About Social Tipping Points and Climate Action


Also known as phase transitions and critical mass. A research roundup

Photo by erin mckenna on Unsplash

Social tipping points are the mechanism by which social change spreads and sparks transformation. In my writing, I frequently talk about social tipping points toward climate action as a goal to aim for.

Here, I dive deeper into the concept of tipping points and its connection to social change with a tour of the research I’ve collected.

I’m hoping this will be a useful reference to come back to whenever discussions of the topic arise.

What are tipping points?

A tipping point is the colloquial term for a phase transition, or the phenomenon where incremental changes in a system reach a critical threshold, leading to rapid transformation.

You may have heard of tipping points from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point.

This phenomenon goes by many names, since it’s seen in many parts of the natural world, including changing phases of matter, nuclear fission (where the term ‘critical mass’ comes from), ecological shifts, swarm behavior of insects, epidemics, and the rise and fall of societies.

Going forward, I will use the term ‘phase transition’ most of the time.

Phase transitions in everyday life

Phase transitions are a common mental model in popular culture for situation where we keep applying effort, but we don’t see the results until all the pieces click into place.

This blog post on Farnam Street has a good roundup of writing on the concept, and explains:

As a mental model, critical mass can help us to understand the world around us by letting us spot changes before they occur, make sense of tumultuous times, and even gain insight into our own behaviors. A firm understanding can also give us an edge in launching products, changing habits, and choosing investments.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear uses the metaphor of incremental temperature change and the melting of ice to describe habit change.

Writings on technologymanagement, and world peace also use the concept.

How are phase transitions modeled?

The natural examples of phase transitions I mentioned (matter, nuclear reactions, viruses) above involve systems with individual units or ‘agents’. Observations of these systems show evidence of the phase transitions behavior.

Scientists have also developed a variety of agent-based and equation-based mathematical models and simulations to explain the mechanism behind the observed behaviors of the systems.

These models can be run with various adjustments to their parameters to see how they affect the phase transition.

Why does the concept apply to social change?

Often, the models of ‘agents’ in a system are fairly simple. Societies, on the other hand, are made up of humans who are famously impossible to predict or model accurately.

Still, we can extract useful qualitative insights about collective behavior even from simple model.

This is a long ‘un! You can read the rest on Medium (you don’t need to have a Medium subscription).

* * *

Understanding phase transitions has completely revolutionized my approach to climate action.

I constantly think about how my participation connects to a wider dynamic, and that helps me be both more strategic and more hopeful.

Here’s my free resource to overcome overwhelm and find clarity on YOUR personalized next step to protect the environment.

Also appears: LinkedIn

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *