What are societal tipping points? And how can they help tackle the climate crisis?

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We ended last week’s Jargon Buster with a “no worries it’s is not all doom and gloom’’ cliffhanger. What we actually wanted to tell you is that besides negative, daunting tipping points in ice masses, circulation patterns and ecosystems, there are luckily also positive tipping points. And even better (the concept of tipping is apparently very catchy) there are also societal tipping points, which once you know how they work, can be influenced and turned into sustainability accelerators which can help us to flip those positive tipping points.

Positive Tipping Points

Okay, let’s recap first, “the idea behind tipping points is that drastic change happens after one particular point. It’s a threshold, a critical moment when a seemingly minor change makes all the difference.”

When the term tipping points is used it often refers to points in environmental systems that once triggered, are irreversible and will eventually lead to problematic consequences. On the other hand, we have ‘positive tipping points’ which can spark a chain reaction of changes that accelerate climate action. 

The University of Exeter researched positive tipping points in the sectors of transportation and power, as tipping points have already been triggered in these two sectors. In the Electrical Vehicle (EV) transportation sector you can clearly distinguish two types of triggers that build up to a positive tipping point. Firstly, let’s look at Norway where the influence of strong policies lead to an EV market share of over 50% (10x more than almost all other countries). The policies in Norway are making it cheaper to buy an EV model, than a petrol-driven vehicle. The second tipping point will be reached when EV models will cost the same as petrol-driven cars without the support of tax cuts or subsidies. A potential positive tipping point in the power industry, leading to an irreversible transition and decrease in carbon emissions, is the accelerated growth and improvement of batteries, increasing the capability to store solar power. 

When nations, governments, policymakers and corporations collaborate in coalitions in the pursue of positive tipping points, they can accelerate the global sustainability transition and slow down climate change. 

Tipping points in Society

“Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.”

Malcolm Gladwell

Now we got the environmental side of tipping covered, let’s jump over to the social sciences and dive into societal tipping, which can help us avoid the rapidly approaching environmental tipping points. 

“That magic moment when an idea, trend, or social behaviour crosses a threshold, tips, and spreads like wildfire.” – Malcolm Gladwell

When we accept Malcolm’s thesis that social phenomena act similar to epidemics, societal tipping points become a force to reckon with, unlocking the immense positive potential for accelerating the global sustainable transition. 

Gladwell proposes the three laws of societal tippings points: The Law of the few, the stickiness factor and the law of context. 

The Law of the Few 

The law of the few describes the social structures of our social network. Our social networks are driven by three main characters who make sure the word is spread; the connectors, mavens, and saleswomen.

Connectors can be compared to the socialites of our world (a.k.a. Gossip Girl). They have many friends and acquaintances and spend a fair amount of time talking to and connecting with their connections. They are key players in our social networks, as they play the role of information transportation points.

The mavens take on the role of information gathering and checking. They are the ones who truly read the manual of a product or a newly released policy. When something is out of order they will send letters and demand clarification. In this day and age of fake news thorough mavens have become increasingly important.

The last main type are the saleswomen who are responsible for persuading people to buy into a certain message. 

The stickiness factor 

The stickiness factor is Gladwell’s law focuses on not only the content but as well the packaging of a certain message. Not all messages are deemed worthy to stick around. With a strong emphasis on deemed, because from time to time we run into a message that doesn’t seem to stick but is definitely worthy. This was for a long time the issue with the climate change message which has been around for decades, but up until a couple of years ago, the message didn’t seem to stick in the mainstream narrative. Different reasons can influence the stickiness levels of a message. Either the content is not suitable; the climate change message is often set aside by many because; among many other reasons the avoidance of doom and gloom messages and humans difficulty with grasping the long term consequences of our behaviour. 

Researchers at Yale showed that people can understand the science of climate change. They understand the message of climate change but still buy into the message for climate action. The stickiness of the climate action message is weakened by a couple of psychological challenges;

  • We aren’t used to worrying about gradual, seemingly far from our bed, kind of risks. 
  • The behaviours embedded in the climate action message aren’t yet established as social norms. 
  • We avoid the message because any behaviour change associated with it is perceived as a loss. 
  • Taking climate action results in very little direct feedback which doesn’t motivate us to consistently take action. 

Once we know the psychological challenges we can keep them in mind and tackle them when we are developing or redesigning a product or service. Think of building in direct feedback loops or flipping products in such a way that it’s clear to customers that they are not only beneficial for planet earth but also for them personally.

The law of context 

The Law of context describes the importance of the environment and context in which a message is spreading. Changes within the context can influence if a message will reach a tipping point. Considering the law of context is especially important when you are trying to spread a message to people in various socio-economic situations.

Note: Gladwell doesn’t claim that his laws are scientifically proven or that they are the only or best laws to influence the tipping capabilities of a message. But they are definitely worth keeping in mind when you are trying to spread a message with “crisis tackling” potential.

If you recap the laws, it boils down to; a message with tip potential is a message for which people are ready (context), which is worth spreading (stickiness) and is communicated by the right people (the few).

Tipping points for large-scale social change

A study, published in science in 2018 shows that when 25% of a group adopts a new social norm, a tipping point is created and the rest of the group will follow. Dig deeper.

“Roughly 25% of people need to take a stand before large-scale social change occurs. This idea of a social tipping point applies to standards in the workplace and any type of movement or initiative.”

University of Pennsylvania, 2018

It is no suprise that tipping the entire earth’s population into taking climate action is a bit more complex than tipping workplaces or specific groups into large-scale social changes. But luckily we don’t need to tip the earth’s population. We need many groups, movements and workplaces to tip in certain ways. And all these drops in the ocean will unleash a wave of climate action.

We ended our last Jargon buster with the question, when it comes to sustainability, are we there yet? Are we tipping yet?

After today’s buster, we want to get a bit more specific. Are you there yet? Within your workplace, home, movement, did you reach the sustainability tipping point? If so, please reach out to us, we would love to hear about it! If you are not there yet, we hope today’s buster has given you a couple of new angles.

Let’s tip!

Happy Sprinting

Minou & Pamela


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