The Tipping Point –
Let’s face it; there is one thing that we all wonder about. Recognizing the signs that human actions are reducing this planet’s productivity, resilience, and its ability to support human life – and all life – we ask ourselves “will we change course before it is too late? Does our species have the ability to change as quickly as circumstances require; can we?” Some of us consciously think about and discuss these questions while others do it subconsciously, but either way, they seem to be the central questions of our time. It is a healthy dimension of human nature that we at least ask and consider these questions, but they’re not the real question we should be asking. Focusing on them is a waste of time because the only way to get an answer is to wait and see what happens. The much more useful question is “what trait plays the most critical role in determining the future of our species?” What will it take? Observation and experience have taught me that the core trait is developing a shared sense of responsibility for those things we share in common. The challenge will have been met when we cross the tipping point of developing enough shared sense of responsibility for what we share in common to stop and reverse its decline. Recent events, ranging from the global to the most local, help to clarify and illustrate my understandings and highlight both the encouraging cases where we have crossed the crucial tipping point as well as the many situations where we are far from reaching that point.
Just as the questions are not new, wise thinkers in the past provide us with useful answers. One of the most powerful was Aldo Leopold. The land ethic that he articulated and encouraged calls on us to treat the world around us not as a commodity belonging to us but as a community to which we belong – a place where we must learn to be as focused on our responsibilities as much as on our rights. This land ethic provides essential guidance, primarily to those of us who grow things for livings, but it seems to provide only half of the equation. For us to treat land respectfully, while also earning enough for our labors to allow us to survive and carry on our businesses, the land ethic must be joined by a comparable consumption ethic. Consumers living by this ethic buy products produced in ways that maintain or rebuild the qualities of the places that the products came from. The two, when combined, might be seen to form a life ethic where both growers and consumers affirm life and demonstrate a shared commitment to maintaining and rebuilding what we share in common.
From Theory to Practice – A good way to illustrate what I mean is to explore specific examples of where we either affirm and demonstrate our sense of shared responsibility as well as cases where circumstances call on us to do so, and we fall short. Important lessons may be learned from each.
The Paris Climate Conference challenged representatives of the nearly 200 participating countries to choose between accepting the risks and uncertainties of working together to acknowledge and commit to action to address the climate crisis or to continue to allow disagreements, doubt and uncertainty to stand in the way of agreeing on a shared commitment. Though many can and do find fault with aspects of the agreement, throughout the world people are uplifted and inspired by the agreement’s unprecedented success. It provides a framework for us to put commitment to long term, common goals ahead of short term self interest. We are able to see evolution of our species, and our political and economic systems when we compare the lack of success in reaching meaningful climate agreements in Copenhagen in 2009 with the recent success in Paris. In 2009 we were clearly short of the tipping point, yet six years later we seem to have reached and passed the tipping point of having adequate shared commitment to work together to protect what we share in common.
On a hot day, this past summer, I took a floating rest from paddling down a quiet stretch of the Willamette River. Scanning the wooded south shore, I wondered how many of my fellow river travelers were aware of the important events that took place on this riverside bench 143 years ago and the connections between these events and today’s challenges. On May 2nd, 1843 residents of the Oregon Territory came together to consider and answer a crucial question. The simple version of the question was “should we work together to form a state?”. The more sophisticated version of this question is “do we have enough shared sense of responsibility to agree to work together to maintain those things we share in common?”. In this pioneer period the values shared in common were neither the health and wealth of the river flowing past the foot of the plain, or the water levels in local aquifers, or the levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. Instead their attentions were on the shared values that included systems to police and govern themselves, schools to educate their children and roads and ferries that were essential to daily life. Much as negotiators recently did in Paris, decision makers at Champoeg that day chose the path of longer term shared commitment to what would be shared in common over short term, personal self interest. Events in both Champoeg and Paris showed that a crucial tipping point had been reached and passed; before the meeting it was unclear whether there was enough shared commitment to what was shared in common to take action to maintain and restore it and when the meetings adjourned it was clear that the teeter totter had tipped toward a shared commitment to collective action.
Though I hardly qualify as an amateur political scientist, it seems that the crossing of similar tipping points is reflected in our founding documents – the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. These frameworks of agreements, in turn, provided the foundation that allow us to work together to try to maintain and improve aspects of our world that we share in common – ranging from the most humancentric (school boards, police departments, departments of transportation…..) to the least humancentric, such as environmental protection agencies. These systems of governance allowed U.S. citizens to affirm their commitment to share responsibility with the passage for such groundbreaking legislation as the Endangered Species Act, Clean Air Act, and the Clean Water Act in the 1970s. Though many in this country did not, and do not, support what these legislative actions put in place, there is no doubt that with their passage crucial tipping points, leading to a shared commitment and sense of responsibility, were passed.
