How Do EcoTipping Points Work?

Page Quick Links:

What are EcoTipping Points?

An EcoTipping Point is a “lever” that reverses environmental decline, setting in motion restoration and sustainability. To do this, an EcoTipping Point must overcome the vicious cycles driving decline, transforming them into “virtuous cycles” that drive restoration. What are the characteristics of an effective EcoTipping Point lever? What does it take to set restoration in motion? We have found the same Ingredients for Success in all of our success stories.

The EcoTipping Points website uses environmental success stories to convey principles from Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development for using systems thinking to achieve sustainable interaction between human society and its environmental support systems. Twenty-two centuries ago, Archimedes said that, with the right lever and the right place to stand, he could move the world. Today, our world needs the right levers more than ever – to tip our planet and its ecological systems back from the brink. Day by day, we face torrents of environmental bad news. Experts warn that our natural systems, from rainforests to ocean currents, may be nearing “tipping points,” catastrophic changes that can’t be undone for lifetimes to come.

It’s hard to swim against a current propelled by powerful social and ecological forces. It’s cheap and easy to destroy our natural support systems. It seems overwhelmingly complicated and costly to save them. But quietly, around the globe, a different kind of tipping point is emerging. Environmental pioneers in community organizations, business, and government are demonstrating how the right change can turn ecosystems away from ruin and back towards health and sustainability.

Center stage are powerful levers we call “EcoTipping Points”:

  • Philippine marine sanctuary rescues both a coral reef fishery and the islanders who depend on it.
  • On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, community gardens launch a transformation from urban decay to renewal.
  • The revival of rainwater catchment dams in India brings dried-up rivers and shrinking farming villages back to life.
  • In the Peruvian rainforest, plastic jugs, which serve as breeding habitat for colorful frogs valued by hobbyists, give local farmers a reason to preserve the forest instead of cutting it down.
  • Out of the flames of the Rodney King riots, a nature park sparks the revival of a South Central Los Angeles neighborhood.
  • Instead of building an expensive wastewater plant, Arcata, California builds an artificial wetland that filters water while attracting wildlife, birdwatchers and other visitors.
  • Ecological pest management helps Indian cotton farmers to escape a descending spiral of pesticide poisoning and debt.
  • Community mangrove management in Thailand restores the local fishery and revives the local economy.

Though richly diverse, these stories share a common plotline: Each combines the right environmental technology with the social organization to put it into practice. A single catalytic change tips a declining system in a new direction. After a strategic jump-start, nature takes over, using its inborn powers to mend itself. There’s a bonus: Because cities, neighborhoods and nations are intimately intertwined with their natural support systems, EcoTipping Points help to solve social problems as well.

When resources are limited, EcoTipping Points show how to leverage small investments into large returns. They provide alternatives to heavy regulation and public spending. Instead of paddling against the current, they change the flow of the river, offering a perspective that transcends political ideologies. They demonstrate that citizens and the private sector don’t have to wait for government action.

EcoTipping Points are about hope in a time when it’s easy to despair. But they’re not magic bullets to solve environmental problems overnight. What they can do is set eco-social systems moving in healthier directions. And they’re not about utopian dreams. They’re already at work. Right now.

Origin of the “Tipping Point” Phrase

The “tip point” phrase was coined more than fifty years ago to indicate a threshold for dramatic change in neighborhood demographics (Grodzins 1957). A “tip point” was the percentage of non-white residents in a previously white neighborhood that would precipitate a “white flight,” switching the neighborhood to total occupation by non-whites. Wolf (1963) used the phrase “tipping point” to describe the same phenomenon, and Schelling (1978) applied “tipping point” to other social phenomena as well.

The “tipping point” phrase was later popularized by Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Gladwell 2000). It used “tipping point” to represent the point in time when a new idea “takes off,” spreading rapidly through a society. Though Grozdins, Wolf, Schelling, and Gladwell did not use systems jargon such as “feedback loops,” their use of “tipping point” reflected the amplifying effects of feedback loops and the power of feedback loops to engender change.

