The natural world, and how we have modify it, is complex and dynamic. When change occurs, it can happen at multiple scales in time and space. For instance, the recycling of carbon within the carbon cycle, typically, operates at much longer time scale than water within the hydrological cycle. Natural and human activities have both short-term and local as well as long-term and global impacts. Discerning what actions lead to what impacts, with many interactions and multiple feedbacks, is a big challenge.
Two ways people have tried to make sense of changes in the world, and their impacts, are ‘turning points’ and ‘tipping points’. Turning points make sense of history and are like looking behind in the rearview mirror to better know where we have come from so that we can drive better. Tipping points are about carefully looking at the road in front of us to anticipate the risks ahead and to take appropriate action to avoid the hazards.
Turning points are points or short periods of time in the past when the status quo of a country, region or even the world (and their trajectories) dramatically changed. The most obvious are when a country has a revolution that fundamentally alters its form of government and how it behaves. Examples include the French Revolution that began in 1789, the Russian Revolution of 1917, and the Chinese Communist Revolution, also known as the ‘War of Liberation’ over the period 1945-49. These revolutions were not only turning points in the history of these three countries, but also changed world history and have affected the lives of billions of people. Indeed, they continue to affect their lives.
Four notable aspects of the turning points described above are:
One, they can happen rapidly, although the precursors to the rapid change may be many decades in the making;
Two, they result in transformational and long-term change;
Three, they are frequently characterized by ‘bottom up’ movement rather than change instigated by those ‘at the top’; and,
Four, they often occur at a time of crisis.
Turning points create both winners and losers (eg, King Louis XVI of France and his Queen, Marie Antoinette). Some turning points, especially those characterized by ‘top down’ change may benefit a few at the expense of the many. For example, the creation of the so-called ‘Congo Free State’, headed by King Leopold II of Belgium was itself a turning point in Congolese history. This turning point resulted in the subjugation, torture, and murder of millions of Congolese for the benefit of very small number of wealthy European investors. The country has yet to fully recover.
After the event, turning points are frequently explained as ‘inevitable’ yet they are rarely predicted. In 1914, for example, before the outbreak of World War I which helped precipitate the Russian Revolution, very few people, if any predicted, that in just three years Imperialist Rule that had lasted over a millennium would end. In 1940, very few would have imagined that, within a decade, that the Japanese would had been defeated and left China, and that the Communist Party would be ruling the country.
The simplest explanation as to why ‘bottom up’ turning points happen is that alternatives to the status quo – based on existing institutions or the ‘rules of society’ – give the promise of a sufficiently better future, for enough people, that they act to change the status quo. That is, there are enough people, sometimes with external support, such as from the French in the American Revolution, willing to act, and to bear the sacrifices, to change the nature of government and institutions that determine ‘who gets what, and when?’.
This is most obvious with turning point revolutions (American, Chinese, Cuban, French and Russian) but is also true of social justice movements to end slavery, to deliver universal suffrage, to ensure the legal right to strike to improve wages and work conditions, and to improve housing and sanitation. These social justice movements were progressed in a struggle against the status-quo ‘thinking’ that was once widely believed. Examples of status-quo thinking include slavery being justified in the Old Testament of the Bible, only men of property having a sufficient stake in government to be able to vote, the right to strike leads to communism, and diseases are not spread by poor sanitation.
Social justice movements that demand transformational change require sacrifices by the proponents and concerted and collective efforts to overcome ‘push back’ from the beneficiaries of the status quo who have the most to lose from change.
These days we often refer to ‘status-quo thinking’ as Business as Usual (BAU) and it is overwhelmingly supported, directly or indirectly, by many governments and businesses.
BAU can be characterized by:
One, an overwhelming belief that the status quo will continue to deliver increased prosperity for most people in the future;
Two, that economic growth (eg, more goods and services) is an overriding goal and the economy is the overarching priority for governments’; and
Three, key environmental challenges (eg, climate change) will be overcome via technological change and the right mix of economic incentives.
Much of this thinking is premised on recent history. That is, since World War II economic growth has increased the consumption and welfare (eg, life expectancy) of billions of people and the expectation is that this will continue.
As sensible financial investors know, ‘past performance is not always an indicator (or a reliable indicator) of future performance’. That is to say, the conditions that led to good past performance of an investment may not continue in the future. For instance, the stock prices of construction companies tend to be ‘cyclical’ that is, they typically perform better relative to other sectors of the economy in periods of rapid economic expansion and perform relatively worse in economic downturns. Context matters.
