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Turning Things Around

Regina Gregory

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, [], now features well over 100 stories from around the world. Some examples: 


  • 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.


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. 


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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. 


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 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

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. 

Regina Gregory is a Research Assistant with the EcoTipping Points Project.  Email:


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