Tipping Points

Submitted by Chris Mills on January 15, 2013 - 7:18pm

I’ve been thinking a lot about “tipping points” lately. The concept of the tipping point, long relegated to the lexicon of statistics, has entered mainstream discourse largely because of its relevance to climate change.

To digress for a moment, the concept of a “tipping point” is an attempt to understand non-linear change, which according to Prof. Al Bartlett, is something our human brains don’t comprehend easily. We tend to think of change as something that happens linearly, which allows its behaviour to be easier to predict, but most change doesn’t happen that way at all, and the figures that describe it are vastly misleading to the uninitiated.

Graph of a non-linear (exponential) curve
The so-called "hockey-stick" graph


Here’s a striking (and I hope, fun) way to get a sense of how slowly an exponential curve grows at first, and how rapidly it grows once it “turns the corner”, as shown in the previous graph. It’s one that Al Bartlett – and others, like Chris Martenson – use to help us wrap our brains around exponential growth (I’ve modified it slightly to make it more “Canadian”):

You’re at the Rogers Centre, watching a Blue Jays home opener. Ricky Romero’s the starting pitcher (hm. Might need to update that now and then as the Jays lineup changes) and he’s down on the mound, but he’s not pitching. He’s causing a game delay because he's become fascinated with a “magic eyedropper” that someone has given him.

Here he is on the mound...


The magic in this eyedropper is that, once a drop is squeezed out of it, the size of that drop doubles every minute. He puts a drop the size of a baby pea on the palm of his hand. After a minute it’s the size of two baby peas. After one more minute it’s slightly smaller than a dime. After five minutes, it will fill a thimble. Two minutes later it’s a two-hander, enough to splash your face with.

So… to make things a bit more interesting, let’s say some devious person has handcuffed you to your seat, way up in the nosebleed section near the top of the stadium, and that the entire stadium is watertight (why? I have no idea.) Now, you know how to get out of handcuffs, but it does take you some time. How much time do you actually have before the water is up past your nose? Is it days, weeks, months? Is it hours?

It’s actually 49 minutes.

But that’s not the most striking point! Here’s another question: how much time would you have to escape after you realize that you’re in danger?

Say, at this point...

i.e. How much time would you have once the water is about 6 feet up the outfield wall, as in this image, and you started to think that maybe you ought to head for an exit? Well, it’s about 3 minutes.

In other words… 46 minutes to cover the field to a depth of 6 feet, and mere 3 additional minutes until this point: 


That’s pretty damn fast, once it gets going!

So, unless you’re really good at getting out of handcuffs and running out of a sealed stadium (how? I have no idea.) you’d better be good at holding your breath!

So. There are bad tipping points, such as the point at which climate change becomes self-accelerating and beyond our control (and frankly, we may already have reached that point. Hopefully not...) Another bad tipping point may be the “cascade” point for economic collapse, where the failure of one sector of the economy triggers the collapse of other interdependent sectors, which in turn trigger other failures, and so on.

These are all bad tipping points. But a tipping point can also be positive, a sign of possibilities, and of some hope. For those of us who grew up in the sixties, two features of our world that most everyone assumed were all-but-permanent were the Iron Curtain—symbolized by the Berlin Wall—and Apartheid. Yet, both of those are gone, and the tide which swept them away grew so rapidly, over such a short time, that it appeared almost instantaneous. But a closer examination of history reveals that the movements to abolish these monstrous injustices were actually fomenting for a long time. The people in the heart of those movements may have felt much as we in the sustainability/resilience/social justice/Transition movement sometimes do, that the forces arrayed against us are so huge and immovable, the challenges so vast, that nothing we can do can have any real, lasting, meaningful effect.

But consider this: yesterday in Guelph (January 12) was an extraordinarily warm day, getting up to around 13 degrees Celsius by early afternoon. Five years ago, even three years ago perhaps, most people would comment on the weather by saying, “What a glorious day! It’s so beautiful and warm out!” Yet yesterday at the Farmers Market and later at the Idle No More rally, everyone I spoke to, without exception, who commented on the weather said some variation of, “This weather is really creeping me out. This is scary.” Climate change has suddenly become a reality for the greater majority, and these people are beginning to fully comprehend its implications for our future.

Speaking of the Idle No More movement, there was a huge turnout, perhaps as high as 500 people who congregated in front of City Hall to hear aboriginal speakers, and members of the Guelph community talk about the devastating impact of the Omnibus bills 37 and 45 enacted by the current government will have on everything from environmental protection, to scientific research, Aboriginal treaty rights, rivers and lakes protections, worker rights, community health and wellbeing, and more, all of which are being sacrificed in the name of corporate profit. The Idle No More movement is catalyzing the rapidly growing community of citizens who are becoming increasingly frightened by the egregious acts of this government, and has given them a focus and a voice, something which was lacking before. It feels like a tipping point. It feels like we are approaching a cusp, where the people of this country are going to stand up in ever-increasing numbers and say: "I am sick of rolling over for this government; I’m sick of their lack of transparency, their deviousness, and I’m sick their open contempt, not only for democracy and the values on which this country was founded, but for the people of this nation, even the very people who elected them into office."

