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Welcome to the Tipping Point

We live at the tipping points. Will we decide to fulfill or betray the mission history has put before us?

Which side of the tipping point are we on? Between the longing for a golden age that never was and the building of a revolutionary age, which yet may be? (Photo: Melting Glacier via Shutterstock)

“Ah, this dear old planet! All is clear now. We know ourselves; we now know of what we are capable.” —Albert Camus, The Fall

It is the worst of times and the best of times; the end of the world and the beginning of the world. The tipping points between creation and extinction, between apocalypse and revelation, are everywhere you look. Like the fabled kingdom of God, the tipping points are inside you and all around you.

It’s easy to get lost in the information age, and a vague foreboding sense of doom sprinkled with distractions isn’t the best path to peace and justice through the turbulent times ahead. Edward Gibbon, writing about the decline and fall of empire, wrote that, “The winds and waves are always on the side of the ablest navigators.” So we must learn to navigate. A survey of the tipping points that define our precarious calendars and geographies may help – to understand our world, to understand ourselves and to guide both into better harbors.

As Camus said, all is clear now – we know we are capable of both dreadful and beautiful deeds. We need only to look at the world, and then look into the mirror, and decide if we will fulfill or betray the mission history has put before us; we who live at the tipping points; we who are the tipping points.

All around you: They each have their unique dynamics, but they are all converging. They have distinct and diverse causes and effects, but they all feed into each other. What they have in common is that they are all happening now, and that tomorrow may be too late.

Ocean acidification: If it’s difficult to picture the parts-per-million carbon content of the atmosphere, and how it will affect life on earth, instead picture acid being poured into the ocean – about 22 million tons per day. With or without climate change, the accelerating acidification of the oceans is one of the most deadly things happening on the planet, with the most far-reaching consequences. The tipping points come at different times for different species – but at a certain point, organisms can no longer survive. The first big tipping point is the level of acidity at which coral reefs can no longer form, and studies indicate we are hovering at this tipping point today. The death of coral reefs will be quickly followed by the collapse of all the oceanic food chains. The second and even more apocalyptic tipping point will arrive when even plankton – also threatened by warming water – can’t survive. Some predict that if business as usual continues, plankton extinction could arrive by the end of the century. Then the lungs of the planet will collapse, and the last words of Eric Garner will speak for the whole human race.

Melting Ice: Everyone knows the ice is melting, from the top to the bottom of the world. Two different tipping points converge in this process. One has to do with the albedo effect – the way the sun is reflected or absorbed upon contact with the earth’s surface. When sun hits white ice, it bounces off, but when sun hits dark water, it is absorbed. So the more ice melts, the more heat is absorbed, and the more heat is absorbed, the more ice melts – a feedback loop that accelerates until it reaches a tipping point. This warming also precipitates the collapse of massive ice sheets, which threatens to suddenly raise ocean levels on a global scale. But the other effect of this melting ice will be another tipping point – the addition of all the colder water from recently melted ice is culminating in the disruption of ocean currents. Ocean currents like the Gulf Stream have shaped human civilization as we know it, and their disruption will reshape it.

Permafrost: There is a time bomb in Siberia, with a payload that could wipe out humanity. This is not the cold war, but the climate war, and the doomsday clock is ticking in ways we’re only beginning to measure. Several years ago we started noticing methane plumes coming from the ground, and then from the ocean floor, and soon whole towns started sinking into swamp throughout the northern hemisphere. Methane that has been frozen for thousands of years in permafrost is now steaming into the sky – a greenhouse gas thirty times more potent than carbon dioxide. It’s estimated that the Siberian permafrost alone contains over 70 billion tons of methane (equivalent to 1.7 trillion tons of carbon dioxide). Again, the warmer it gets, the more methane is released, and the more methane is released, the warmer it gets. Now giant craters suddenly appearing in the Yamal peninsula indicate that we are approaching even closer to the tipping point that could unleash a literal hell on earth.