We use “tipping point” to mean a “lever” that can tip an eco-social system from one set of mutually reinforcing processes, called a “system domain,” to a different domain. The “tip” sets the system on a completely new course of change. EcoTipping Points are levers that set an eco-social system on a positive course of change. They are catalytic, turning the system from decline to a course of restoration and sustainability (Marten 2005, 2007, 2008; Marten et al. 2005).


How Do EcoTipping Points Work?

EcoTipping Points are typically an environmental technology (in the broadest sense), coupled with the social organization to put it effectively into use. They are catalytic, setting motion a cascade of far-reaching effects through the system.

However, far-reaching effects are not enough. The environmental success stories that we’ve analyzed tell us that the crucial action for both problems and solutions resides in feedback loops, circular chains of cause and effect that amplify small causes into large effects. Antibiotic resistance provides an example of a feedback loop. Antibiotics encourage resistant bacteria, creating a vicious cycle of more antibiotics and more resistant bacteria.

The power of feedback loops can make it very difficult to break out of a vicious cycle. But explicitly identifying the feedback loops responsible for vicious cycles can expose strategic points for reversing the cycles. Like Aikido, the martial art that turns an attacker’s thrusts back on the attacker, EcoTipping Points can identify critical maneuvers for reversing the currents of ecological destruction. Instead of continuing to wear the system down, the same forces begin to build it back up. Environmental decline can be turned around if the vicious cycles responsible for decline are reversed.

EcoTipping Points connect to vicious cycles with the force necessary to do that. Once reversed, the vicious cycles become “virtuous cycles”, driving positive change with the same power that drove the negative change. In effect, the virtuous cycles mobilize natural, social, and economic forces to work for sustainability instead of against it.  The ensuing proliferation of positive effects creates additional virtuous cycles that reinforce and “lock in” the benefits. Our success stories point to the key ingredients for making it all happen.

An Example of Feedback Loops in Action: New York City Community Gardens

The diagrams below show urban decay was transformed to restoration in New York City’s Bowery District:

  • Vicious cycles were driving environmental and social decline.
  • A community garden acted as a tipping point that reversed the decline, transforming the vicious cycles into virtuous cycles.
  • New virtuous cycles formed to reinforce and “lock in” the recovery.

A fiscal crisis in city government during the 1960s created the negative tipping point in this story: a reduction in services (e.g., police and fire protection) in the already depressed Bowery. A system of interconnected and mutually reinforcing vicious cycles was set in motion by the cascade of effects that followed:

  • Reduction in public services led to a deterioration of public infrastructure and safety, causing people to move away.
  • Fewer people on the streets and more vacant properties led to garbage dumping, criminal activity, and homeless beggars, with further deterioration of public safety and more people moving away.
  • Less income for local businesses and less tax revenue for city government led to even less expenditure by city government, landlords, and local businesses for maintenance of buildings and other infrastructure. Buildings and streets fell into disrepair, contributing to further neighborhood deterioration, and more people moved away.
New York City Negative Tip

The positive tipping point – an “EcoTipping Point” – was created in 1973 when a young artist, new to the neighborhood, saw a small boy playing in a trash-filled, rat-infested vacant lot and she decided to do something about this deplorable situation. She organized some friends to haul out the garbage and truck in soil to establish the Bowery Houston Community Farm Garden.

At first skeptical, the neighbors soon began to pitch in, and within a few months they were taking home armloads of tomatoes and cucumbers. Besides displacing rats and drug dealers, and creating a much needed green space, the garden also became an “outdoor community center.”

As can be seen in the diagram below, the garden served as the EcoTipping Point that reversed the vicious cycles described above. The vicious cycles of the negative tip were transformed into virtuous cycles (shown in black below):

  • The improvement in neighborhood quality – public safety, buildings and other infrastructure, visual attractiveness, and community spirit – attracted people to move into the neighborhood. More residents meant even more people on the streets and even greater public safety.
  • More residents and fewer vacant properties meant more business income and tax revenue, leading to investment in neighborhood restoration.
  • More income and tax revenue also increased public and private services, further contributing to neighborhood quality.
  • At the same time, a new virtuous cycle of “success breeds success” (shown in blue) arose around the garden, which served as a symbol for improving the neighborhood. The success of the garden, experience with managing it, and improvements in neighborhood quality instilled awareness, pride, and commitment to improving both the garden and the neighborhood even further.
New York City Positive Tip

Once news of the garden’s success spread, an entire movement developed. Nearby neighborhoods established gardens, and in 1978 the city parks department began the Green Thumb program which offered plants, tools, expertise, and $1-per-year leases to community groups. By the late 1980s New York City was home to over 800 community gardens. They even attracted international attention, with people visiting from other cities and countries to learn from New York’s experience.

Most important, new virtuous cycles “locked in” the benefits from the gardens, protecting them from unexpected threats. When property values in neighborhoods with gardens increased, the city government tried to sell garden lots for development. However, the pride and commitment of neighborhood residents, as well as experience and organizational capacity they acquired in the course of developing the gardens, enabled residents to take on the city bureaucracy, consolidating the legal tenure of the gardens.

This story shows how reversal of vicious cycles harnessed social and environmental forces that were responsible for the problem, so instead they worked for the solution. The basic cause-and-effect relationships remained the same during both decay and restoration. Only the direction of change was different.

See the complete story about New York City gardens.

Interested in how EcoTipping Points have transformed vicious cycles to virtuous cycles in other parts of the world? Take a look at thumbnail sketches and feedback diagrams for the following stories:

Lessons We’ve Learned – Ingredients for Success

As we explore cases from around the world, we’re assembling a picture of what it takes to create an EcoTipping Point success story. Here is what we’ve found:

Here is what we’ve found:

EcoTipping Points are real. In every success story, the sweeping changes from environmental decline to restoration and sustainability can be traced back to a lever that set the change in motion. That lever is the EcoTipping Point – typically an environmental technology (in the broadest sense of the word) combined with the social organization to put the technology into practice. The lever is catalytic, setting in motion a cascade of changes through ecosystem and social system. But it takes more than that to be an EcoTipping Point – which leads to our next finding.

Reversal of vicious cycles. In all of our stories, the decline was driven by interconnected and mutually reinforcing vicious cycles. Decline was turned around only when the vicious cycles driving decline were themselves turned around. Anything less is merely “swimming against the current.” Reversing the vicious cycles is seldom easy; they can be very powerful. But it’s the only way to change to a course of restoration. Here is the good news – once the vicious cycles are turned around, the very same feedback loops can mobilize nature and natural social processes to work just as powerfully to bring about restoration and health. And they spin off new virtuous cycles, such as “success-breeds-success”, which accelerate the process and lock in the gains.

More details about reversing vicious cycles

Ingredients for Success. What does it take to turn around the vicious cycles driving decline? What makes an effective EcoTipping Point lever? What are key characteristics of the eco-technology – and the social organization for putting that eco-technology into practice? We have found twelve things to play a strong role in our stories. They all contribute to making a “positive tip” really happen. Most or all them may in fact be essential.

