobs

Language as an Idea - Ranjani Ravi

Major Sea Level Rise: How Likely, How Soon? - Michael Marien

The Symbol Dawn

Garry Jacobs, Member of the Board of Trustees, World Academy of Art & Science; Vice President, The Mother's Service Society

Ideas define our view of the world. Ideas determine the world. Ideas have the power to change the world - beyond recognition. Our senses observe and take in data from the environment to generate sense impressions. Our minds combine, associate and coordinate sense data to formulate thoughts, as Pavlov perceived the relationship between stimulus and response in a dog. Our thinking minds combine, associate and extract the com-mon essence of several thoughts to conceive complex ideas, as Copernicus extracted the essence of numerous observed facts and concepts about the revolution of the planets to reverse the prevailing conception of a geocentric universe. We know the world indirectly through thought. All our knowledge is based on this indirect process of receiving, interpreting and converting sensory data into simple thoughts and recombining those thoughts to form complex ideas.

Ideas are symbols for reality, not reality itself. Therefore the idea of a symbol may be considered the first of all ideas. The dawn, fire, a rose flower and a ring are symbols as well as facts. A symbol is something - a sound, numeral, word, image, object, name, title that is employed by the mind to represent something intangible. Signs convey information. Symbols convey power and inspiration. More than the discovery of fire, the wheel or agricul-ture, symbols are the basis for our emer-gence from the forest and our evolution beyond the animal to conscious mental living. Human civilization and culture are founded on intangible abstract symbols. Symbols are the basis for our communica-tion, exchange, relationship, social organization, governance, knowledge, educa-tion, science and arts.

Today humanity enjoys an unprecedented abundance unimaginable to past generations. Yet at the same time we are increasingly constrained by a sense of limits. The earth is crowded with teeming millions, non-renewable resources are being consumed at an alarming pace, poverty persists in spite of exponential increases in production, insecurity still haunts us in the midst of our invulnerable defenses, uncertainty prevails in spite of an ever-increasing glut of information.

What if our real limits are not physical at all - not even technological? What if the persistent sense of confining bounda-ries arises from limitations in our thought and conception, from a narrowness of perspective and a paucity of new ideas to harness and reinterpret an ever-increasing plentitude of facts? What Einstein said of space and time is true of all ideas - they are relative. What is relative is a limited symbolic expression of what is absolute and therefore capable of infinite development.

Since the dawn of symbols, ideas have been the motive power behind the evolu-tion of human consciousness and civiliza-tion. More than ever before, today their transformative power can help us trans-cend the perception of limits to conceive and perceive untold opportunities still waiting to be discovered in the symbol dawn of a new millennium.

Language as an Idea

Ranjani Ravi, Junior Fellow, World Academy of Art & Science; Research Associate, The Mother's Service Society.

Language is an idea that has had infinite power to stimulate the growth of civilization. As the potential growth of language is unlimited, so too is society's power for development.

The power of ideas was born with the birth of Language. Language itself is one of the most fundamental of all ideas, like the idea of organization. It is the idea that sounds, signs and notations can be employed as symbols to represent people, places, objects, events, actions, thoughts, feelings, intentions, other ideas, the unseen, un-known and even - as in the case of a mantra - the unknowable. It is a conscious organization of signs, sounds, words, categories of words according to standards, conventions, customs, rules and creative inspiration to represent material facts, emo-tional attitudes, thoughts, complex ideas and to give symbolic expression to that which is immaterial and ineffable.

The development of symbolic language marks a radical step in the evolution of human beings from the animal kingdom. While animals may instinctively communicate through sounds and gestures, none that we know of possesses the capacity for the conscious creation of new forms of complex symbolic language.

Language is the first bridge linking one human being to another in an effective and affective relationship. As money is the language of commerce, language is the essential medium of exchange for the 'commerce' of human relationship, for without language our physical, economic, social, emotional and intellectual interactions and exchanges with other human beings would be limited to the most primitive, rudimentary forms of physical association and exchange. It is the first human social organization upon which all others are based. It is social for its value arises from the fact that it is recognizable and accepted by other human beings. As money is valueless to a man stranded alone on a deserted island, the full value and power of language emerge only in a social context.

