The earth and its systems aren’t 100% predictable at the best of times. There are always blips and surprises and occasionally big upheavals. But the more we push our planet to its limits, the less able its natural systems are to absorb the punches we’re throwing at them. Eventually, they will crack.
The closer you get to these tipping points, the more sensitive the whole system gets, and everyone and everything along for the ride is more vulnerable. Then finally something pushes it over the edge, there’s chaos, and then the system sort of reorganizes itself and finds a new equilibrium. You might be thinking: “OK, so we just have to deal with a little bit of wonkiness and then things will settle down.” But just because the planet and its systems settle down into a new stable “normal” state, it doesn’t mean we’re going to like it. What if an open bottle of wine’s two possible stable states are upright, or on its side with wine spilled everywhere? Stable isn’t necessarily desirable.
I’ve already explored the self-reinforcing feedback loops that can lead to these abrupt shifts in the state of a system as part of my climate change series. Indeed, pretty much all of the tipping points scientists talk about are related to the climate, because the climate system is so influential in terms of the functioning of the planet. Some examples of the tipping points they talk about are the disappearance of the polar ice sheets, the increasingly unpredictable summer monsoon seasons in India and West Africa, or the dieback of the Amazon rainforest (and there are plenty more for you to lose sleep over if you’re curious). While ice caps, monsoons, and rainforests might seem fairly far removed from our daily lives, the problem with these tipping points is that they cascade into other spheres of our lives. They ripple into people’s basic survival, into the economy, into our social fabric, into geopolitics, into life as we know it. They trigger sea-level rise, water shortages, the loss of property and livelihood, threats to health and human security, and on and on. And if they result in untenable living situations locally, then there is of course the possibility of conflict and climate refugees that will extend the reach of these tipping points beyond borders.
The earth’s systems are approaching these tipping points and are losing their buffering ability, so we’re going to need to learn to expect the unexpected as it relates to the most basic aspects of our lives and the natural foundation upon which they’re built. This mosaic is all about that new, unstable, uncertain norm we find ourselves in. Set against a backdrop of stable white marble (sort of like calming regular white noise) you see glitches and protrusions everywhere. At the bottom they’re small and almost imperceptible, and all made of natural materials. But as you move up, these surprises grow bigger and more frequent, and by the very top they are the rule instead of the exception. They’re also entirely composed of man-made materials: plastic, headphones, a broken lightbulb, glass, styrofoam, a zipper pull, the ends of harp strings (I know, right? Surprise!!), and so much more.
And here’s a fun fact about the red smalti highlighting each irregularity: it was rescued from Italian maestro Verdiano Marzi’s trash bin by friend and fellow mosaic bad-ass Sophie Drouin. Talk about the interconnectedness and unpredictability of all things! In chaos theory (where the idea of tipping points come from), the classic example is a butterfly flapping its wings and causing a tornado elsewhere in the world. Or, in this case, one of Verdiano’s Winged Victories flaps its wings in France and, well, you know the rest of the story.
Long story short: Surprise will be the new norm going forward, so buckle up, because we’re in for a wild ride. Adjusting to the uncertainty of the Anthropocene and the stress it brings will test the limits of our societies. We are going to have to adapt all of our systems—political, economic, social, cultural—to be flexible and resilient in the face of all the uncertainty headed our way. On the upside, this really is the chance for a great reimagining of a more just, inclusive, and sustainable society.