Make your own tipping points
and cascade effects
It is often said that we must learn from history in order not to repeat it. Yet even a cursory glance at human history seems to show that we have been repeating history for millenia. Today, in the 21st century, there are an estimated 50 million slaves, there are numerous wars and conflicts, torture, rape, exploitation and so many other things are endemic in our societies and have been for millenia. We have gone from tribal chiefs, through kings and emperors to centralised democracies and modern totalitarian states and these core abuses and inequalities are still with us. The transition to so called modern economies provoked a population boom from the 18th century onwards and these economies have slowly then more rapidly caused catastrophic damage to the very systems on which they depend. The numerous environmental movements that have sprouted over the last 50 years with their fixation on putting pressure on governments have shown themselves, in the main, to by incapable of promoting the deep changes we so sorely need. What is, in some ways fascinating, is that a species which is conscious of the damage it is causing nonetheless continues to do it. So we environmentalists etc can carry on like that Greek bloke pushing a rock up a hill or we can decide to change strategy.
I finished my last article promising to explore solutions to our global crises. This is of course a big order but over the years we have developed strategies and techniques that can help us. As I mentioned in another article it is important now to ask the right questions of the right people. This is linked to the need for holistic joined up approaches and a move away from the fragmented ones we tend to use.
Onto tipping points and cascades. They have been in the news a lot and for some years. Another point of stress for people who simply don’t know what to do. Something that isn’t understood, especially as we are continually confronted with doom laden projections, is that tipping points go in both directions. It is this that can help us transition from our anti-social and ecologically destructive social systems to pro-social and ecologically constructive ones.
We can start by sorting the wheat from the chaff. For example it is important to see the so called climate crisis as a a symptom on social crises and not the cause. The climate is being stressed by our socio-economic and agricultural systems and the changes thus provoked create feedback loops which in turn stress our socio-economic and agricultural systems. Not good. Yet technically simple changes to these systems can transform them from being sources of greenhouse gases (GHG) to being sinks. A transition from extensive synthetic chemical based agriculture to agroforestry or agro-sylvo-pasturalist approaches could lock down more GHG’s (in soils and vegetation) than are produced by our industries. Changes to housing could in the same way mean that a truly modern house locks down carbon rather than producing it. A move away from long supply chains would decrease the GHG’s produced by freight shipping. Etc
The question then is how to find strategic pressure points that would tip our systems from one thing to another and create cascade effects that go in the right direction? Where are the soft points? What are the most effective strategies?
A tipping point, as widely presented, is the point where the dynamic stability of a system is undermined and it collapses to become a different system. As all global systems are interconnected a radical change in one can impact the stability of others. These are then more fragile and more prone to collapse, their tipping points are moved so to speak. This is the cascade or domino effect and it is quite simple to understand or it would seem so.
I can ask myself the following question “where do I have some measure of influence and where is the best place to find a tipping point that will provoke social and economic change? The fortress governments can be assailed each time there is an election yet we rarely see the elected officals taking the urgent and drastic initiatives we badly need. At home, and you will have seen this coming, I have more power to change and the same is true in my local community. It would seem that an effective strategy would be that I become an activist at a local level and let goverments go hang, for the moment!
So here am I back in my local community and wondering how to start. This is where I need to find some allies and work out where the tipping points in my local area are. This involves finding out what the preoccupations of my neighbours are. Economic? Social? Environmental? Housing? The bloke down the Pub? When we have noted down the list of priorities we can start with the first and foremost in such a way that changes made gently collapse the actual system to let it settle to a new one. In the same way as discussed above this will change the tipping points of other local systems and make it easier to push them towards new dynamically stable states. I suppose that this could be called a designed revolution, if we can understand revolution as being a longer process than, for example, the French one and more similar to the so called industrial revolution.
Let us imagine that the main concern amongst my neighbours is an economic one. They don’t feel that they have sufficient income to meet their needs. This is our starting point, we, in our local area, need to work out how to reduce economic waste create good jobs and increase peoples purchasing power, in a good way of course!
We can start like this:
identify what works well and can be preserved, what works less well needs improving/reorganising and what is toxic or destructive and needs eliminating.
Identify wastages in the local economy. This isn’t just the inefficient or wasteful local use of resources of resources but includes where people spend money out of their local economy because certain goods and services are lacking or, for the moment, too expensive within the local economy.
Identify the empty economic niches in your area. What is missing? Not enough locally produced food? Energy provision? A bakery? ….
Does the local area layout and usage encourage local purchasing?
How interconnected are the activies? This involves identifying the inputs and outputs of each activity. A bakery produces bread, it needs wheat, water, salt and heat. It produces bread, waste bread, heat, dust etc.
How are the local resources managed, if at all? Are there resources which are not used or no longer used?
The next step would be to work out the following strategies :
Reduce waste. This involves the little overlooked things like vampire electric/electronic devices up to and including insulating buildings. It is important to bear in mind that if we insulate then we use renewable resources like hemp. These will be useful to future generations, think mulch, and not a burden, think rock fibre. What are the prioritises? Where best to start? Who needs the most help?
Empty economic niches mean local economic waste. Each purchase made in a supermarket leeches wealth from the local economy (and damages our health). We need to find strategies to fill these niches and reduce outbound expenditure. Some of these leaks will be difficult, in the short term to block as we still need a number of things that are difficult to produce with out an advanced industrial infrastructure. Nonetheless there are many products that are relatively easily produced locally*
How local resources can best be used.
The next step would be to design a, ethical equitable local economy. This will mainly involve connecting all the different elements together. All secondary products of a unit would become inputs for subsequent units in the chain. All secondary products must be reused in the system or cleaned before they leave the area. For example, the UK has become known for it’s brown tides, these occur when water companies discharge untreated sewage into rivers, lakes and off the coast. Not only is this stupid it is also a massive waste. It would make much more sense for us, in my local area, to build a locally owned biogas system that deodorises the sewage and produces methane for combined heat and power. The output after the digestion process is a fertiliser that can be used directly on growing areas (we normally mix this with a high carbon material as the digestate lacks carbon).
There are economists who criticise the approach that I have outlined. There are others who support it wholeheartedly. It is simple enough, we have to change our systems, one way or another. Those economic theories that have brought us to where we are today have shown themselves to be myopic and have caused widespread ecological destruction. The apologists could say “yes but we have also improved the living standards for billions of people”. The counter argument is that if in so doing you have undermined the carrying capacity of the Earth’s systems then you have maybe increased the quality of life for billions of people but just for an instant in time. The next generation will pick up the bill. This seems unjust.
*Vegetable prices are skewed. Processed and ultra processed foods can be sold by supermarkets at close to their marginal cost. This is not true of their “fresh” fruit and vegetables, these goods have to be conserved in the supermarket (refrigeration, water spray etc). They have to be replaced much more often than the processed foods which are full of sugar, salt or other products used to extend their shelf life. The fruit and vegetables have more spoilage than the processed foods.
Another factor that skews prices is the CAP and it’s payments to farmers, this, in the UK has been replaced by other systems such as the Basic Payment Scheme. Small scale, local organic and ethical production attract far less finacial support from governments when compared to large scale extensive farms. Local organic food should not be seen, in most cases, as more expensive than supermarket “fresh food” , the price of latter is artificially low because tax-payers have already paid for percentage of each carrot or cabbage.
It isn’t enough to replace the thousands of supermarket lorries loaded with fruit and veg with millions of small vans loaded with locally produced fruit and veg. This is why we tend to use the term ultra-local, our built areas are interwoven with and surrounded by food production areas. This food then needs little or no transportation.
Finally, long supply chains aren’t necessarily a problem, they are when they are based on fossil fuels, for example cargo ships and airplanes. Here where I am in Brittany there is a sailing ship which arrives every few months or so loaded with cocoa and coffee. These products are purchased from equitable cooperatives and transported here by the wind. Job done.
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