Tipping Points

Professor Kevin Haines
February 2022

“Weebles wobble but they don’t fall down”

Does anyone remember Weebles? Small plastic egg-shaped children’s toy introduced in 1971, the unique characteristic of Weebles was that, no matter what angle they were set at, they immediately returned to the vertical. Weebles exhibited this quality ad infinitum: they always returned to their natural vertical position. Weebles wobbled but they never fell down.

Unfortunately, the natural (and, indeed, the social) world is not like this. If a natural system is pushed far enough from its stable position it will not (it will never) recover stability again.

There are a number of different terms for this type of phenomenon: in statistics it is known as a buffer effect, in physics it is the event horizon of a black hole and in the natural sciences it is known as a tipping point. In his book ‘The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference’, Malcolm Gladwell (2000), set out the notion that ideas have tipping points too – a point at which an idea breaches social consciousness and becomes ubiquitous (but this is a different kind of tipping point from the one under consideration here). One can think of tipping points as the antithesis of sustainability, although they are probably more serious than this comparison implies. 

For present purposes I’ll stick to using the term ‘tipping point’ if for no other reason than it conjures up the evocative image of a vase being knocked and tipping over so far that rather than returning to the vertical (like our Weeble) it tips over and smashes to pieces on the floor – never to be a vase again.

Tipping points are (potentially) everywhere, all around us. We have lots of examples of tipping points. When the Dodo, for example, went extinct, it had reached its tipping point. When the Roman civilisation, for example, collapsed and died, it had reached its tipping point. When Mars lost its atmosphere and all the water on the planet evaporated, for example, it had reached its tipping point. 

When the global capitalist system experienced the financial crash of 2007-2008, it almost crossed its tipping point – only to be saved by governmental intervention and is now in the process of building back differently – but it was close, very close and radical, ESG-informed, practices are creating a very different financial system. Does anyone remember how scary this was?

  1. Tipping points are final, there is no way back. Once a system has gone beyond its tipping point it cannot recover. Tipping points, therefore, are extremely significant and important, irrevocably impactful events.
  1. Tipping points cannot be predicted. We do not know when any system will go beyond its tipping point. Tipping points are not random, but they are chaotic (and non-linear).
  1. Tipping points can happen to almost anything: the climate, biodiversity, food production, water supply, civilisation as we know it and to entire planets.
  1. These characteristics make tipping points highly impactful and massively serious. We don’t know where or when they will occur, but they should be avoided at all costs.

We are, however, fortunate in two main senses:

  1. The planet on which we live and (albeit to a lesser extent) the social systems we rely on are remarkably resilient. This doesn’t mean that specific sub-systems haven’t reached their tipping points, but the planet and its inhabitants have a strong self-regulatory ability.
  1. We already know what we are doing that is pushing planetary and social systems towards a tipping point and we have a pretty good idea of what we need to do to stop pushing, or, even better, to start working with the planet and the creatures (including us) that inhabit it, to promote a positive (natural and human) environment.

It may well be that we have already crossed a number of tipping points. The changes to our weather that we are currently experiencing globally may well be the result of permanent climate change. We do not know. We cannot know. It is too soon to tell. When we do know, if we have breached the tipping point, it will be too late.

We do know, or, at least, I think we are beginning to come to realise, that we need to act now if we are to try to avoid a whole series of disastrous tipping points. We know what we need to do to avoid these tipping points: there are no more excuses, the time has now come for action.

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