It feels like we are close to something significant. 

Here's another tipping point: mainstream media has now broken its silence on the subject of the possibility of the collapse of global civilization. The Inter Press Service news agency recently published a feature article that quotes several well-respected scientists, economists and sociologists, all of whom are terrified that we are headed down the path to near-term global collapse. Will that actually change anything? Only time will tell. Sadly, time is something we are rapidly running out of.

But, perhaps we are approaching some kind of a tipping point, where the movement to create a sustainable world, a world in which strong communities can survive, and even thrive, in the face of the challenges of resource depletion, climate change, economic flux, ecological collapse, species loss, and a host of other problems confronting us, swells suddenly from its almost imperceptible beginnings to an overwhelming tide that sweeps fundamental change across the face of the planet... just the way that the movements to abolish Apartheid and bring down the Berlin Wall did.

Too much to hope for? Perhaps. Perhaps not.

Wheat, a Chess Board and Malcolm Gladwell

Hi Chris, I love this blog.  The skydome analogy is fanatstic.  It reminded me of the famous chess board parable:

"When the creator of the game of chess (in some tellings an ancient Indian mathematician, in others a legendary dravida vellalar named Sessa or Sissa) showed his invention to the ruler of the country, the ruler was so pleased that he gave the inventor the right to name his prize for the invention. The man, who was very wise, asked the king this: that for the first square of the chess board, he would receive one grain of wheat (in some tellings, rice), two for the second one, four on the third one, and so forth, doubling the amount each time. The ruler, arithmetically unaware, quickly accepted the inventor's offer, even getting offended by his perceived notion that the inventor was asking for such a low price, and ordered the treasurer to count and hand over the wheat to the inventor. However, when the treasurer took more than a week to calculate the amount of wheat, the ruler asked him for a reason for his tardiness. The treasurer then gave him the result of the calculation, and explained that it would take more than all the assets of the kingdom to give the inventor the reward. The story ends with the inventor becoming the new king(or in some versions the ruler punishes the inventor)"


Canadian author Malcolm Gladwell wrote an excellent book about tipping points for anyone wanting to dig more into the topic:

http://www.gladwell.com/tippingpoint/)" target="_blank">(http://www.gladwell.com/tippingpoint/)



Wheat and chess

Hey Derek! Yeah, you bet the Indian legend about chess is relevant! (although I never heard the version where the mathematician becomes the new king... mostly I've just heard that he gets executed as a lesson to other potential smart-asses out there :) )

In our Transition Orientation PowerPoint slide show use the wheat-on-the-chessboard example to start off the section on exponential growth, then move on to the Skydome story (from which I grabbed those images in the blog... Phun with Photoshop!!)

And yes, I would highly recommend Malcolm Gladwell on virtually any topic you'd care to name. He's one smart cookie!

So profound


This blog is phenomenally profound. Thanks for the skydome illustration- it was a great teaching tool in understanding the tipping point idealogy.

I like how you used the Apartheid and Berlin Wall as instances of the tipping point shifting in a positive sense of social change and activism.

Do you have any tangible, day-to-day ideas or suggestions of how we, community-builders/seekers, can shift the tipping point towards positive social outcomes?

Well Rachel, you ask a

Well Rachel, you ask a pivotal question, and frankly I wish I had the answer. I do have another blog post almost ready to go that perhaps addresses this question, albeit somewhat tangentially. The point I try to make in the new blog is that sometimes a kind of social pressure will build up, but in the absence of a triggering event, will just kind of "sit there" until something happens to suddenly release it.

Once upon a time, I used to fly hang-gliders - back when I was young and foolish - and, as with any kind of unpowered flight, with hang-gliding you have to locate and stay within rising air in order to extend your flight beyond that of a boring "sled-run" straight back to the ground. Thermals are bubbles of hot air that form above the ground where heat tends to concentrate (parking lots, plowed fields, clusters of houses, etc.); they build up, then break free and rise and, if they go high enough, eventually form cumulus clouds. If you can locate one (preferably more than one!) and stay in it, it can take you enormously higher than your starting point, which every hang-glider pilot craves. But the thing is, they will often "stick" to the ground for quite a while, getting warmer and warmer, until something comes along to dislodge them, say for example a car or a tractor driving through it. Once that happens, they break loose very suddenly, and rise like a big invisible balloon.

I think change may be a phenomenon that's very similar to thermals, and perhaps what it's going to take is some kind of sudden disruption to cause the social change movement to "break free" and rise. It's definitely building up. Now it just needs something to cut it loose.

What an image!

Hello Chris,

I knew almost nothing about hang-glidding... now I know much more. What a neat image! I love the idea of coming across a potential that is already existing in a way that is outside of our control. It it, however, in our control to try to come across these social thermals- and yet, it seems sometimes they arise without our being able to anticipate it. I also love that within this illustration, there is a surrender to a force outside of ourselve as one is thrust up by the thermal... cool!

Thanks for all your insights, Chris! And thanks for joining us a we seek together...