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Environment Magazine September/October 2008


January-February 2010

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Editorial - Tipping Points: Malign and Benign?

The National Science Foundation (NSF) reflection on "tipping points," which is discussed by Stafford et al. in this issue with appropriate scope for promoting the cause and significance of sustainability science, raises three important themes. The first is: what do scientists tell the public about tipping points, and when? The second is: how does society create the appropriate decision structures and measures to enable us to cope with the nonlinearity and step change uncertainty that tipping points characterize? And finally: can we work in the immediate term to shift the "culture" of humanity so that we create a set of tipping points that nudge us in the benign direction of sustainability?

The Stafford et al. article suggests a fresh approach to holistic science, better forms of engagement with a wide cross-section of citizens across the planet, and a propulsive push in more effective environmental education. These proposals might not be sufficient. Tipping points are "known unknowns." They are modeled and forecast. What we do not know is the precise workings of the phase changes, the speed of their onset, the scope for combined "tips," and hence the rapidity and resilience of human response. There is some credible debate that, should the Greenland ice-sheet catastrophically melt, then sea levels could rise by up to a meter within a decade. Such an outcome would have unprecedented consequences for low-lying, densely populated agricultural coastlines, for potable water supplies, and for the security and economy of teeming cities right on the coast, such as Dhakar in Bangladesh and the already beleaguered New Orleans.

Yet to suggest such actions to policymakers without careful analysis, and to press for possible shifts in the timing and location of infrastructure for roads, airports, utility lines, and a host of critical public buildings such as schools and hospitals, would be foolhardy. On the other hand, to say nothing and not offer a carefully programmed response would be equally foolhardy.

The test for sustainability science is to prepare the planet for the worst case, to offer time horizons for thoughtful and manageable transformation, and to create the kind of changes to our policymaking measuring and educating institutions that can lead to benign changes in the way we collectively prepare for step change.

Equally important, and through the same processes, should come the nudge for a completely different approach to the economy, sustainability, and communality. This would involve global debate as to the styles of governing and being governed that create real sustainable responses. Such a debate also means realizing that we do, indeed, have to recognize several things: that there are limits to nature, that society in transition has to be more fair and compassionate to itself on all scales, and that the measures of future prosperity include measures of dignity, self esteem, communality, and well-being.

Tipping points are trigger points for tipping us all into sustainable behavior and the virtues of nature-sensitive compassionate cooperation. This is a tall order, and many will resist at the first effort to "tip" in this direction. The NSF initiative is a critical milestone in this exciting transformation. We have to try, and we have to succeed. The survival of children born today depends on how we approach this task in the coming decade. Sustainability science is on parade.

—Tim O'Riordan

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