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Institute of Advanced Study

Water Worlds


The surface that keeps your feet on the ground is a universally understood phenomenon, albeit one that has many different characteristics depending upon circumstances (it may be concrete, marble, shag-pile, sand, rock, soil, wood, etc.). Water is also what might be thought of as ‘universal,' but in this case the name describes a substance; in essence it is a relatively simple chemical compound. This substance, unlike practically any other, is entirely familiar to everyone on the planet. Some have too much whilst others have an unfamiliarity that results in expiration. In this sense water is a universal currency. In fact it is universal in the true sense of the word, being spread throughout the Solar System and (way) beyond. In this essay I propose that the relationship we have with water provides an obvious starting point for a process of education whereby inhabitants of the world confront issues of planetary-scale ecological and environmental balance. For most, the plasticity of brain and mind is probably now too sluggish to allow this to happen. I believe instead that the process necessarily has to start with those members of society that are blessed with the blankest of slates, namely youngsters.  The hope is that, when they reach adulthood and assume the reins of power, they have an innate understanding of how Mother Nature operates and fully comprehend that this is decoupled from those other humanocentric notions of religion, politics, culture, economics, etc. The power and reach of the Internet is surely key. But I argue that the use of asynchronous, social media tools is not enough. And neither is a worldwide web piled high with relevant (or irrelevant) facts. I suggest that the educational experience itself needs to be globally connected in such a way that involves real-time effort and event-driven activities. But most importantly, it needs to involve a shared understanding of other peoples' environments and aspirations.