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Turning Things Around

The EcoTipping Points Project
is a beacon of hope in a globally gloomy environmental landscape. 
In 2004, human ecologist Gerry Marten and journalist Amanda Suutari
began collecting environmental success stories.  Their website,
EcoTippingPoints.org [http://ecotippingpoints.org], now features well
over 100 stories from around the world. Some examples: 

Stories 

  • A marine sanctuary
    at Apo Island, Philippines, set in motion community fisheries management
    that reversed a vicious cycle of destructive fishing and depletion of
    fish stocks, restoring the island's coral reef ecosystem and fishery.
  • The revival of rainwater
    catchment dams in Rajasthan, India, reversed a vicious cycle of depleted
    aquifers, dried-up wells and rivers, fuelwood depletion, agricultural
    decline, and population exodus, bringing back the water, original vegetation,
    and a decent life for the people, along with wildlife such as antelope
    and tigers. 
  • Community gardens
    in New York City reversed a vicious cycle of urban decay, neglect, and
    population flight while producing food for people and habitat for wildlife. 
  • "Non-Pesticide
    Management" by cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh, India, reversed a
    vicious cycle of pesticide resistance, heavier pesticide use, human
    pesticide poisoning, and debt, restoring human health and local wildlife
    (including birds and insects that provide natural pest control). 
  • Community mangrove
    management in Trang Province, Thailand, reversed a vicious cycle of
    mangrove destruction, coastal fisheries depletion, and local inhabitants
    forced into destructive activities as resources deteriorated, restoring
    mangrove habitat, coral reefs, coastal fisheries, and economic opportunities. 
  • Agroforestry and
    community forest management in Nakhon Sawan Province, Thailand, reversed
    a vicious cycle of deforestation, watershed degradation, dependence
    on expensive agricultural inputs, debt, and population exodus, restoring
    local forests and the ecological health of the watershed while securing
    people's livelihoods with sustainable agriculture and forest products. 
  • Community-based
    biological control of the dengue fever mosquito in Vietnam, using tiny
    crustaceans known as copepods, eradicated the mosquito from a thousand
    villages, freeing the villagers from an "emergent" disease that
    threatens the lives of millions of Southeast Asian children each year. 
  • A constructed wetland
    at Arcata, California, provided low-cost municipal sewage processing
    along with first-class wildlife habitat and nature recreation in an
    urban setting.  Expansion of constructed wetlands to surrounding
    towns has changed urban development in a way that helps to contain sprawl.

Analysis 

These stories all provide interesting
case studies by themselves.  But on further analysis, Dr. Marten
found a pattern of tipping points and feedback loops.  In every
case, an ecosystem (which includes humans, animals, and landscape) experienced
the following: 

1.  A negative tip. 
In the "developing" world this can often be traced back to earlier
colonization and/or current globalization, which introduced new markets
and new technologies to upset the balance.  In northern Thailand
it was commercialization of agriculture; in the Philippines the introduction
of destructive fishing practices; in India and Indonesia deforestation. 
In the "developed" world we can point to overdevelopment (slums
in New York City, wastewater in Arcata, garbage in Freiburg)... 

2.  A self-reinforcing
feedback loop (vicious cycle), causing a seemingly hopeless downward
spiral in social and ecological conditions 

3.  A positive tip. 
As systems analyst Peter Senge notes, "Small changes can produce big
results-but the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious." 
A small marine sanctuary in the Philippines, a single restored rainwater
pond in India, one community garden in New York City were catalysts
for much bigger changes. 

4.  A "virtuous cycle." 
In a sort of "reverse domino effect," the initial positive tip leads
to a feedback loop of positive changes for ecosystem restoration and
sustainability.  Projects are often replicated in other areas for
more widespread impact. 

Dr. Marten went a step further
to identify some key ingredients for success found in these stories-for
instance, community solidarity and leadership,
co-adaption between social system and ecosystem, using natural ecological
and economic forces, and rapid results to inspire enthusiasm. 

Action 

The next goal is to use the
lessons learned to create new success stories.  An EcoTipping Points
"community action kit" is in the works, but meanwhile you can try
these three steps in your own community:  

1.  Get together a group
of friends or neighbors, or get on the agenda of your neighborhood board,
city council, township, etc. 

2.  View the Powerpoint
presentation at http://www.ecotippingpoints.org/education/etp-power-point.ppt for an overview of the EcoTipping
Points concept, some examples from around the world, and key ingredients
for success.  See additional discussion and illustrations of feedback
loops at http://ecotippingpoints.org/resources/understanding-how-ecotipping-points-work.html

3.  Create your own feedback
diagrams for your community's most important environmental problem(s). 
Identify the negative tipping point at the root of the problem and map
out the vicious cycle of deterioration.  Then determine what lever
(positive tipping point) could reverse that cycle.  Keep in mind
Peter Senge's observation that "small changes can produce big results-but
the areas of highest leverage are often the least obvious." 

You might be surprised how
a little change in the right spot can turn things around. 


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

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