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Trevor Hancock: Social tipping points, virtuous cascades

In a December 2019 interview, Will Steffen, a leading Earth systems scientist and member of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said: “We need to reach a social tipping point, before we reach a planetary one.

In a December 2019 interview, Will Steffen, a leading Earth systems scientist and member of the Stockholm Resilience Centre, said: “We need to reach a social tipping point, before we reach a planetary one.”

By “a planetary tipping point,” he was referring in particular to climate change, but more generally to the wide variety of massive and rapid global ecological changes we have created, conveniently referred to as the Anthtropocene.

So what are tipping points and why do they matter? Tipping points are characteristic of complex dynamic systems such as our own bodies, financial markets, societal or climate systems. To paraphrase Timothy Lenton, director of the Global Systems Institute at the University of Exeter, you can hit a tipping point if you get a positive feedback loop going (e.g., if global heating melts Arctic permafrost which releases methane which further accelerates global heating and away it goes).

Through this amplified feedback, small changes can trigger a big change, sending the system “into a qualitatively different future state,” Lenton writes.

This shift from one stable state to another can occur quite suddenly and is known as non-linear change, or a discontinuity. Climate systems, like other Earth systems we depend upon for our lives and our health, can tip into a different state. And like the peak of a pandemic, you don’t know you are at a tipping point until you are past it.

But it’s not just a single tipping point we need to be concerned about. In a 2018 article, Steffen and his colleagues identified 15 different “climate tipping elements” — the Arctic methane example above is one of them — which might then trigger another element to tip. This could result in “a domino-like cascade that could take the Earth System to even higher temperatures,” pushing it “irreversibly onto a Hothouse Earth pathway,” an alternative stable climate system that would be very dangerous for us.

So much for the negative planetary tipping points and cascades in the Earth’s natural systems that are the focus of Steffen’s concern. But he is also pointing to the need to reach social tipping points — changes in our social and economic systems that can prevent us continuing on our present dangerous path.

This will require “activating contagious and fast-spreading processes of social and technological change within the next few years,” noted a recent paper on stabilizing Earth’s climate in the Proceedings of the National Academies of Science.

The idea of social tipping points has been around since the 1960s, but was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s 2000 book The Tipping Point. We can see recent examples of social tipping points in the fairly rapid shift in the 1980s from a smoking to a non-smoking culture, and in this century the quite rapid and widespread acceptance of gay rights and gay marriage after decades, indeed centuries, of resistance.

While social tipping points have become a hot topic because of the link to climate change, we face multiple “severe global stresses-environmental, demographic, economic, political, and technological” in the decades to come, according to the newly launched Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University. (In the interests of transparency, I am a member of the Institute’s Scientific Advisory Board.)

There is a danger that “these stresses will disrupt vital natural systems, cripple economies, deepen social divisions, and ultimately generate widespread violence and societal breakdown.”

So the Institute will study these complex social, economic and ecological systems, looking to identify “a series of precisely targeted and timed interventions [that] could plausibly produce a virtuous cascade of change.” The Institute’s ambitious goal is “to trigger a fundamental, positive, and rapid change in humanity’s trajectory.”

Headed up by Dr. Thomas Homer-Dixon, as Jack Knox reported in his column on Tuesday, the new Cascade Institute puts Canada at the forefront of a fast-breaking global research program that includes major research centres in Potsdam, Germany and Oxford University, as well as Stockholm.

It is my hope that we will be able to apply the learnings from the Institute right here, looking for ways to trigger such positive changes locally as we pursue the urgent work of becoming a One Planet Region, putting not only Royal Roads but the Capital Region on the map.