Tipping Points

Many of you probably are familiar with the term “tipping point”, coined by Malcolm Gladwell in his book of the same name. As he describes it,

“The word ‘Tipping Point’… comes from the world of epidemiology. It’s the name given to that moment in an epidemic when a virus reaches critical mass. It’s the boiling point. It’s the moment on the graph when the line starts to shoot straight upwards. AIDS tipped in 1982, when it went from a rare disease affecting a few gay men to a worldwide epidemic. Crime in New York City tipped in the mid 1990’s, when the murder rate suddenly plummeted.

“When I heard that phrase for the first time I remember thinking–wow. What if everything has a Tipping Point?”(From the website of Malcolm Gladwell)

If only it could be so. After exploring and writing my series on Water (here, here and here) I obsessed about the issues of plastic, plastic bottles, drinking water issues,plastic bags and on and on. Then it seemed that I kept reading about places where people were doing something about it–Devon, Ireland outlawing plastic bags, San Francisco banning water bottles for government offices and employees,fancy restaurants no longer serving imported sparkling waters but infusing their own filtered water with bubbles and now the bottled water industry is taking notice of the increasing number of cancelled contracts. And, is it my imagination, or are more people bringing their own bags into stores? The Trader Jo lines are full of people holding their previously purchased reusable (and branded) bags. Even the California legislature has introduced the “How Many Legislatures Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb” Act that proposes to phase out incandescents by 2012 and,in a first by a national government, Australia has a phaseout program to make the switch by 2010. Canada is phasing them out by 2012.

Well, maybe not yet a tipping point but it certainly looks like we are
on the uptick of a wave.

One would think so with all the businesses advertising how “green” they suddenly are. Responding sometimes to consumer demand, sometimes to the new public relations opportunities, sometimes to the simple fact of achieving ocassionally significant cost savings, corporations down to small business are rethinking some of their practices and coming up with “green” ones. Lots of them are great, some dubious. Another tipping point? Hardly, although they might as well be warming up for the real tough regulatory days to come.

Cynicism aside, I applaud all efforts to conduct our lives more consciously and if business saves money making changes, all the better. For the real tipping points manifesting themselves aren’t so good. While the bell curve of peak oil suggests a tipping point for some, I bet there are a lot of smug faces out there as oil approaches $100 a barrel (today it retreated to just below $90 I believe.) The report of accelerated ice melt in the Artic is unnerving scientists who have witnessed it themselves. Who would have thought even as early as last year that there would be US Coastguard ship movement into the un-iced waters to monitor new shipping lanes?

Have we reached that Tipping Point?

Carbon Offsets or …

Buying carbon offsets, or donating to alternative energy research has become a frequently suggested way to give “payback” for personal pollution. Say you want to fly to the east coast for a wedding–you can calculate what your carbon output is here then go here to decide where to purchase your favorite offset if you so choose. Obviously, there is a big market developing in this field.

I personally considered this as I struggled with the unavoidable fact of having to fly many family members to North Carolina for our daughter’s wedding. There was no way we were going to pass, but I was having difficulty reconciling this fact of life (in the year 2007) with my dedication to making and modeling a different conscious lifestyle.

It sounds a bit odd to me but I am sure that the concept of “offsets” relieves some guilt and may even be doing some good. A little bit like adopting an impoverished child from Africa–you get the pictures, the feel-good, it costs little comparatively speaking and requires minimal personal sacrifice. You are far enough away from it to have “deniability” about the overall effectiveness of your dollars.

My daughter, ever so rational, was the first to call me on this. Why spend the money there? For some of us, spending that extra bit of money is meaningful and a distant entity promising to do good in our name just doesn’t cut it. Can’t dedication to being “greener” develop closer to home? Think global, act local?

Let’s say you’ve determined through one system or another that you need to purchase the equivalent of $100 in carbon offsets…or whatever. What can that $100 (or its equivalent in your time and labor) do in your immediate environment?

  • Do you have all the CFLs you need? Have you replaced every last incandescent in your home or apartment? Give one to a neighbor or family member.
  • Arrange to set up a recyling bin at work or community center if there is not one yet.
  • If your home is a candidate for solar panels open a solar savings account.
  • Buy or save up for that new Energy Star appliance to bring down your overall carbon footprint.
  • Replace your gas guzzling machines–start small with your lawnmower
  • Plant a tree in your front yard.
  • Plan a vegetable garden in your lawn.
  • Find a new way to educate/inspire your kids, even your parents through some positive action–I hand out super-tough nylon shopping bags to family members.
  • Construct a compost bin in your backyard and redirect about 15% of your home garbage.

I could go on of course. Once your thinking develops this way, the implications and applications are everywhere. It becomes personal…an investment in home, family and community.

Let the big guys fund the energy research. Suggestions welcome!