For better or worse: A mosaic about tipping points, thresholds, and nonlinear transformations

Until now, my Fiddling While Rome Burns series has focused mostly on the problem. I’ve covered climate science, impacts, and socio-cultural and political phenomena. But what about the other side of the equation? What about solutions? Well, this mosaic—“Flip the system (Amplified change)”—is meant to bridge the two halves of the series: the problem and its myriad solutions.

"Flip the system (Amplified change)" (2016), 21" x 21" -- limestone, marble, ceramic, petrified wood, conglomerate, pyrite, phyllite
“Flip the system (Amplified change)” (2016), 21″ x 21″ — limestone, marble, ceramic, petrified wood, conglomerate, pyrite, phyllite

The piece is based on the concept of positive feedback loops. Contrary to their name, these are not actually a good thing when you’re talking about climate change impacts. As one of my colleagues is fond of saying: “There’s nothing positive about positive feedback loops.” In a nutshell, positive feedback loops are runaway, self-reinforcing change. When we’re talking about climate change, it could go something like this: rising global temperatures lead to permafrost thaw in the Arctic, the thawing permafrost releases huge quantities of methane (a very potent greenhouse gas), which contributes to even more warming, triggering greater permafrost thaw, more methane release, and so on and so forth. Researchers have identified numerous positive feedback loops with respect to climate change—a range of ways in which things could quickly spiral out of control—which is pretty terrifying.

flip the system - bottom crop

But just as self-reinforcing feedback loops on the impacts side can amplify change for the worse, the same holds true for climate action: when individuals, organizations, and governments start taking action, these positive actions snowball, drive further change, and eventually become the norm. Change begets change. As some pretty smart people in the UK said:

The greatest risks of climate change arise when thresholds are crossed: what had been gradual becomes sudden; what had been inconvenient becomes intolerable. The greatest reductions in risk will be won in the same way. Gradual, incremental measures will not be enough: we must seek out non-linear, discontinuous, transformational change. […] To win this battle, we must set up our own cycles of positive feedback.

flip the system - front angle crop

Positive feedback loops (for the better) can work at the individual / household level right up to the national and even global level. The changes in each level are self-reinforcing, but because each part is nested within a larger whole, these changes also influence and are influenced by actions at other levels.

As an individual, I might choose any number of small, seemingly insignificant actions to reduce my carbon footprint: hanging my laundry to dry, buying green electricity, leaving the car at home one day a week, or cutting down on my meat consumption. When I realize that this change wasn’t actually onerous, that my quality of life was not harmed (and was likely improved), I’m likely to seek to make another—maybe even a bigger—change. As these changes become part of my daily life, I start talking about them with my friends and family. And perhaps this prompts them to take the first step toward reducing their carbon footprint. On a larger scale, this groundswell of action can send a signal to governments and businesses that there is support for this kind of change, and they then have motivation to get in on the action.

flip the system - focal

But these feedback loops of change don’t only happen in a bottom-up, grassroots sort of way. From a top-down perspective, government interventions (let’s say a price on carbon) can, for example, encourage investment in clean and low-carbon technology (everything from energy to transportation to buildings and more). As these products and services gain a foothold and become more mainstream—bolstered by actions and mind shifts at the individual level—there is an appetite (or at least a tolerance) for additional interventions. And as more and more countries undergo this shift, significant change on a global scale becomes possible.

Change might be slow at first—especially at the individual level, where you might feel like you’re getting nowhere—because there’s a lot of inertia in the system. However, once these changes gain traction and momentum, and once a critical mass is reached, a wholesale change in the system likely isn’t far off. What were once slight perturbations now become the new normal as the system reaches its tipping point and flips states. This new state won’t necessarily be predictable (i.e., it might not be the individual-level changes just on a grander scale): it will likely be a non-linear, discontinuous, and transformative change, and I, for one, find that kind of exciting.

“Flip the system (Amplified change)” is my mosaic version of self-reinforcing feedback loops. The lines at the centre are regular and relatively controlled, but their variations get amplified as you move outwards. They are laden with the potential for change, and there is a certain latent energy inherent in them.

flip the system - detail

And so, with this piece, I am now shifting into a new phase of my climate change series. This is not to say that the impacts / science side is officially closed—I suspect that I will add to it as inspiration strikes—but for now, I’m going to concentrate on balancing the existing pieces with ones focused on solutions and practical actions that individuals, communities, organizations, and governments can take in the fight against climate change. My list of topics to tackle is already quite long, and growing almost daily. I’m looking forward to rounding out this growing body of work and sharing the new pieces with you, with the hope that they might inspire you to take steps to reduce your carbon footprint and add your actions to a growing critical mass of climate action.

flip the system - front angle


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