  • Shared community awareness and commitment.Strong democratic institutions and genuine community participation are prominent in EcoTipping Point stories. These stories do not typically feature top-down regulation or elaborate development plans with unrealistic goals. Of particular importance is a shared understanding of the problem and what to do about it: Shared recognition of why the problem has occurred, shared vision and knowledge of what can be done to set a turnabout in motion, and shared ownership of the community action that follows. The community devises an effective procedure for making this shared understanding a reality. It draws upon its collective experience and moves forward with its own decisions, manpower, and financial resources.
  • Outside stimulation and facilitation We seldom see EcoTipping points “bubble up from within.” Outsiders can be a source of fresh ideas and encouragement. While action at the local level is essential, a success story typically begins when people or information from outside a community stimulate a shared awareness about a problem and introduce game-changing ideas for dealing with it. EcoTipping Point success stories will become more common only with explicit programs to provide this kind of stimulation to local communities – an approach that has been applied with considerable success during the past century by agricultural extension in the United States (Rogers 2003).
  • Enduring commitment of local leadership. Persistence is a key to success. A turnabout from decline to restoration seldom comes easily. It requires community commitment to apply an EcoTipping Points lever with sufficient force to reverse the vicious cycles driving decline. Trusted and persistent leaders inspire the deep-rooted and continuing community commitment and participation necessary for success (Westley et al. 2007).
  • Co-adaption between social system and ecosystem. Social system and ecosystem fit together, functioning as a sustainable whole (Human Ecology: Basic Concepts for Sustainable Development). As an EcoTipping Point story unfolds, perceptions, values, knowledge, technology, social organization, and social institutions all evolve in a way that enhances the sustainability of valuable social and ecological resources (Senge 2008). Social and environmental gains go hand in hand. At the heart of the process is “social commons for environmental commons” – organization tailored to managing a community’s social and environmental capital. Local government may provide it, or the community may create its own organization for that particular purpose.
  • “Letting nature do the work.” Micro-managing the world’s environmental problems is beyond human capacity. EcoTipping Points give nature the opportunity to marshal its self-organizing powers to set restoration in motion.
  • Transforming waste into resources. What appears to be “waste” – such as degraded land, abandoned buildings, garbage, sewage, or marginalized people – is mobilized and transformed into valued social or material capital.
  •  Rapid results. Quick “payback” helps to mobilize community commitment. Once positive results begin cascading through the social system and ecosystem, normal social, economic, and political processes can take it from there.
  • A powerful symbol. It is common for a respected leader or champion for a cause, a beloved but threatened feature of the local landscape, a prominent community space, a shared community “story,” a compelling idea, a key benefit attributed to an EcoTipping Point, the EcoTipping Point itself, or some other key aspect of an EcoTipping Point story to represent the entire process in a way that consolidates community commitment and mobilizes community action to carry the process forward. For example, in the Apo Island story, the islanders say that the marine sanctuary saved the island’s marine ecosystem, the fishery, and their way of life.
  • Coping with social complexity. In today’s complex society, powerful obstacles often stand in the way of positive change. For example:
    • People are so “busy” with competing demands for their time, attention, and energy that they don’t have time to contribute to the community.
    • People who feel threatened by innovation or other change take measures to suppress or nullify the change. Government authority is sometimes obstructive.
    • Outsiders try to take over valuable resources after the resources are restored to health.
    • Dysfunctional dependence on some part of the status quo prevents people from making changes necessary to break away from decline. For example, pesticides can destroy natural pest control, making farmers dependent on using even more pesticides (See “Escaping the pesticide trap in India”)
  • Social and ecological diversityGreater diversity of values, perceptions, knowledge, technology, social organization, and social institutions provides more choices, and therefore more opportunities for effective choices. Diversity is equally important for ecosystems. An ecosystem’s species diversity enhances its capacity for self-restoration.
  • Social and ecological memory. Learning from the past. Social institutions, knowledge, and technology from the past have “stood the test of time.” With adaptation to current conditions, they often can be of value for the present. “Ecological memory” is a key feature of nature. The time-testing process of biological evolution has created impressive resilience in living organisms and their intricate interrelationships in the ecosystems where they live.
  • Building resilience (Resilience Alliance). “Resilience” is about “locking” into sustainability. It is the ability to continue functioning despite severe and sometimes unexpected external disturbances. EcoTipping Points are most effective when they not only set in motion a course of sustainability, but also enhance the capacity to withstand inevitable threats to the sustainability. As EcoTipping Point stories proceed, new virtuous cycles emerge to reinforce and consolidate the gains. A community’s adaptive capacity – its capacity for change based on shared community awareness, prudent experimentation, learning from successes and mistakes, and replicating success – is central to resilience.

What form do these Ingredients for Success take in real-world success stories? The EcoTipping Points website provides detailed descriptions of the Ingredients for Success in the following stories:

  • A marine sanctuary at Apo Island in the Philippines set in motion community fisheries management that reversed a vicious cycle of destructive fishing and depletion of fish stocks, restored the island’s coral-reef ecosystem and fishery, rescued a fishing village’s valued way of life, and created new avenues of prosperity. Ingredients for Success in this story
  • Agroforestry and community forest management in Nakhon Sawan (Thailand) reversed a vicious cycle of deforestation, watershed degradation, dependence on expensive agricultural inputs, debt, population exodus, and carbon dioxide release due to deforestation. (Tropical deforestation is responsible for 30 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions.) The region’s villages restored local forests and the ecological health of their watersheds, secured their livelihoods with agriculture that was sustainable because it mimicked forests, and helped to reduce global greenhouse gases by returning atmospheric carbon to a once-again verdant landscape. Ingredients for Success in this story
  • New York City’s “Green Guerillas” created community gardens in vacant lots, reversing a vicious cycle of urban decay, crime, neglect, and population flight, while producing food, flowers, community space, and wildlife habitat while stimulating local residents to renovate their neighborhoods. Ingredients for Success in this story
  • “Water Warriors” in Rajasthan (India) revived traditional rainwater catchment dams, reversing a vicious cycle of depleted aquifers, dried-up wells and rivers, fuelwood depletion, agricultural decline, and population exodus, while bringing back the water, original vegetation, wildlife, and a decent life for the people. Ingredients for Success in this story
  • Cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh (India) used “Non-Pesticide Management” with neem and other ecological methods to reverse a vicious cycle of pesticide resistance in insect pests, heavier use of chemical pesticides, human pesticide poisoning, debt, and the highest suicide rate in India. They restored human health, family budgets, and local wildlife (including birds and predatory insects that provided natural pest control) and were inspired by their success to embark on new improvements for their villages. Ingredients for Success in this story
  • Indigenous communities in the Mixtec region of southern Mexico planted millions of trees, reversing a centuries-long vicious cycle of deforestation, overgrazing, and desertification, setting a barren landscape on a course of restoration, and inspiring the communities to take greater charge of their destinies. Ingredients for Success in this story
  • Freiberg, Germany, is an inspirational “green city” that overcame a vicious cycle of ever-increasing consumption and dependence on fossil fuels, switching to a course of sustainable transportation, energy, waste management, and land conservation while creating a far-reaching green economy that perpetuates even more environmental progress. Ingredients for Success in this story

Create Your Own EcoTipping Points

The key to EcoTipping Points lies in feedback loops. During brainstorming or visioning processes, communities can:

  • Sketch out the chains of cause and effect responsible for their environmental problems.
  • Identify the vicious cycles that are driving negative tips.
  • Think of interventions that will build up under their own momentum, connecting to key elements of the vicious cycles with sufficient force to turn them around. The newly formed virtuous cycles will take it from there.
  • Build “Ingredients for Success” that we have seen in our success stories into the eco-technology and social organization of the interventions.

Our article Application of EcoTipping Points to Turning around Tropical Deforestation illustrates how a community can do this. Our educational package How Success Works, guides students at all levels through this process to solve local community problems of their choosing.

Replicating Success

EcoTipping Points typically “scale-up” by replicating local success from the place where it begins to other locations in the surrounding area. People visit successful sites to see it for themselves and decide to try it back home. What makes the replication process successful? The EcoTipping Points Project has documented the replication in the following success stories:

  • The marine sanctuary at Apo Island in the Philippines restored the island’s coral-reef ecosystem and fishery and rescued a fishing village’s valued way of life. Seven hundred fishing villages in the Philippines now have marine sanctuaries. Report about how replication was achieved
  • New York City’s “Green Guerillas” created community gardens, which spread to  800 neighborhoods, stimulated local residents to renovate their neighborhoods, and inspired urban community gardening across the nation. Report about how replication was achieved
  • Agroforestry and community forest management in Nakhon Sawan (Thailand) began in Khao Din village and spread to 50 neighboring villages, restoring the local forest and ecological health of the watersheds and securing farmers’ livelihoods with sustainable agriculture. Report about how replication was achieved
  • Cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh (India) used “Non-Pesticide Management” to break away from pesticide poisoning, debt, and the highest suicide rate in India. Non-Pesticide Management has now spread to more than 3,000 villages. Report about how replication was achieved
  • Community coastal mangrove management in Trang Province (Thailand) inspired 50 villages to restore not only mangrove habitat but also coral reefs, coastal fisheries, and the ecological health of their entire watersheds while creating a wealth of new economic opportunities. Report about how replication was achieved

Back to top