tipping society onto a new path

There's a great article by George Monbiot about mechanism for social change. The article wanders around a bit, but it eventually gets to some good points.


The point of the article is that new ideas can reach a critical level of penetration that causes the whole of society to suddenly “flip” to a new ideological position.


The article reports that researchers have found that society can fundamentally change when "...a critical threshold (is) passed when the size of a committed minority reached roughly 25% of the population" and then “…social conventions suddenly flip


25% certainly isn’t a majority, so how does this work?  George Monbiot proposes that people simply follow what they believe the majority view to be, with no personal analysis; he says:


There’s an aspect of human nature that is simultaneously terrible and hopeful: most people side with the status quo, whatever it may be.  A critical threshold is reached when a certain proportion of the population change their views.  Other people sense that the wind has changed, and tack around to catch it.”


However, I can see another possibility.  I wonder if this indicates that many, or even most, people have already come to rationally agree with a particular proposition, but will only admit they agree when they see enough people around them also agreeing, which allows them to feel comfortable enough to admit it.  This doesn’t mean that they are simply following the pack, rather than they don’t want to be seen as holding a minority view, even if they do.


In a sense, people who openly support a proposition are the visible tip of the iceberg of knowledge, and the invisible mass below the metaphorical surface is the hidden majority that also have that knowledge, but are too insecure to show it; once the visible part reaches 25% they feel safe to reveal their position.


Evidently, more that 50% (a majority) of the people in the society must agree with a proposition, openly or secretly, for public opinion to drive a change.  Certainly, that explains some of the sudden social changes described in George Monbiot’s article.  


I find this encouraging because I'm seeing the interest in, and understanding of, economic degrowth expanding quickly.  If society flips and the idea of economic degrowth to a reduced steady-state economy becomes broadly accepted then we have a chance to get out of the mess that we have made for ourselves.  


 However, there is also the issue of vested interests and their control over the world’s governments – way more than 25% of the population at least appear to understand that we have to deal effectively with climate change, and yet we are not overcoming the vested interests that won't go down easily.  There’s going to be powerful vested interests resisting degrowth, too.


George Monbiot notes the issue of vested interest in his article:


Of course, we should never underestimate the power of incumbency, and the lobbying efforts that an antiquated industry will use to keep itself in business… The fossil fuel companies will do everything in their power to preserve their investments… And if they can thwart action for long enough, the eventual victory of low-carbon technologies might scarcely be relevant, as Earth’s systems could already have been pushed past their critical thresholds, beyond which much of the planet could become uninhabitable.


An example of a “flip”

George Monbiot uses the rollout of electric cars as an example of a “flip”; he notes that:   


…as the performance of batteries, power components and charging points improves and their costs fall, the price of electric cars drops and their desirability soars… As electric cars become more popular, and more polluting vehicles become socially unacceptable, it becomes less risky for governments to impose the policies that will complete the transition. This then helps to scale the new technologies, causing their price to fall further, until they outcompete petrol cars without the need for tax or subsidy, locking in the transition.  This has already happened in Norway, where a change in taxes made electric vehicles cheaper than fossil-fuel cars.  This flipped the system almost overnight: now more than 50% of the nation’s new car sales are electric, and petrol models are heading for extinction.


However, George also notes:


"...what is locally clean is globally filthy. The mining of the materials required for this massive deployment of batteries and electronics is already destroying communities, ripping down forests, polluting rivers, trashing fragile deserts and, in some cases, forcing people into near-slavery. Our “clean, green” transport revolution is being built with the help of blood cobalt, blood lithium and blood copper. Though the emissions of both carbon dioxide and local pollutants will undoubtedly fall, we are still left with a stupid, dysfunctional transport system that clogs the streets with one-tonne metal boxes in which single people travel. New roads will still carve up rainforests and other threatened places, catalysing new waves of destruction.

You can find related posts here:

human populationeconomic growth, ideas, society

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