The unBalanced ecoLOGist: On Tipping Points, Regime Shifts, and the Balance of Nature

While washed up in Manaus, I’ve taken a few hours to catch up on some recent papers in the (technical) ecological literature. A new paper by Egbert van Nes et al. in the most recent issue of Trends in Ecology and Evolution caught my attention. Entitled “What do you mean, ‘tipping point’?“, van Nes et al. encapsulate well the competing ideas and definitions of tipping points in the ecological and broader literature, but then end up arguing for a broad definition: “any situation where accelerating change caused by positive feedback drives the system to a new state.” But they then go on to say that their “proposed definition essentially boils down to the necessary conditions for [Malcom] Gladwell’s examples where a small initial change makes a big difference.”

I think this is unfortunate. They give too much credence to Gladwell’s sloppy handling of tipping points in his book, their  broad definition will lead to a proliferation of “tipping points,” and such vagueness can only result in so much watering down of the term as to render it meaningless.

So with that in mind, I offer up for today’s posting an essay I wrote three years ago but never published. I post it here, unedited from 11 September 2013 (albeit with a few [editorial clarifications]). Perhaps an updated version could find a broader audience somewhere; suggestions welcome!

On tipping points, regime shifts, and the balance of nature

“Five-nine” doesn’t have quite the cadence as “nine-eleven,” but when we look back on the early 21st century, May 9, 2013—the day that the concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) for the first time in recorded history—may be seen as a far more important date than September 11, 2001. If the scenario described in the Scientific Consensus on Maintaining Humanity’s Life Support Systems in the 21st Century by Anthony Barnowsky and his colleagues at Berkeley[1], along with more than 500 other scientists, including Nobel laureates, members of the National Academies of Sciences, and other luminaries is true, Five-nine will be seen as the long-anticipated tipping point whereby human impacts have caused irrevocable harm to our planet. Or perhaps not. Perhaps there is still time to take the concrete, immediate actions Barnowsky et al. suggest—suggestions echoed by President Barack Obama in his June 25 [2013] speech at Georgetown University—that would ensure a sustainable, high-quality future. Or maybe we’ll just keep muddling along, slowly and steadily acclimating to our new lives on a now unfamiliar world, which, to distinguish it from our familiar “Earth,” Bill McKibben christened “Planet Eaarth”: durably, sturdily, stably, hardily, and robustly.

Tipping points are the cusp between one set of conditions and another; when a tipping point is passed, change is rapid, uncontrolled, and often irreversible. Passing a tipping point is like crossing a threshold from one room to another and having the door locked behind you; the state of the world after the tipping point is very different from the state of the world before the tipping point, and it is very difficult to go back. In fact, tipping points were originally defined in the late 1950s to describe white flight from urban areas as African-Americans moved into the neighborhood, rapidly and inexorably altering the dynamics of our contemporary cities.

But more than a decade ago, Malcolm Gladwell redefined tipping points in his eponymous book. In doing so, he changed the way we think about rapidly emerging social phenomena, such as the Dutch tulip frenzy, the housing bubble, or the re-emergence of a market for Hush Puppies. Although many have argued [including van Nes et al.] that the publication of The Tipping Point itself was a tipping point in how we think and talk about tipping points, Gladwell’s prime analogy of a tipping point was an epidemic. By using this analogy, the true meaning of tipping points was obscured, leading to much confusion in how we think about responding to rapid environmental change and real tipping points.

Just as epidemics require an initial infection in a particular individual, a pool of nearby people susceptible to the same infection, and a mechanism for transmission among the susceptible individuals, the rapid emergence of new social phenomena requires what Gladwell called mavens, connectors, and salesmen who collect and transmit new ideas to the wider world. But resistance evolves to new diseases, epidemics peak and burn out, and many new social phenomena are simply fads. In fact, all of the examples in The Tipping Point— the sudden emergence of fax machines and Airwalk sneakers, the resurgence of sales of Hush Puppies (suede shoes), the rising and then falling crime rate in many cities (which by some measures is rising once again), and sudden epidemics of suicides—are of explosions of interest in new phenomena followed by a return to the status quo ante and a search for the next new fad. But they are not tipping points.

In contrast, economists, sociologists, historians, ecologists, climatologists, oceanographers, and most others who for decades have given serious study to tipping points, focus on rapid, seemingly permanent changes; in modern parlance, a tipping point presages a change in regime. Climatic change is seen as the prime example of a tipping point in the natural world. Bill McKibben and the thousands of followers of working to solve the climate crisis assert that we passed a tipping point in the 1980s, when human industry caused the concentration of atmospheric CO2 to exceed 350 ppm: the so-called “safe” level of CO2 in the atmosphere. President Obama noted at Georgetown that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has been measuring CO2 since the 1950s because of that agency’s even earlier concern that the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would disrupt the fragile balance of nature that makes our planet so hospitable to life and push us over the tipping point that leads to a planet beyond repair.

So on Five-nine, when NOAA’s observatory atop Mauna Loa, Hawaii, recorded a concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere that exceeded 400 parts per million (0.04%) for the first time in recorded history (two weeks later, the average atmospheric CO2 concentration exceeded 400 parts per million (ppm) for the entire week [and as I post this essay in November 2016, >400 ppm is the “new normal”]), a tipping point finally may have been passed. Although the deciduous forests of the northern hemisphere—the lungs of the planet—will inhale some of that CO2 as they leaf out this spring, next year, or perhaps the year after, even those great lungs will not be able to keep the CO2 concentration below 400 ppm. An even an all-powerful deity were to manage to convince us to stop burning of all fossil fuels today, the “inertia” in the climate system would ensure that sea-levels would continue to rise another meter or two over the next two thousand years.

The inexorable warming of the planet caused by an ever-denser blanket of CO2 above us is not a fad—on Five-nine, we passed the tipping point and entered a new world. This new reality is a consequence of our lifestyles intersecting with fundamental and unbreakable laws of physics. We simply need to own up to the fact that we are in a new climatic regime; global warming indeed is happening, now.


There really is no serious, scientific debate about humanity’s contributions to changes in the global climate caused by increasing use of fossil fuels coupled with the deforestation and land conversion eating away at the planet’s lungs. Nor is there any immediate prospect of reining in the four accompanying apocalyptic horsemen described in detail by Anthony Barnowsky and his colleagues: wholesale loss of biological diversity; transformation and loss of a diversity of ecosystems and the services they provide; environmental pollution; and human population growth and patterns of consumption. At the same time, the weaving together of metaphors for our time—tipping points, regime shifts, and the balance of nature—into a consistent narrative of environmental disaster that McKibben refers to in Eaarth as “collapse porn,” and which “[gives] us the slightly scary shiver of imagining our lives tumbling over a cliff” echoes the depiction of the sublime in late 19th and early 20th century landscape paintings[2].

This new, contemporary sublime not only engenders feelings of awe in the face of forces larger than ourselves, it also threatens to lead us into a sense of powerlessness and paralysis when it comes to ameliorating or acclimating to these large changes. We need new metaphors—metaphors that embrace dynamics, constant change, unsteadiness, and evolution—if we are to live on a planet that despite our wishful thinking about balance of nature to the contrary, has always been capricious, unpredictable, and fundamentally uncaring. As Emerson wrote in his essay Nature:

[T]here is throughout nature something mocking, something that leads us on and on, but arrives nowhere, keeps no faith with us.

In short, we may be on a new world, but this new world—McKibben’s Planet Eaarth—is still Hobbes’ nasty and brutish Planet Earth.


Tipping points are precarious and threaten our sense of balance. But what about the new regime we enter after we pass the tipping point? In the post-colonial world of the 1950s and 1960s, regime change—the use of military force to replace one governing administration or “hostile” foreign government by another—was usually cast in a negative light. Regime changes after which newly emerging nations shifted their foreign alignments towards, for example, the Soviet Union or the non-aligned states were seen as antithetical to U.S. or NATO ambitions. The superpowers of the day did everything they could to prop up friendly regimes. In contrast, in the post-9/11 world, regime change became desirable, especially when rogue states cross red lines. But after 5/9, regime change may once again seem to be a bad idea. Although academics tend to use the more neutral term “regime shift” in an attempt to remove the value judgment inherent in “regime change,” regime shifts, such as the shift in global climate that we are undergoing now, are nonetheless generally seen as undesirable. Consequently, a large amount of effort, at least as measured by allocation of research dollars in the U.S. and E.U., continues to be focused on identifying early-warning indicators of impending regime shifts and developing strategies to avert them.[3]

Where geopolitical actors look to regime change to re-stabilize a destabilized situation, ecologists and environmental scientists look for ways to maintain existing stability and avoid regime shifts. Common to both is an interest in stability—its continued persistence or its immediate return. When we think of stability, we think of equilibrium: a steady state in which interacting agents or forces balance each other, like equal weights on the scales of justice. For ecologists and environmentalists like Bill McKibben, a regime shift is undesirable because it threatens the Balance of Nature: the state in an ecosystem when the interrelationships of organisms are harmoniously integrated to a considerable degree.

The idea that nature is in balance has deep, rarely explored roots. In fact, the Balance of Nature is so deeply embedded in our discussion of these ideas that even in detailed analyses of environmental metaphors, the metaphor of a balance of nature itself is not even considered metaphoric. Rather, the focus is on if, and how quickly, social and ecological systems can return to a sustainable, equilibrium condition, albeit a new one, following some sort of “disturbance.” Equally penetrating is the idea—illustrated succinctly by the contrast between Edward Hicks’ 1830s painting The Peaceable Kingdom [Figure 1] and Steve Sack’s 1995 updated version [Figure 2] —that there is a Prelapsarian, perfectly balanced nature out there, apart from people, and that human beings have destroyed this balance through science, technology, or, in fact, any activity beyond simple hunting and gathering.