As an owner and steward of working forests, I am always aware that forests include a mix of elements that the private owner can own as well as many that no one can own – elements that we all share in common. These include such fundamental elements of the forest as animals, water, and air. In our family’s forests we work hard to better understand, care for, and rebuild the commonwealth elements of the forests. Our actions are driven by the life ethic described above. While we do this we regularly encounter reminders that nearly all of our neighbors, contractors, and customers don’t share these values; the tipping point leading to shared responsibility for the commonwealth elements is nowhere in sight. Much work remains.
This was driven home when we recently attended a monthly meeting of our local small woodlands association. State sponsored research recently showed that Oregon’s forest practices rules allow for protective buffers along streams that are not adequate to meet the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act. Soon after the meeting the state Board of Forestry would meet to decide whether to change the buffer rules to comply with federal law. Watching woodlands association leaders rally members to do everything possible to aggressively lobby the board to take no action to change the rules, I was reminded of how far these people are from feeling and taking responsibility for any of the commonwealth elements of the forests they own.
Three years earlier, sitting at the U-shaped table as one of the seven members of the Board of Forestry, I was regularly reminded of how little responsibility my fellow board members, the department we oversaw, or the Governor felt for the commonwealth elements of the forests in the state. In 2012, at the request of the board, staff provided a white paper summarizing the board and department’s responsibilities for maintaining forest-related biodiversity. It concluded “Oregon statutes do not assign general legal policy responsibilities to the Board and State Forester with respect to biodiversity on private forest lands.”. Given the entrenched attitudes held by those who own and are appointed to regulate Oregon forests, it should not be surprising that the commonwealth elements of so many forests in the state continue to decline.
The examples offered below show us circumstances where communities of people have passed the tipping point of developing enough shared commitment to what they share in common to maintain or restore what they share in common, as well as cases where the tipping point has not yet been reached. Because descriptive language may be helpful, I suggest the following.
Prior to reaching the tipping point we can be seen as being in the frontier pioneer phase where it is considered customary and acceptable for profit to come at the expense of the common good.
In contrast, once the tipping point has been passed we shift into the settled citizen phase where profit is only acceptable if it does not come at the expense of the common good.
Consideration of the varied examples offered below suggests the question of whether our species is more likely to pass the tipping point on a particular issue if we are working on the micro or macro scale. Does the scale influence the likelihood of success? While it could plausibly be argued that change could best come from the grassroots working upwards in scale, it appears that in many cases, such as the Paris agreement or the federal Endangered Species Act, that the scale either does not matter or that in some situations macro to micro scale agreements may have better chances of success.
Are We There Yet? – Humans have succeeded in doing things that were initially thought to be impossible. With many of them, we had concrete evidence of the goal having been met. A stopwatch showed that a mile has been run in less than four minutes. Moon rocks proved that humans have actually visited that far off place. Though this discussion of reaching and passing tipping points may sound troublingly abstract and theoretical, it can be brought down to earth through specific metrics of success. The metric of success is not the words and number of signatures on the Paris climate agreement, or the number of school board members stating that good public schools are important, or a state’s governor or Board of Forestry agreeing that maintaining and restoring biodiversity in forests is important. Instead it will be the objective measures of atmospheric carbon stabilizing and declining, schools providing good educations to all of their students, or forest-dependent plants and animals maintaining or rebuilding their populations. Hard as the tasks facing us may be, we’re fortunate to have metrics that will tell us once the tipping points have been reached and passed.
But We’re Ill Equipped – Those who voice their doubts about our species’ capacity to choose the path of long term common good over short term self interest, will often – and rightly – point out that we’re asking ourselves to do something that our evolutionary history leaves us ill equipped to do. Evolutionary biologists support their case that our kind is much better conditioned and prepared to successfully respond to the immediate threat of a hungry sabretoothed tiger leaping into the mouth of the cave in which we live than we are to looking further ahead to identify and effectively respond to threats whose impacts are in the future. Ill equipped or disadvantaged as we may be, this does not excuse us from doing our best to rise to the challenges. The question seems to be “will our species be willing and able to co-evolve with the circumstance rapidly enough to be able to reasonably endure as a species?”. This question is joined by its obvious relative “is it possible for us to do what circumstances call on us to do?”. Tempting as it may be to convene a debate society to chew on these questions, wouldn’t it be better to add these to the pile of unknowables and instead invest the time and energy toward getting on with the task of co-evolution? In time the answers will become clear.
Looking to the Future – It is a healthy reflection of our humanity that we spend time wondering whether we can and will change course. Because the answers to those questions will only be revealed by watching what eventually happens, perhaps the much more constructive questions are “what will it take?”, “how will we muster it?”, “how will we learn to live by a life ethic and cross the tipping point from being frontier pioneers to becoming settled citizens?”. We must not only work hard, but we must also work intelligently. Working intelligently requires us to accurately identify the traits that are more critical to success and to have a realistic plan for developing those traits in ourselves and those around us. Is there anything more important to the survival of our species than developing an adequate sense of shared responsibility to care for what we share?