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
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.) 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, the very people who elected them into office."
It feels like we are close to something significant.
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.
But if I didn’t think there was hope, I wouldn’t bother. I’d probably be out in the woods somewhere, growing my own food and raising chickens.
Instead, here I am in the city, growing my own food (well, some of it anyway) and raising chickens.
In my work with Transition Guelph, I do a lot of reading; everything from articles posted in the various transition blogs, to documents and essays that detail the latest developments in the myriad problems that we are facing, books, magazines, you name it. And one thing that strikes me is that it really seems there are a lot of people out there who are determined to crush out hope; the hope that we, the folks who are trying to do something about these problems, use as our fuel to keep going.
Why is that? Are they in some way threatened by that hope? It seems possible. Someone—I forget who—once laid out the five stages of “waking up to reality” (which mimics the five stages of grief that Elizabeth Kubler Ross described in her book On Death and Dying). Those stages are: ignorance, denial, despair/depression/panic, anger, empowerment.
But, many people do seem to get stuck in stage three, the despair, depression and panic stage. It’s quite easy to do. The problems, once you are aware of them, seem so massive and so inexorable, and you also look around you and see so many people trapped in stage one or two (ignorance or denial) that the situation seems hopeless. (It’s a principle that many people use to justify not taking chances in their lives: Why bother to apply for that job; I’ll never get it. No point in auditioning for that part, I’m not good enough. Best not to approach that attractive girl/guy, I’ll just get rejected.) Then, adhering to the “misery loves company” principle, it seems perfectly reasonable to do everything you can to demolish the hope you see in those few people around you who have moved on to stage five.
Really. I’ve read countless blog posts, essays and online articles that appear to take the approach of systematically seizing upon every belief that those who are actually working to effect change use as our justification, and dismantling them one by one.
It’s an awfully negative view of human nature: Building community is useless because when things get bad people will turn on one another. Survival of the fittest, not cooperation, is nature’s way. Relying on innovation to mitigate challenges such as oil depletion or climate change is futile because innovation hasn’t solved many of the world’s problems up to now. It’s pointless to develop alternative energy sources because nothing can replace oil. And so on. (I have rebuttals to each of these arguments, but we’ll leave that for the moment.)
Even more telling, there are entire websites devoted to gruesomely detailed descriptions of each of these problems, and exactly how they will bring down civilization, how may people will die, and so on. It’s the same fascination with end-of-the-world scenarios that brings people to films like Armageddon, 28 Days Later, Mad Max, The Stand, Terminator, Omega Man, I Am Legend, Deep Impact, Resident Evil, The Day After Tomorrow, 12 Monkeys, Independence Day, The Matrix trilogy, etc. etc. etc.
I am absolutely not saying that these apocalyptic scenarios are wrong. I certainly hope they’re wrong, but there’s no way to know. Joanna Macy says that uncertainty is simply part of life. You don’t know, when you enter into a relationship, if that relationship will be successful. You don’t know, when you have a child, if that child will be healthy, or happy, or successful. You don’t know, when you move to a new location, or take a new job, or change your life in other dramatic ways, if those changes will lead to happiness or misery. But you do them anyway, because that’s the nature of our existence. Chance and risk are simply a part of life.
But one thing is for certain. If you don’t take those chances, you will never know the outcome. More importantly, you will never affect the outcome.
The Transition movement is social engineering on a completely unprecedented scale. We don’t know if it will be successful or not, and we don’t know if the sweeping changes that are necessary to save us will be in place by the time they are needed. The outcome is full of uncertainty. But the outcome if we do nothing is certain. We have to try.
I said earlier that I had rebuttals to each of the arguments I listed earlier raised by the “it’s pointless to do anything” crowd. Here they are:
Building community is useless because when things get bad people will turn on one another. Survival of the fittest is nature’s way. Yes, survival of the fittest determines which species survive and which ones don’t. But it’s a fallacy to assume from that that those species who make it do so at the expense of others. Our image of nature as a solely competitive arena is incomplete. There are far more examples of cooperation in nature than competition. It is actually more common for species who cooperate to survive (i.e. be the “fittest”) than those that compete.
Relying on innovation to mitigate challenges such as oil depletion or climate change is futile because innovation hasn’t solved many of the world’s problems up to now. Proponents of this argument often point out that despite all the advances in modern medicine, we still don’t have a cure for the common cold. This is quite true. But consider that in our present socio-economic structure we tend to focus our efforts, and capital, on projects that have a high return on investment.
I have in my pocket a digital device the size of a couple of packs of gum that is roughly ten thousand times more powerful than the first computer I worked on as a programmer, back in 1972, which filled an entire 5000 square foot room. It (my phone) runs for days off a battery the size of a square of chocolate, has a high definition full color display, can instantly connect to other computers anywhere in the world, and can tell me where I am on the globe at any moment, to an accuracy of about 10 meters. That first computer required about 10 kilowatts of electricity as well as cooling provided by air conditioners the size of mini-vans, printed its output onto huge sheets of paper using a device almost a big as a small car, and couldn’t connect to anything.
This astounding development in technology happened well within one person’s lifetime. That’s because, in the intervening timeframe, about twenty trillion dollars has been poured into the development of digital technology. Where would we be if that same amount of capital investment were poured into curing common illnesses? Or, more to the point, if that amount of investment and innovation were put into building a sustainable world?
It’s often said that necessity is the mother of invention. Necessity (as defined here by return on investment) has dictated that vast amounts of innovation and development has been poured into digital technologies. Up to now there has been little motivation to turn our attention to oil depletion or climate change because, shaky as things are, they’re still, for most of us, okay. But that will change, and who’s to say what fruits necessity will bear once the shit really hits the fan? (Or, to apply the same paradigm: when "return on investment" becomes defined as one's survival, rather than profit.)
It’s pointless to develop alternative energy sources because nothing can replace oil. Perfectly true. Oil is the most energy dense fuel we know of, and once it’s gone, it’s gone. But it doesn’t follow that the only way to maintain a civilization is to follow the ever-increasing energy curve we have been on up to now. We squander obscene amounts of energy every day, much of it on trivial uses. We have not conserved energy or worked to moderate our use up to now simply because we haven’t had to. Ex-civil engineer Pat Murphy (author of Plan C: Community Survival Strategies for Peak Oil and Climate Change) has calculated that we could reduce our energy consumption by 50% without any changes to our social or technological infrastructure whatsoever, just by instituting aggressive conservation strategies. We can reduce it still further by changing our expectations around how energy gets used: stop flying for trivial reasons; expand our mass transportation infrastructure and vastly reduce single vehicle use; rely more on local resources—food, water, energy and other commodities—rather than importing those things from hundreds thousands of miles away. Finally, we can develop clean, sustainable energy sources to the point where it can fulfill the remaining demand, in perpetuity.
So yes, the task ahead is daunting. Time is short. Maybe it won’t work. But then, maybe it will. There are certainly a lot of very knowledgeable people who believe that it's already too late, that the human race is doomed. That may be true. But one thing is certain, if we sit back and do nothing, those predictions will certainly be true.
Norman Cousins once said, “All things are possible, once enough people realize that everything is at stake.” Everything is at stake. And if we don’t do it, nobody else will.
To quote George Bernard Shaw, “Those who say something can’t be done shouldn’t get in the way of those doing it.”
Or, to steal a slogan from the OLG, “You can’t win if you don’t play.”
“What makes agriculture and communities resilient?" Go ahead and write down a few ideas… How do those ideas look to someone who lived seven generations ago? To someone who will live seven generations from now? How do those ideas look to an earthworm? To a politician?” This is how the 18th annual Environmental Sciences Symposium began on a sunny winter morning at the University of Guelph.
And throughout the day, there were many intelligent and inspiring answers to those questions. With Dr. Youbin Zheng’s help, we imagined green roofs that could act as the lungs of a city, simultaneously breathing life into a community and removing air pollutants. Nick Fegan showed us that with an Earthship, our homes could become ecosystems that can provide us with both greenery and protein from indoor gardens and fishponds. Dr. Ralph Martin passed on the wise words of Pierre Dansereau, now-deceased biologist and ecologist, who encouraged us to live “happily frugal.” Many of us spoke of local foods and farmer’s market, of the need for biodiversity and decreased dependence on fossil fuels.
But what stood out most to me was that beneath all of these ideas was a common theme – community. Resilience is the idea that we can persevere – that we can sustain ourselves in the face of adversity. A single tree in a clear cut is not resilient. Although it may have been spared the gnawing of the chain saw, the lone tree will surely succumb in the next windstorm. In order to be resilient, we need to be a forest. We need to bend and sway and insulate one another from the winds. Shannon Hayes, author of “Radical Homemakers,” writes that community is a form of insurance. Anyone who has been heavily involved in a local food scene before knows this. When something is missing from the garden or its been a bad year, someone will supplement what you’ve been able to grow. Gardens begin to complement each other and soon bounties are shared. When a garden has a hard year, the gaps are filled in with kind neighbours and friends.
Beyond this, community is synergy. Our expertise, given the opportunity, can compliment each other. Moreover, we can share what physical supplies we have. For example, Hayes points out that many of us (myself included) have a strange tendency to say that we need to have a car just for emergencies. When did it become wrong to ask our neighbour for help in an emergency? Why have we grown to believe that interdependence on others is something to be ashamed of? Of course, being independent of others is an illusion but when the transaction of money is involved, we fool ourselves into believing that we function without others….My point is simply that in order to make the most of our ideas, we need to work together. You can’t be resilient alone.
Just like biodiversity, community means that we have a diversity of voices and those differing and sometimes even conflicting voices make us stronger….And this voice, well, it’s just mine. So, please, join the conversation. How will we become a resilient community?
"I was asked the other day if it is necessary to believe in everything about the Transition Town movement in order to be part of it. My answer is simple: Absolutely not. You do not have to believe in global warming or climate change to believe that there is value in strengthening the local community. You do not need to believe in peak oil to believe that growing more of our own food or taking an interest in protecting our water supply is a good idea. You do not need to believe that our economy is going to collapse to explore ways to live more simply and sustainably. The range of issues that Transition Town initiatives can work on is wide, and people who join our group are encouraged to participate in which ever area they are drawn to.
"Do I believe everything? Not necessarily – I am on the fence about some points. What I believe in the most is that there is nothing to lose and everything to gain by strengthening community ties and involvement. If an interest in Transition causes us to spend more time in nature, meeting and working with our neighbours, making our homes more energy-efficient, being more active, or learning new skills, I believe we all win, regardless of what the future brings.
"Even if you disagree with some of what Transition Town people are talking about, I hope you will find something here you are passionate about, and join us in building a stronger and more resilient community."
If true, this would of course change the global oil supply picture considerably, although it is crucial to point out that however big a reserve it may be, it is still finite in size, and will, like every other oil reserve on the planet, eventually run out. Any exploitation of any new oil reserves (tar sands, polar, deep water, etc. etc.) is only to forestall the inevitable.
However, this vast Israeli reserve is not oil, a point not really made in the Post article. It’s oil shale, and there’s a huge difference.
1. There is currently no extraction technology for oil shale that will allow large scale extraction at an EROEI greater than about 3:1. Even the tar sands has a higher EROEI (5 or 6:1 at best.)
2. These technologies do not scale up well. (I am referring to pyrolysis, a process whereby the shale is heated up to about 300oC in situ, and the resulting fractionated hydrocarbons are then pumped to the surface, treated with hydrogen (from natural gas, by the way) and then refined. This is an extremely time-consuming and energy hungry process, and there has been no demonstrated capacity for this technology to provide refinable oil in quantity.)
3. As with tar sands oil, there is a huge environmental impact. Large quantities of waste water contaminated by toxic extraction byproducts, an enormous carbon footprint, and the potential destruction of thousands of square miles of the planet’s surface: forests and grasslands, complex ecosystems, arable land, watersheds, etc. in order to access the shale.
What makes us so certain that Israel is willing do this? Even if they do, what make us so certain they will be willing sell the oil to us in the quantities we need?
Bottom line: this changes nothing in terms of the likely impacts of oil depletion on society. It’s happening. And we need to respond. Our future depends on it.
And welcome to a new feature of the Transition Guelph website! This new area allows members to create and update their own blogs, and share ideas, musings, and information on all things transitional! We hope that working groups will also use the blog site to keep members and interested local residents informed about projects, initiatives, meetings and upcoming events, and generally let everyone know how they're doing, and what's happening.
We hope this will be a great way to track the progress of transition in our community! We're still figuring this software out, but it does seem fairly easy to use (hey, if I can figure it out, anyone can!) So, if you want to start your own blog, let us know at email@example.com, and we'll help you to get started!
Chris (the web girl)