Figure 1.  Edward Hicks, The Peaceable Kingdom (ca. 1830-1832; Metropolitan Museum of Art)
Figure 2. Steve Sack, The E.P.A.’s Peaceable Kingdom (1995)

The metaphor of the Balance of Nature is completely at odds with the by now well-established facts of evolution: all life (on both Earth and Eaarth) is derived from a single common ancestor, and humans are as much a part of this continuously unfolding process as are all the other plants, animals, bacteria, fungi, and viruses with which we share the planet. Evolution is a constant struggle for existence: more than 99% of all species that have evolved on Earth in the last four billion years or so have gone extinct, and there is no reason to presume that humans will, in the long run, fare any differently. Yet we persist in in removing humans from nature:

“Natural” is [a] term that is applied to a community of native plants and animals. ‘Future-natural’ describes the community that would develop were human influences to be removed completely and permanently, but allows for possible changes in climate or site. ‘Original-natural’ describes a community as it existed in the past, with no modification by humans. ‘Past-natural’ describes the condition in which the present features are derived directly from those existing originally, with relatively little modification by humans. ‘Potential-natural’ describes the community that would develop were human influence removed, but the consequent succession completed instantly (future changes in climate or site are not taken into account). ‘Present-natural’ describes the community that would exist now had there been no human modification. Because of the dynamic nature of any ecosystem, this condition may not be identical to the last original-natural state before human intervention began.[4]

Climatologists, oceanographers, ecologists, evolutionary biologists, and many others have repeatedly documented that nature is an ever-changing and at best ephemerally stable—on virtually any time scale—dynamical system, the state of which still can be reliably forecast only weeks in advance. In fact, as President Obama noted in his Georgetown speech, virtually every forecast for climatic change suggested by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has significantly underestimated the dynamics and magnitude of climatic change we are currently experiencing, Our inability to forecast and manage regime shifts of the global climate system or to predict and direct regime changes using diplomacy or warfare spring from the same source: reliance on metaphors and derived models based on a Balance of Nature (or a Balance of Power).


So if the Balance of Nature is, and always has been, a will-o’-the-wisp, what do we do and how do we live? Many would argue that the best path is laissez-faire individualism, in which each of us builds the best fortress we can afford, complete with levees, storm shelters, and well-stocked gun racks, and damn the consequences if the levees divert the floodwaters to our neighbors downstream, the storm shelters can only hold us and our close kin, and the guns keep spawning unforeseen chaotic events. A casual perusal of any daily newspaper, blog, or twitter feed suggests that this approach clearly has broad appeal. But on our post-400-ppm planet, in which daily tipping points are (still) the new normal, McKibben’s prescription for living durably, sturdily, stably, hardily, and robustly in small redoubts seems unlikely to work; it didn’t work well in the past, either. And our best efforts to identify and forecast planetary tipping points in a world that isn’t now, and has never been, in a state of balance, can only fail while simultaneously raising unfounded hopes.

Rather, we must re-envision the sublime and re-embrace the unpredictability unfolding daily around us. The real world, in which humans are just another organism, is a messy place, but messiness does not have to be bad, and we should celebrate its ever-changing tapestry. In The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin described a struggle for existence between organisms and the world around them, a struggle that included not only the elements but other organisms. He concluded The Origin (6th edition) by writing:

It is interesting to contemplate a tangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent upon each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. These laws, taken in the largest sense, being Growth with reproduction; Inheritance which is almost implied by reproduction; Variability from the indirect and direct action of the conditions of life, and from use and disuse; a Ratio of Increase so high as to lead to a Struggle for Life, and as a consequence to Natural Selection, entailing Divergence of Character and the Extinction of less improved forms. Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone circling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved.

As Darwin knew, and as ecologists and evolutionary biologists have demonstrated time and again, although all of the organisms that have evolved to live on Earth’s organisms have already gone extinct, evolution continues nonetheless. There are deterministic laws to evolution, but their actual operation leads to chaotic outcomes. But chaotic is not “chaotic” or unpredictable. Rather, in a chaotic system, fixed (deterministic) rules give rise to completely different, sometimes even predictable outcomes depending solely on the initial state of the system. The real challenge is not in learning the rules, but in learning to ride the chaotic wave. Perhaps we should stop pretending that we live in Dr. Pangloss’s best of all possible worlds and instead cultivate Candide’s garden. When we look around us, we will daily witness the ceaseless changes to our world where all the plants and animals, including us, are on chaotic stages; out-of-balance and just trying to survive. This dynamic, unpredictable, and yes, unstable, ecological theater in which most organisms simply and indifferently eat other ones, is the decisive expression of the sublime—the terrible uncertainty and ultimate incomprehensibility of the world around us that includes us. We can keep on trying to balance an unbalanced planet; tweaking, even geo-engineering, and ultimately destroying what our metaphors do not allow us to understand, or we can construct new metaphors so that we can more quietly observe the world and more gently live in it, on it, and with it.

11 September 2013


[1] Released May 21, 2013.

[2] For additional discussion of ecology, the sublime, and landscape art, see my 2013 paper “The suffocating embrace of landscape and the picturesque conditioning of ecology,” Landscape Journal 32: 79-94.

[3] In the spirit of full disclosure, my own research on tipping points, thresholds, indicators of regime shifts, and alternative states in aquatic ecosystems has been generously supported by the US National Science Foundation.

[4] A Dictionary of Ecology (ed. Michael Allaby, Oxford University Press, 2010)

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