Initially, language developed to represent objects and facts, making possible the communication and organization of information. Later it evolved to make possible the coordination of facts as thoughts and the coordination of thoughts as complex, abstract ideas. The development of language reflects, supports and directs the devel-opment of consciousness. They are mutually interdependent.

Humanity has developed myriad spoken and written languages for basic functional and social communications many of which are extinct and long forgotten. A few have acquired unique power for expression in specialized fields. The qualifying phrases of English developed in conjunction with Britain's development as a nation of trade and parliamentary democracy, making it uniquely suitable for the expression of commercial contracts and political compromise. Ancient Greek and modern German excel for the formulation of philosophical thought, Latin for law, French for the precise expression of abstract ideas, Sanskrit for the expression of highest spiritual concepts and experience.

Numerals are one of the first and most vital forms of symbolic representation to emerge. Number is the language of graduated quantity and measurement. Arithmetic is the language of ownership and exchange. Later they formed the basis for the de-velopment of higher order mathematics, the language of applied and theoretical science.

Language evolves as society develops, giving rise to more expressive, complex and abstract forms of communication to match the increasing sophistication and evolving needs of society. Like money, language enables man to transcend space and time in the gathering, organization and dissemination of knowledge, information and inspirations.

The intrinsic value of language for mental development and creativity and the social value of language for communication and social development are mutually interdependent.

Prose evolves into poetry, a higher order of symbolic language based on meta-phor, which is itself a higher order of symbolism. Prose is of thought; poetry, emo-tions. Prose expresses the thoughts of an expanding society. Poetry symbolizes the ideas of a society that grows by maturity. Prose is the language of social develop-ment; Poetry the language of love and romance.

If there were such a thing as limits to growth based on material resources, still there would not be a limit to the development of language and other ideas that are the basis for limitless social and human development. Language is the limited symbol of a limitless existence of society. Symbolic forms of notation have evolved to support all types of human activity. Morse code is a rudimentary set of sound symbols that can represent the entire spectrum of written and spoken language. HTML is a higher order language that transformed the limited power of Internet into the unlimited power of the World Wide Web.

Until now spoken languages have developed unconsciously. New usages are in-troduced, rejected or accepted, confined to a specific locale or spread geographically according to no particular rules or conscious intention. The conscious development of spoken language to enhance its reach, power and effectiveness has never been attempted by a collective. But since the advent of the World Wide Web, we witness efforts to consciously and systematically expand the vocabulary and expressive power of HTML - now undergoing its fifth generation of revision - and the rapid adoption of successive innovations, each of which enhances the capacity of global society for communication and accomplishment. A conscious systematic effort to develop any language can immensely enhance and radically accelerate the subconscious process of social evolution.


Major Sea Level Rise: How Likely, How Soon?

Michael Marien, Fellow, World Academy of Art and Science; Director, Global Foresight Books

[NOTE: This essay is adapted from a review of The Fate of Greenland by Philip Conkling et al. (MIT Press, 2011) and two recent and related articles in Scientific American. The full review is posted as the GFB Book of the Month for October 2012.]

Forecasters of a major weather event, such as a hurricane, try not to overestimate or to underestimate. Hurricane forecasting has become highly refined, with periodic updates for alternative scenarios of possible courses that an approaching storm might take, as well as their probabilities. This short-term foresight, however, bears little resemblance to long-term forecasting, which is far less certain, but nevertheless deserving attention.

