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.

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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…

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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…

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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:

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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.