It's the Environment, Stupid.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Environmental tipping point?

I’ve noticed the term ‘tipping point’ popping up around the environment lately – mainly in relation to climate change, but also regarding an awareness or consciousness of things green.

March 6 on World Changing, Gil Friend posted, “Sustainability – At the Tipping Point?” He lists a few things as to why he believes 2005 might be the year when sustainability reached the tipping point, including General Electric’s Ecomagination campaign, Boeing’s fuel efficient jet, Goldman Sachs’ commitment to renewable energy investment, and the sheer number of hurricanes and tropical storms.

Nick Aster posed the question Feb 2 on triplepundit in response to GW’s admission that the U.S. is “addicted to oil” (Friend left a comment there detailing the above). And on Feb 25, Jeff McIntire-Strasburg of Sustainablog asked, “when will we hit an alternative energy tipping point?” I even found myself using it to describe what I think might happen with the emerging sustainable style movement.

The reference, of course, is to Malcolm Gladwell’s book of the same title, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. Gladwell looks at what elements are necessary in the spread of an epidemic – whether it’s a disease, a social movement or fashion trend.

However, it seems the use of ‘tipping point’ in climate change articles is used in a different context - in more of a ‘beyond threshold’ kind of way. The tell tale signs of arctic ice melt, ocean warming and everything else seem to mark a point of no return, like we’ve pushed the limits of the ecological boundaries and there’s no going back. There’s the statement ‘we’ve passed the tipping point.’ The questions, ‘have we reached a tipping point?’ or ‘are we on the verge of a tipping point?’ All valid, but I wondered if this use of the term wasn’t straying a little bit from what Gladwell intended. So I e-mailed to find out.

The response: i applaud the use of tipping point in all contexts. :-)

There you have it.

There is no wrong way to use ‘tipping point’.


  • Funnily enough, I was reading The Tipping Point on vacation just as you were posting this Amy. It's interesting, because Gladwell spends very little time in the book talking about what a tipping point is - he really just uses the concept as a launching pad for his ideas about how trends etc get going. But the use you've talked about here is very much what he was talking about in the book I think - he talks about the moment when something reaches a critical mass (or threshold) and takes off, ie, changes rapidly. I think that's totally relevant for something like climate change or biodiversity or a host of other environmental issues where you can reach a 'tipping point' or threshold where things change suddenly in a big way. Puzzlingly for me, since the tipping point concept is such an interesting concept, most of the discussion of it was in the ednotes to the book - and, sure enough, the references were to journal articles on thresholds.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 19:14  

  • Thanks for your comment David - and right you are, about Gladwell using Tipping point as a launching pad, as well as the end notes being more of a discussion of the term (I'm sure I skipped over the endnotes when I read it - but going back now, I see what you mean.) Hope you had a good vacation! :)

    By Blogger Amy Marpman, at 19:23  

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