When we say a glass is sitting on a table we know that it is sitting on a horizontal surface. If there is a cloth on the table, we don’t say it’s sitting on the cloth; we say it’s on the table. When we say a picture is hanging on the wall, it’s actually hanging from the wall. Our understanding of the term ‘on’ is the same, even though it’s applied differently.
Rajesh Kasturirangan came to the United States from Delhi to study math at University of Wisconsin. Then he studied Cognitive Science at MIT. “The tie between these two disciplines is not strong. Cognitive Science is more experimental and experiential than analytical. However, thanks to Big Data, Cognitive Science uses more math today than previously, though not at the level that would be interest to mathematicians.”
Rajesh’s doctoral work investigated how we are able to talk about what we see. His research explored comprehension that lies beyond a shared understanding of word’s literal meaning. That we understand a glass on a table sits horizontally while a picture on a wall is vertical is not language. It’s culture.
Rajesh’s background in cognitive science influences how he approaches his passion: climate change.
“I have two perspectives. One. I am always political. The world doesn’t change unless we change the way politics is done. Climate justice requires a new way to organize politically. 350.org and being on the Board of the Better Future Project in Cambridge are part of that, though I think eventually the political response to climate will require more than new organizations. It will require broader coalitions. It will require people to become climate voters, just as now we have abortion rights voters and guns rights voters.
“Two. We need to imagine a future that’s radically different from today. How do we think about the human future on earth? Traditionally, artists have done that. Now, we need technologists’ imagination.
“I call this ‘foreshaping’ versus ‘forecasting.’ If we develop the skills to contemplate the future, we can influence its shape. This leap is discouraged in academia. Spinning dreams into plausibilities is not science. To get a vision of the future right now, you can join a cult. I want something better related to science. We need to start by gathering people who share these ideas and this approach.”
Rajesh’s careful understanding of language, culture, and meaning makes him sensitive to how we align our objcctives to relevant issues. “It’s important for the things you bite off to be big. Don’t say, ‘let’s go solar.’ Say, ‘no fossil fuel.’ The latter is bigger and more comprehensive. Solar is a means for obtaining renewable energy, but it is only one vehicle. The real issue is balancing our energy use with renewable alternatives.”
Rajesh realizes that we cannot change how we live in relationship to our earth unless we change our attitudes about wellbeing. “I come from a Hindu monastic background. I have come to see that is not what most people want, and is not a viable option for a large cross-section of our population.
“We have to like where the future is going. There’s this Cadillac ad I have stuck in my head. At the end of the commercial, when the big black car with the beautiful man or woman drives off to the horizon, the tag line is, ‘Life, liberty, and the Pursuit.’ The ad is predicated on a particular view of happiness. How do we change that? What would a 21st century city on a hill look like?”
Rajesh is involved with an MIT Alumni group working on climate change initiatives. He also has an idea for a series of what he calls, TED-future talks. “Typical TED talks are about people who have observed or accomplished something, which they share with others. I want something more projective, where someone postulates an idea of the future, outlines a scenario or range of options, and that becomes the catalyst for testing and troubleshooting it.”
One refreshing thing about talking with Rajesh is how he embraces, rather than bemoans, politics. “We are political animals. It’s okay for politics to drive our lives. We are also social animals. We associate and identify with large communities, nation states. In Massachusetts, we have a responsibility to the people of Florida during a hurricane. During major tragedies, like the earthquake in Haiti, we feel a responsibility that eclipses national boundaries. If we evolved to a world government, we would have a responsibility to everyone all the time. We would need to care about Iraq and Iran in war and peace, disaster and calm.
“Politics is evolving beyond human beings. We have self-interests beyond the human realm. Politics is related to technological issues that it didn’t need to deal with before. Physics is now relevant in a fundamental way.
“Climate change can be the catalyst for bringing us together, or it can tear us apart.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“There are two things that I think will define our existence; two themes that interconnect everything else. First is the ability of technology and science to organize this world. Second is the precariousness of human existence among the other creatures of the earth. These are currently moving in opposite directions. One feeds our sense of being gods on this planet; the other recognizes our interconnectivity. Equilibrium will require that we pull those strands together.
“Consider this. Instead of our twentieth century image of human beings flying off to the stars, human beings are going to merge with the earth.”