Desertification: California has one year of water left. China loses over 1,000 square miles to desert every year. Even the mighty Amazon rainforest approaches a tipping point toward becoming an arid savanna. Add it all up, and National Geographic is calling this a “forest holocaust,” indicating that more than 80 percent of the world’s forests have already been destroyed. The reasons for desertification are many and diverse, from clear-cutting by humans for agribusiness, to changes in climate. But the point is that every forest has a tipping point at which it can no longer sustain itself as an ecosystem. Implied in this forest ecosystem collapse is yet another tipping point – carbon sink reversal – the point at which forests stop absorbing carbon dioxide and start to emit it. Then the lungs of the world start to pump smoke.

Global Temperature: The biggest tipping point of all arrives this year. It was predicted in 2007 in the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.With renewed data and modeling, the IPCC has returned on many occasions to give the same warning in increasingly dire terms: If the global average rise in temperature does not stay within 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial temperatures, then the door is opened to feedback loops in the earth-system that are beyond human mitigation. (For example the melting of all Siberian permafrost, and/or carbon sink reversal in oceans and forests.) To keep us below the two degree threshold, the IPCC gave us a deadline, which has arrived: a carbon emissions peak in 2015, followed by rapid and permanent decline. Now’s the time!

So why aren’t we tipping too? The time is right for a tipping point in the climate justice movement. But while movements for social and environmental justice are happening all over the world, they are not yet adding up to more than the sum of their parts. It’s not looking good for the coral reefs, or the polar bears, or the forests or the 2015 emissions peak. We don’t need more information or more funding or more membership. What we need is a breakthrough. And that’s why we have to look at the tipping points inside of us. They guard the doors and hold the keys to our future, and sooner or later we are going to have to face them.

Inside you: As Manasobu Fukuoka has written, “the process of saving the desert of the human heart and revegetating the actual desert is actually the same thing.” We know what we are capable of. But which side of the tipping point are we on?

Between Disavowal and Daring: Between the denial of everyday death and the embrace of everyday life. Between the fear of sharing in the pain and suffering, which saturates every moment of modernity, and the joy of sharing in the risks and rewards of revolution, which haunt every moment of crisis. Between fearing death and fearing for lack of life. Between ignorance is bliss and the courage of the first kiss.

Between Nostalgia and No Return: Between the longing for a golden age that never was and the building of a revolutionary age, which yet may be. Between daydreaming about the past and fighting the nightmares of the present. Between the quiet democracy that was never real and the thunderous power of the people, which transforms reality. Between fear of the future, disguised as love for the past, and a love of the future that leaves all fear behind.

Between Protest and Prefiguration: Between speaking truth to power and embodying truth with power. Between speeches and satyagrahas, between making demands of the powerful and building the discipline of the powerless. Between begging for a share of surplus and building subsistence – between control of capital and independence from capital. Between better jobs and right livelihoods. Between signing petitions and growing food, between hollering slogans and healing the soil. Between conferences and convergences, between lamenting problems and creating solutions. Between mudslinging at your enemies and getting your hands dirty with your friends, between hating the empire and loving yourself as part of its alternative, between indignation and imagination.

Between Resistance and Revolution: Between defense and offense, between the war of position and the war of maneuver, between holding the line and coming full circle. Between challenging privileges and challenging private property, between digging trenches and commanding heights, between defending institutions of the middle class and building associations of the working class. Between feminism and matriarchy, between environmentalism and ecosocialism, between antiracism and national liberation. Between civil society and class struggle, between fair trades of commodities and free associations of creators, between resisting enclosures and building the commons.

It is a relevant historical coincidence that our year of the tipping point coincides with the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta. Learning from the past to transform the future, the 21st century is ripe for a new Magna Carta Manifesto, to give expression and coherence to the anticapitalist common sense that dawns around the world. A new charter for a new age – to be made not with kings or nobles, states or corporations, but an agreement with each other, a pact with nature and with our own nature.

A covenant against the desert and a charter of reforestation – a promise to the oceans and the glaciers, and a prayer to the permafrost – a declaration of interdependence and a pledge of allegiance to all our relations: Tomorrow may be too late. Use your own words. Shout it from the window. The world is listening. You have arrived. Welcome to the tipping point.

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