How Quickly Do Ideas Spread?

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, December 2, 2017

In 2009 group of environmental scientists led by Johan Rockström and Will Steffen proposed the idea of planetary boundaries. They defined nine indicators to monitor Earth’s environmental stability. In 2009 we had not crossed any of the nine boundaries, but by 2017 we had crossed four. Everyone knows about boundary number one – climate change – but do you know the other eight? I may have heard of planetary boundaries before in the popular science books I read, but it feels like I just discovered this concept when I read Thank You For Being Late by Thomas Friedman. So, it took me eight years to encounter this concept since it was first created. That’s not too bad. How long will it take this idea to spread to everyone? Have you heard of planetary boundaries?

book-big-world-small-planet (1)Johan Rockström came out with a textbook, Bankrupting Nature: Denying Our Planetary Boundaries in 2012, but I rarely buy textbooks (the Kindle edition is $45!), but even if I did, I’m not sure I’d find them readable because of my knowledge level. Rockström did come out with a popular science level book, Big World, Small Planet in 2015, which I do wish I had discovered. How often do we buy new books with new ideas when they first come out? (I ordered it today, even though I’m two years late.)

The first laser was built in 1960. I read about it in Popular Science sometime in the mid-60s. I got to see one in 1967 at a science museum in Miami. In the 1980s I finally got to own one when I bought my first CD player. So it took about a quarter century to spread laser technology to the masses.

On the other hand, it took algebra thousands of years to finally get to me in 1963. In fact, most of what I know is pretty damn old. I finally learn about calculus in the early 1970s, when its concepts were only as old as Newton and Leibnitz. I guess astronomy is the science I’m most up-to-date with, and I’m sure I’m years behind and only know its discoveries in the most rudimentary of ways.

The concept of climate change has taken decades to spread through society and it’s often rejected. How long will it take other planetary boundaries to become universally known and affect political action? Even with the speed of the internet we just don’t seem to learn new ideas quickly enough. Most people are stuck on religious ideas proposed thousands of years ago which have been completely invalidated by later knowledge.

And, we forget so much knowledge! My awareness of mathematical concepts has de-evolved to a time before the classical Greeks. To make matters worse, Republicans seem hellbent on rejecting science. Even if knowledge flows freely and fast around the internet there are barriers to absorbing it.

The concept of planetary boundaries is essential to our survival. And I bet there are way more the nine boundaries – that’s just the number scientists are working with now. (Of course, there might already be a new number and I won’t acquire it for a few more years.)

I’m looking for the best popular science books on the nine boundaries. Read about them at Wikipedia but here’s the table they use to define them. (Hope it’s okay to copy.) If you’ve read good popular science books on each that you’d highly recommend, let me know. I consider This Changes Everything by Naomi Klein to be the best book for boundary #1, and The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert for boundary #2. But I’m having trouble finding bestsellers that focus on boundaries 3-9.



13 thoughts on “How Quickly Do Ideas Spread?”

  1. Very interesting post and a great way to look at it by this chart. I don’t know of any books, unfortunately, but do keep us posted here.
    As a side note, I’m almost done with Fantasyland (I’m a slow reader) and it truly is one of the best books I’ve ever read. I bought it as a gift for two of my friends. I believe the recommendation came from one of your readers thus from you. Thank you.

    1. We’re an example of how ideas spread. I heard about Fantasyland from Linda, and I got you to read it, and you got others, and hopefully, those friends will get their friends. It would help if PBS did a 10-part series on Fantasyland. Popular books only spread ideas so far. I’m sure the documentary An Inconvenient Truth reached far more people than the book version. Ideas can also be spread in novels and television shows too. I think the new show Wisdom of Crowds is pushing out ideas that have been around a while but not widely known.

      Of the nine boundaries, probably biogeochemical changes are the least known. Ocean acidification and deforestation are moving up into the general awareness now.

      The hip new concept to track is the Anthropocene.

    1. I haven’t heard of The Last Gasp. Wisdom of the Crowd is on CBS right after 60 Minutes. If you record it you have to record the show afterward because 60 Minutes often runs late. However, I’m not sure if you’ll like Wisdom of the Crowd if you start in the middle. It’s about an internet startup that uses AI (Sophe) and input from people and their smartphones to solve crimes. The guy who started the company, Jeffrey Tanner played by Jeremy Piven, wants to find out who murdered his daughter, but the police discover Sophe is good for solving general crimes. The show gets into crowdsourcing and other internet ideas, both good and bad.

    1. Thanks, Becky. I will study those two links. The AGU books are probably too scientific for most readers. These are the women and men making the initial discoveries. Their books are those that popular science writers read to produce books which spread the ideas to the reading masses. I can use their catalog for ideas to search for popular science books.

  2. I was going to suggest ‘overpopulation’ as a category, but then I thought about it. It’s not that there are too many people (yet) it’s that they don’t live within the Earth’s resource field … which has caused the nine tentacles.

    1. Actually, overpopulation and capitalism are the core problems. Our planet could handle our excessive lifestyles if there were far fewer of us. If there were only a billion humans we could probably create a sustainable economy based on high consumption.

  3. Isn’t Ozone Depletion the holes in the arctic and antarctic ozone layer which we averted thanks to good governance? Our governments aren’t helpful- Pfffft! This was stratospheric ozone, too. It might mean the layer in totality including the tropics so might be a bit different.

  4. Just in case y’all don’t feel isolated enough, there is good reason to believe that most Americans not only don’t know what is talked about here, but don’t care. They would (maybe) if it was immediate and threatening their daily lives. But then they would have to spend the time to follow up, verify, and then consider taking action – action that doesn’t cost them by an increase in costs of daily living, that doesn’t isolate them from their friends, family and neighbors, that doesn’t conflict with what they hear from their local government and leaders, and doesn’t break faith with their religious concerns.
    They’d have to be pretty brave folks if any or all of those concerns do apply. I believe that some would, and will if they receive enough information that they can verify. But just where will they go to do that verification? If they lack the scientific background to figure it out, if they never studied biology, geology, anthropology, ecology or any other earth science and biologic science – what would they use as a filter to strain out the bullshit that is constant in the popular media? Their church? Their neighbors? Their local Councilperson?
    In other words, if they aren’t tenants in this world (blogs) or other similar sources of information it ain’t WTF anymore. It’s Who-The F***-Do-we-listen-to-and-Believe?
    CNN (and the other lefties) vs Fox News (Breitbart, etc) is not a very good choice for open, reasoned and intelligent discussions of the detailed information that is necessary to understand just exactly where the Earth and it’s most widely infested land masses stand. The old stand-by, the local newspaper is owned by a multi-national corporation that depends on advertising that is paid for by the inch. That isn’t necessarily an indictment, just a statement of facts.

    There are hundreds of millions of essentially un-educated humans on this planet who only live one day or one week at a time. None of them are worried about the massive ego machinations of our elite-managed super states who play games with humanity as if this were all just a chess game. They are busy making a buck, feeding their kids and trying to dodge the weather, politics, and other looming disasters. And they aren’t reading this or the many other blogs that try to point out just how f***ed up things are becoming.
    That doesn’t mean they don’t know, even if it’s just a feeling of dread. If they do know and consider their options, just what can they do? Move somewhere else? Hike across a border or two and leave themselves open to arrest or worse?
    I may be painting a Worst-Case-Scenario here, but I may also be drawing an outline of just how far our governments and so-called leaders have gone beyond what is expected/hoped for by the people they are supposed to be taking care of.
    And I fear that the US of A has become the poster child of just how badly these beliefs have become out of touch with reality. We are still the richest, fattest, and most self-centered populace on this small world – and possibly the most ignorant and fatuous one as well. If we have ever learned from our own history, we’ve casually forgotten the most important lessons that our forefathers learned and tried to teach us. #1 – There Ain’t No Such Thing as A Free Lunch.
    #2 – If the Lunch is Free, then you damned sure owe somebody for it: and they’re gonna come back for that repayment. #3 – What are you going to do now that you are fed for free?
    Pay it forward? Turn around and re-sell it for a profit? Take it home and feed your kids, and then teach them just how they got fed that day?
    And then what about those kids in the barrios, the immigrant neighborhoods?

    Nobody who is hungry gives a hoot about Ozone Holes, die-offs, droughts, distant plagues or other catastrophes unless they come home to roost. And the people they THINK are looking out for them, well maybe they are, But I’d bet differently.

    Sorry if that rambled too much.

    1. Excellent insight Jim. I am isolated from the average person. It’s hard for me to comprehend how most people think. We’re all separated from each other in thousands of ways. And like you said, most people are pressed to survive and don’t have the time and background to think about abstract ideas. It seems like I read the other day that there are 35 million refugees in the world right now. I’m sure they don’t have time to think about planetary boundaries. Nor will the billions who struggle near poverty. How rich and education does someone have to be before they have the time to consider these problems?

      So? How do we communicate vital knowledge to people who don’t have time to evaluate it, or even the education to understand it? The obvious answer is our leaders should be up on things and take care of it with laws. But our leaders are puppets to the plutocrats who put all their energies into acquiring all the money they can. And running the planet in a sustainable manner would cost them money they don’t want to give up.

      But then we have to ask why other countries are making wise decisions and we’re not. Why is it that America is the only country not to go along with the Paris climate agreement?

  5. The three R’s are our problem…racism, religion and Republicans. When you have a country where someone like Trump can be elected, where hypocritical Christianity thwarts science and reason at every turn and racism is rampant…..we have a problem, Houston.

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