On tipping-points

“How did you go bankrupt?”

“Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Imagine heating a pan of cold water over a flame. Soon, you will have a pan of warm water; then it becomes hot and begins to smoke. After a while, small bubbles begin to form around the edge. And then, hey presto! You have a pan of boiling water.

This is an example of a state change. You have a state of affairs – the cold water – to which a stimulus is applied – the heat. For a while, things go on much as they were; there’s no dramatic difference between the original cold water and the warm version. But then you reach a point when things do change dramatically. Suddenly you have something with which you can make tea, for instance, or cook eggs, or even power a locomotive if you have enough of it.

There are many examples of state changes with which we are all familiar. The transition from a cloudy sky to rain is an example known to all non-desert-dwellers, and it has clear practical consequences. Overcast skies won’t water your vegetables. It’s also something you can’t necessarily predict just based on the initial conditions. Someone who had only known the desert might be surprised by clouds, and it’s highly unlikely they could use them to forecast rain.

If you take if off the heat, boiling water will cool back down. Tipping-points, however, are not so obliging. They are state changes that stay changed. Consider death. I think we can agree that death is not reversible, in the normal course of events. It can also be brought on by surprisingly small causes; an aneurysm, for example. A complex system – the body, in this case – flips from one state (being alive) to a different state (being dead). While the person was alive, they were in a steady state; which is to say that people who are alive mostly carry on being alive. When they died, they went into another steady state; dead people usually stay dead. This is the nature of tipping-points.

I bring this up now for a couple of reasons. Firstly, tipping-points or potential tipping-points are in the news as the moment, specifically in regard to the climate, although as I’ve already shown they occur in many other contexts. Any complex system, in fact, will exhibit tipping-points, as I shall go on to discuss. The second reason, of course, is that this is the autumn equinox up here in the northern hemisphere, the point at which the nights start being longer than the days, and we begin to approach winter. But this is not a tipping-point: it is entirely predicable, and in six months’ time it will reverse itself. It does, however, so happen to mark the first anniversary of this blog.

Here’s another complex system which is also in the news at the moment: the supply chain. Of course, in reality there are multiple supply chains which interact with one another in complex ways. Shortages in one area can have impacts in many others. For example, a shortage in available trucks is leading to a shortage in spare parts for trucks, which is exacerbating the shortage of trucks. At the same time, for various reasons there is a shortage of people able and willing to drive the trucks that are available. Between them, these shortages are disrupting supplies of everything which moves by truck, which is – well, everything.

The thing with both state changes and tipping-points is that they tend to be impossible to predict with any degree of accuracy. You can be sure that the pan of water will boil at some point, but exactly when is hard to say. Now this isn’t a huge issue if you’re just trying to boil an egg, but it you’re trying to judge when some complex system like an economy is going to collapse then it’s pretty much impossible. This is why not many people get rich off the stock-market. Everyone would like to know when the price of stock X is going to drop like a rock so that they can offload their holdings of stock X onto some other sucker investor (this is actually known as the “greater fool” theory – I’m not kidding). However, without access to privileged information, a.k.a. insider trading, it’s impossible to know for sure.

There are big and important things in our world that are subject to tipping-points. The climate is one; the global economy is another; ecosystems in general, including the human ecosystem, are another. In other words, things are unpredictable. As Robert Anton Wilson ironically suggested, everything is not under control. Readers of this blog will be aware that I am not persuaded that the world as a whole is about to collapse in some all-consuming catastrophe, but that emphatically does not preclude something happening that is quite catastrophic enough to be going on with. We should always bear that in mind.

“May you live in interesting times!” Apparently this is not actually a Chinese curse, but it’s a curse in its way – and maybe also a blessing. Either way, those are the times we live in. I don’t claim to be able to predict when any of the numerous Swords of Damocles hanging over us will drop, but I’m pretty sure this pan of water will come to the boil soon.

In many ways, it doesn’t actually matter than much which one hits first. As Simon Michaux points out in this valuable lecture, the practical actions required to prepare and respond are much the same. But the first step is to grasp the fragility of our situation. We are living on the slopes of a volcano.

Comments are welcome, but I do pre-moderate them to make sure they comply with the house rules.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: