Climate change news

As Climate Change Worsens, How Far Will We Tip?

Our culture celebrated “epidemic change” before learning to fear it.
Climate change, global warming, climate change news, global warming news, environment news, environmental news, news on Climate change, Malcolm Gladwell, Peter Isackson, Swiss Re

© 24Novembers

October 15, 2020 14:37 EDT

Although there are still those who deny it, the countdown for the planet under the threat of global warming began some time ago. If we were to seek an official starting point, it would probably be in the late 18th century, at the beginning of the industrial age. We now receive confirmation of melting at the poles and warming in the depths of the ocean on a weekly, if not daily, basis.

The constantly accumulating evidence has overwhelmingly convinced the scientific community not only that the trend is real, but that the consequences will be particularly dramatic for human societies. Humans happen to be the only living species on Earth obsessed by the idea of controlling their environmental habitat for the sake of their own comfort and profit. The rest of the biosphere tries simply to get by with the hand it is dealt.

Warren Buffett’s Struggle With Class Struggle


But now the dual goals of comfort and profit appear to be dangerously at odds. Responding to the demand for comfort of those who can afford it provokes increasing levels of discomfort for those societies and individuals that cannot. That simple fact has become one of the contributing factors to the increasingly evident revolt against growing income and wealth inequality.

A report by the insurance company Swiss Re cited by The Guardian informs us that we are quickly approaching a point of no return. “One-fifth of the world’s countries are at risk of their ecosystems collapsing because of the destruction of wildlife and their habitats,” The Guardian reports. If 20% of the nations of the world succumb, it won’t be long before 30%, 40%, 50% and more are affected as well. It appears that Australia, Israel and South Africa are particularly exposed. The report also cites India, Spain and Belgium.

In other words, this time it won’t be only the forgotten and neglected developing nations (Donald Trump’s “shithole countries”) that are the first to pay the cost. If people used to luxury and accustomed to thinking of themselves as sheltered from disaster are the ones who may suffer first, alarm bells will quickly start ringing.

The Guardian cites some worrying figures: “More than half of global GDP — $42tn (£32tn) — depends on high-functioning biodiversity, according to the report, but the risk of tipping points is growing.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:

Tipping point:

For capitalists, an abstract target to both aim for and avoid, since on the positive side it represents the maximum reward expected from any endeavor designed to exploit and eventually exhaust a market or a body of resources, while, on the negative side, it threatens to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs. The balancing act consists of finding the point of equilibrium between maximum exploitation and braking before reaching the tipping point.

Contextual Note

In the year 2000, which marks the beginning of the age of internet marketing and social media, tipping points became something to aim for rather than avoid. Malcolm Gladwell’s best-seller, “The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference,” was released in that year. It reads like a recipe book encouraging the kind of viral development successful marketers manage to achieve for a new product or a new practice. 

Gladwell praised and encouraged business models aimed at creating “social epidemics.” Though it may seem absurd and even macabre today, as the world battles an incomprehensible and unpredictable pandemic, Gladwell’s book offers advice on how to go viral. He even formulates laws and rules that describe the process: the “Law of the Few,” the “Stickiness Factor” and the “Power of Context.”

Embed from Getty Images

The trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic may have put a serious dent in the prestige our culture allotted to tipping points two decades ago. In the era of Gordon Gekko’s “greed is good,” epidemic change represented seemed like a complementary and rather more respectable ideal. 

The year 2000 marked the summit of the craze that quickly turned into the crash. Venture capitalists were hurting, but that was only temporary. Social media hadn’t yet taken off, but Gladwell clearly sensed its imminent arrival and understood its deeper logic. Global warming, with its threat of disastrous tipping points, had become an issue but it was already being dismissed by climate change deniers, who preferred to focus on a rapidly rising stock market.

The rise and more recent fall of the image of tipping points raises a fascinating question about contemporary culture. If we admit that, in the year 2000, the idea of the tipping point promoted by Gladwell had mainly positive connotations and that, today, the prospect of a tipping point sets off alarm bells evoking the fear of imminent disaster, can we identify the tipping point that pushed us from the positive appreciation to the negative one? 

There seem to be two candidates for the tipping point about tipping points: the economic crisis of 2008 and the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020. If the crash of 2000 felt more like a thrilling roller-coaster ride than a traumatizing event, the 2008 crisis was an earthquake that leveled some institutions and seriously attacked the credibility of some of the previous decade’s ideals.

The Gladwell version of a tipping point was associated with the inebriation that accompanies sudden commercial success and the rapid achievement of a monopoly position. That had become the goal of every economic actor’s ambition for the 30 years between 1980 and 2010. The current perception of a tipping point, as cited in The Guardian’s article, is one of a risk to be anticipated and avoided. The sense of having a mission of conquest eventually gave way to a simple hope for stability and survival.

Historical Note

A tipping point indicates a critical threshold beyond which the return to a previous state of equilibrium becomes impossible. Before Europe’s scientific and Industrial Revolution, people regarded tipping points as fatalities, the result of uncontrollable forces or trends. Since the industrial age, developed countries have evolved a culture of control that supposes human societies will have the ingenuity and the technology capable of fending off catastrophes and avoiding catastrophic tipping points.

But that belief has recently been shaken by various uncontrollable events. And instead of ensuring mastery, the post-industrial culture of control has developed a perverse tendency to magnify its fear of tipping points. That is what’s behind the “science” of risk management and its method of contingency planning. Intended to increase our security, in the wrong hands it can become an irrational obsession. Instead of discovering solutions, it magnifies problems.

In 2004, The Guardian broke a story about a secret Pentagon report warning “that major European cities will be sunk beneath rising seas as Britain is plunged into a ‘Siberian’ climate by 2020. Nuclear conflict, mega-droughts, famine and widespread rioting will erupt across the world.” The Pentagon’s pessimism — or would it be more accurate to call it paranoiac optimism? — seems laughable today. It tells us more about the psychological climate inside America’s war machine and the budgeting rituals of the military-industrial complex than it does about the reality of the threats the world is facing.

Today’s more realistic report by Swiss Re reveals that the trends the Pentagon identified are real and increasingly threatening, even if they don’t follow the logic of a Hollywood catastrophe movie that seemed to inspire the authors of the 2004 report. The threat is real, but the timeline was off by several decades. 

In 2004, the Pentagon recommended to a refractory Bush administration that climate change “should be elevated beyond a scientific debate to a US national security concern.” What better way to secure funding from Congress than to amplify their dread of unmanageable catastrophe? Alas, the Pentagon’s fearmongering had no effect on the Bush administration’s policy, though it probably did enable them to slightly pad their budget.

Swiss Re announced that its objective is “to help insurers assess ecosystem risks when setting premiums for businesses.” This is bound to be more realistic than the Pentagon’s speculation, but the motive similarly focuses on getting other people to pay for what they are told to fear. That principle seems to be baked into the mentality of control cultures. As Malcolm Gladwell demonstrated, understanding tipping points is all about getting richer.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Support Fair Observer

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.

In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.

We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost money.
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.

Will you support FO’s journalism?

We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.

Donation Cycle

Donation Amount

The IRS recognizes Fair Observer as a section 501(c)(3) registered public charity (EIN: 46-4070943), enabling you to claim a tax deduction.

Make Sense of the World

Unique Insights from 2,500+ Contributors in 90+ Countries

Support Fair Observer

Support Fair Observer by becoming a sustaining member

Become a Member