Monday, December 12, 2016

The curious silence about “eco-social" tipping points

This is adapted from a section of "Sounding the Alarm: Health in the Anthropocene" (Butler, C. D. (2016).  International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health 13: 665; doi:610.3390/ijerph13070665.)

There is an increasing literature about environmental (or ecological) tipping points and it is intuitively obvious to some that sufficient environmental change will inevitably induce, or be accompanied by, large-scale social change. However, despite this intuitive attraction, there is comparatively little recent scientific literature on this subject, particularly in association with the Anthropocene, Earth system science, Planetary Boundaries, and Limits to Growth, though it is implicit. For example, the subtitle of the Planetary Boundaries articles is a “safe operating space” not for the Earth system, but for “humanity”.

If the environment changes sufficiently, can society remain largely unaffected?

This reticence appears in part be a reaction against “environmental determinism”, the largely shunned idea, first formulated in the 18th century, that many social and historical phenomena are influenced (even “controlled”) by environmental factors and changes. It is thus important to stress that social changes in response to major environmental shifts are not inevitable, but may occur. The concept is of importance if Limits to Growth and Planetary Boundaries are valid, because it means, beyond thresholds, such changes increase the risk to society, to health and, especially, to those who are poor  and vulnerable.

Extreme interpretations in the other direction (i.e., that environmental determinants are irrelevant to human well-being) not only violate the precautionary principle but appear ideological. But, of course, relationships are not simple, nor always inevitable. Eco-social tipping points may exist, but they can be avoided.

The rest is not adapted, and is previously unpublished:

Chinese sensitivities

There is a second reason for tabooing this idea. Curiously, it too relates to environmental determinism. When I was working (in 2015) on the health section of the Regional Assessment for the Asia Pacific, for the United Nations Environment Programme's Environmental Outlook, a reviewer asked me to mention how social inequalities contribute to poor health. In response, I inserted about two short sentences, with some examples from the Asia Pacific  - for example the discrimination faced by Indigenous people in Australia, the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Buddhist and Hindu minorities in Bangladesh, the dalits in India, and the Tibetans and Uighurs in China. But, this did not survive in the published report. A subsequent reviewer, who (unsurprisingly) was Chinese, censored this, claiming the report should only consider environmental determinants. In other words, this reviewer was saying, the physical environment should not be considered as interacting with society.

This is absurd; only has to think of the umbrage the Chinese have taken following Donald Trump's phone conversation with President Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. Almost all disputes, including wars, concern at their heart, tangible (environmental) factors, such as money, land, water and food. Yet, this link with physical factors is often downplayed and sometimes frankly denied.

The existence of the concept of eco-social tipping points (eg in Syria, Yemen, Burundi, Rwanda, Sudan) is important, because it thus follows that there are limits to physical growth, and that humans need to co-operate, on a global scale, if we are to survive as an advanced civilization.