At a global scale we need to ask, are the BAU conditions that have helped deliver prosperity to many over the past 70 years about to change? And, if so, what are the alternatives to BAU that would deliver a more prosperous future? I shall respond in full to the second question in a separate blog post but, for the moment, will simply state that alternatives that will deliver a better future to what’s coming must collectively prevent, mitigate, adapt, and allow us to recover from high consequence risks, such as climate change, pandemics, conflicts that result in the use of weapons of mass destruction, etc.
Missing in action
The problem with BAU thinking at an individual level is greatly magnified for governments and businesses. For example, despite some governments having commissioned reports and risk assessments, that a pandemic would happen at some point in the future and had been advised that preparations should be made in advance (eg, maintaining adequate stocks of masks and protective gear), most governments acted as if a pandemic would never happen. And then, in 2020, one did. That is, low probability but high consequence events, such as a pandemic, are frequently treated as if they have a zero probability (they don’t).
This ‘bury-my-head-in-the-sand’ approach to risk assessment and planning applies to both sudden risk events (eg, pandemic) and chronic risk events (eg, slow melting of Antarctic ice sheets) and it means, because we are unprepared, there are much larger consequences when the big risks arrive. These consequences are, typically, not borne equally with the poor and vulnerable having the least ability to protect themselves or adapt to negative shocks. For the vulnerable, it’s like living in a floodplain without flood insurance, the better off either live on higher ground or can afford flood insurance.
Global and high impact risks
The biggest immediate challenge with high impact events that have a low probability and/or will occur or have their biggest impacts years into the future is that they can be ignored with little consequence for us today, or to decision makers. That is, until the risk event happens.
What is even more problematic are what are called irreversible risks. That is, risks that once they have happened there is no going back to recover to a previous state. In the case of COVID-19, the apparent fix has been vaccines that are effective at preventing severe symptoms and which have allowed governments to tell us to ‘live with the virus’.
Large and irreversible risks at a sufficient scale are global tipping points and they are no vaccines after they have happened. Rather they must be avoided by looking ahead and acting to avoid them. This is because once they happen, they shift us into different states of the world from which we cannot return.
There are many global scale tipping points. For example, there is definitive evidence of a recent weakening of the Gulf Stream, part of a much larger Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and global ocean ‘conveyor belts’ that moves heat around the world’s oceans, that directs warm water up the Western Atlantic and across to Western Europe. It moderates the climate of Western Europe and lowers the sea levels along the coast of much of Eastern North America.
Should the weakening of the Gulf Stream continue, the lives of hundreds of millions of Europeans and North Americans, and people in other parts of the world, will be adversely affected. The cause(s) of the observed weakening of the Gulf Stream is(are) uncertain but a warming climate, due to increased atmospheric concentrations of CO2 from human activities, is a prime suspect.
Other climate tipping points include, but are not limited to: melting of Greenland’s and Antarctica’s ice sheets that would eventually result in large sea-level rises of several meters; thawing of permafrost which will release large amounts of methane and increase the atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases; and a reduction in the area of Artic sea ice that will increase absorbed radiation and contribute to increased warming.
The probabilities of these high impact climate risks are rising at an increasing rate with higher global temperatures. Beyond a certain point in time, these risks become irreversible. The urgency for action today is that we cannot ‘put the genie back in the bottle’ after we have passed a tipping point and which can be many years, possibly even centuries, before the full impact occurs.
BAU is doing very little to prevent climatic tipping points from happening nor is it preparing the world for the very large, even catastrophic, impacts, that will come, if, or rather when they will occur under current trajectories. Yet this is exactly what we need to be doing in a collective way if we are to ensure a prosperous planet that provides a sustainable future for humans and the animals and plants with whom we share this world.
Nothing short of transformational change will help us mitigate these risks. That includes transformational change in how we govern ourselves, how decisions get made, what is valued and what gets prioritized to avoid the risks that are rapidly moving towards us.
Such change cannot happen by simply tweaking BAU. It demands ‘bottom up’ change because the biggest beneficiaries of BAU are currently at the ‘top’ and still have a big influence on collective decision-making, especially in countries with important domestic suppliers of fossil fuels.
If the successful social justice movements of the past tell us anything, it is that a change in thinking, sacrifices and peaceful collective actions are needed more than ever if we are to have a better future than what’s coming under BAU.
Banner image: The road ahead is unclear and uncertain. BAU has us thinking it will be much as it has been in the past but it’s likely humanity is approaching major tipping and turning points.
(Image by Wilfried Pohnke from Pixabay)