In late October 2012, Hurricane Sandy devastated coastal areas of New Jersey, New York, and Connecticut, due to a storm surge of up to 14 feet. The New York Times (31 Oct 2012, A18) reported that scientists had warned about the perils of flooding for years. According to a city-appointed scientific panel, "after rising roughly an inch per decade in the last century, coastal waters in New York are expected to climb as fast as six inches per decade, or two feet by mid-century." Even before "Superstorm Sandy" (as it was widely dubbed), an eerily prescient 9/11-timed feature in the Times (11 Sept 2012, p.1) noted the "accelerating" rate of sea level rise and more frequent flooding: "were sea levels to rise four feet by the 2080s, for example, 34% of the city's streets could lie in the flood-risk zone, compared with just 11% now."

But what if this illustrative four-foot rise in sea water for NYC is severely understated by a factor of six or more? This possibility is raised in a remarkable book on The Fate of Greenland: Lessons from Abrupt Climate Change (MIT Press, April 2011, 216p, with 72 color photos), by Philip Conkling (Island Institute in Maine), Richard Alley (Penn State U), Wallace Broecker (Columbia U), and George Denton (University of Maine). These climate scientists - two of whom, Alley and Broecker, are well-known - made several trips to Greenland to study ice core records and currently melting ice. The ice core provides evidence of scores of abrupt climatic changes over the last 100,000 years, often 10oC or more in roughly a decade or less. "Greenland appears to be poised at the edge of another rapid climate change ... (and we should) pay attention to Greenland because in the fate of Greenland lie clues to the fate of the world." (p.23; emphasis added)

The four scientists caution that "we are taking an enormous risk...if the Greenland ice sheet melts, sea level would rise seven meters-or about 24 feet-worldwide. In contrast, if the West Antarctic ice sheet melted, it would cause a five-meter-16-foot-sea level rise."  (p.22) But this 24-40 foot addition will probably not happen soon: "We don’t believe that the ice sheet could fully disintegrate faster than many centuries, but we might cause enough warming within a few decades to cross the threshold leading to ice sheet loss." (p.182) Because different positive feedbacks amplify each other, "the slight chance of a really big change cannot be excluded." (p170). Due to various possible tipping points, "we must recognize the possibility that we have greatly underestimated the coming damages of climate change. However, we do not find evidence that we have greatly overestimated the damages." (p.196) This dire possibility is echoed by University of Washington geologist Peter D. Ward in The Flooded Earth: Our Future in a World Without Ice Caps (Basic Books, July 2010), who warns that a not unreasonable 4oF increase in global temperature could raise sea levels by 30 feet by 2100.

The long-hypothesized positive feedback loops, according to John Carey (Scientific American, Nov 2012, pp50-55) "may be starting to kick in" and may be pushing the earth into an era of rapid change that is faster than expected. Carey identifies six feedback loops, notably the loss of sea ice allowing the sun to warm ocean water more (which melts more sea ice), and greater permafrost melting that puts more methane and CO2 in the atmosphere (in turn causing more permafrost melting). This is complemented by Peter Wadhams, a Cambridge ocean physicist, who writes in Scientific American (Dec 2012, p12) that "things are worse than appearances suggest" because remaining sea ice is thinning so that, at current rates, summer melting of Arctic sea ice will outstrip new ice in winter, and "by 2015…the entire ice cover will collapse." Citing Mark C. Serreze of the University of Colorado National Snow and Ice Center, we will have entered an Arctic "death spiral" that accelerates warming. Wadhams calculates that "loss of the remaining ice will have the same warming effect on the earth as the past 25 years of carbon dioxide." Moreover, surface warming will extend to the seabed and melt offshore permafrost, triggering the release of methane, which has 23 times greater warming effect than CO2 (albeit not remaining in the atmosphere as long). He cites a recent Russian-US expedition finding more than 200 sites off the coast of Siberia where methane is welling up from the seabed. And that excludes methane being released from melting tundra!

And thus the official expectation of 1-2 feet of sea level rise by 2050, and perhaps 4 feet more by the 2080s, may be greatly underestimated. It is time to put the various trends and forecasts together into a set of continuously updated and widely publicized scenarios that reflect the full range of possibilities, from "not-quite-so-bad" to "far worse than expected" and "catastrophic." What works for hurricane forecasting should also be applied to long-term sea level rise.


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