Let’s Dump the ‘Tipping Point’ Metaphor into the Waste Tip

First came science popularizer Malcom Gladwell. Then faux philosopher Al Gore took up the idea. It’s called the “tipping point.” The idea is that little things accumulate in a pile into big things. Then they collapse into a chaotic jumble. The title of Gladwell’s 2000 best-selling book sums up the idea quite well: The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference.

Environmentalists, including Gore, quickly glommed onto the concept, as it offered an understandable way to pitch to skeptical non-specialists about how a bit of carbon here, a bit of carbon there, and pretty soon you have a climate catastrophe. Makes sense and is easily digestible. Many of us have seen those sand piles at the beach pile up and then slide into chaos.

But it’s bogus. At least, as an explanation of environmental insults, the concept just doesn’t hold up, although it’s a pretty metaphor.

Two Aussie boffins—climate scientist Barry Brook and modeler Corey Bradshaw, both at the University of Adelaide—autopsied the “tipping point” conceit in a February article in in the online journal The Conversation. They concluded, “Worrying about global tipping points distracts from the real planetary threat.”

Says Brook: “Shifts in the earth’s biosphere follow a gradual, smooth pattern. This means that it might be impossible to define scientifically specific, critical levels of biodiversity loss or land-use change. This has important consequences for both science and policy.”

What does this mean? Change is ever-present. Impacts, man-made and otherwise, don’t accumulate to a point where, previously unnoticed, they suddenly tip over and cascade into consequences. Our task as environmental stewards is not to avoid catastrophic events—although that is on the menu—but to manage incremental events incrementally, one step at a time.

As Bradshaw says—and climate catastrophists should take heed—“We have to be wary of claiming the end of the world as we know it, or people will shut down and continue blindly with their growth and consumption obsession. We as scientists also have to be extremely careful not to pull concepts and numbers out of thin air without empirical support.”

In that regard, another recent article, this highlighted by Yale University, is fitting. The article, written by a team of scientists for the journal Trends in Ecology and Evolution, rejects the idea of a sudden tipping point beyond which the world as we know it ends. Rather, says the Yale summary of the journal article, “While earlier studies have warned that ecological pressures—including climate change, biodiversity loss, and over-exploitation of resources—could drive the planet toward a dangerous ‘tipping point,’ the new paper says the ecosystems of different continents are not sufficiently interconnected for such a global shift to occur.”

That leads to a recent article in the Economist magazine, long a bastion of climate hand-wringing. The article notes, as many have long been asserting, that the empirical record of global temperatures and the predictions of the global circulation models don’t agree. The climate models predict temperatures that the evidence does not support. It just ain’t that hot.

This does not surprise me. I’ve been a student of feedback loop models since I worked at the National Institutes of Health in the 1970s on a project involving Jay Forrester’s social dynamics models and their applications to academic medical schools. I learned from Forrester and his disciple, Dennis Meadows, and the disastrous Club of Rome models what the limits of these modeling techniques are.

Based on my experience, the tipping point arrives where these models feed back on their own dodgy assumptions and collapse into chaos. It isn’t the territory that’s at fault. It’s the maps.

—Kennedy Maize is executive editor of MANAGING POWER magazine

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