Five Ingredients to Reach a Tipping Point

May 5, 2018

The Tipping Point. That Holy Grail for all those wanting to see cultural change. It’s something we long for in many different areas, but it’s frustratingly elusive and nigh-on impossible to predict when it will happen.

In the UK we have witnessed an amazing tipping point recently around plastic. Individuals and organisations have been trying to go against the current for years: reducing our own plastic use, asking supermarkets to make changes, pushing the government to do more on this issue… and then suddenly, within the space of about six months, we find the tide has turned and we’re being caught up in a surge of interest, with individuals, government and businesses tripping over themselves in a bid to show who’s dealing most with the problem of plastic. The government recently announced both a £61.4 million aid investment in improving waste management and plastics reduction in developing countries and support to a new Commonwealth Clean Oceans Alliance, and this latest announcement from more than 40 companies, pledging to cut plastic pollution over the next seven years is, I’m sure, not going to be the last to come from the business world.

So what can we learn from this? How do we reach a tipping point?

1. Perseverance

The tipping point for plastic was reached, of course, in the final episode of BBC’s Blue Planet 2, though it had been building throughout the other episodes as Attenborough hinted at the horrors that were to be laid bare at the end. What strikes me though is that Attenborough has been doing these sorts of series and saying similar things for decades. Would he have predicted the impact he was about to have with this one? I doubt it. But it only happened because of all the years he has spent wowing us, woowing us and earning our respect. None of us knows when a tipping point will be reached, but we can be encouraged not to give up and to keep going with dogged perseverance.

2. Boldness

Having said that, the BBC took a risk with this one and allowed the programme to present the facts more starkly and say more than any other Attenborough series has done in the past. Well done BBC for making the decision it did – and may we all be encouraged to speak out with boldness on the issues where we want to see change.

3. Beauty

Blue Planet 2 had its impact because we were captivated by the sheer amazing beauty of our seas and oceans. And then the realisation of what we were doing to that beauty struck deeply. This is a reminder that hitting people right at the start with bad news stories and terrible predictions of the future is rarely going to be the motivator that brings about change. Instead, we need to help people find a sense of wonder and awe at the world we live in – to marvel at the beauty of what is around us and, from that place, engender a determination to look after it. For me, recognising the beauty that God has created and starting there is more motivating and powerful than starting with ourselves.

4. Hope

I’ll confess, knowing what the last episode was going to say, I nearly didn’t watch it: I wasn’t sure I could bear it. But I knew I had to and, much to my surprise, it wasn’t the slit-my-wrists experience I thought it was going to be. In fact, it taught me a valuable lesson because the programme highlighted the problems through focusing on the wonderful people who were helping and working to bring about solutions. So we were exposed to the terrible, heart-breaking problems, but in a way that didn’t lead to paralysis and a sense of being overwhelmed, but rather led to hope and a sense of, ‘yes we can do something too’.

5. Togetherness

The Plastic-Less Lent initiative I did caught me totally off-guard. My aim had been to get 100 people to join me, but instead over 2500 joined in, from 55 countries. One of the things that struck me about people’s comments on the FB group we created (and which has continued beyond Lent to become Plastic-Less Living) is that people felt able to make changes because of the support of the group, even one that was only virtual: ‘The community, learning and solidarity has been a great source of inspiration’; ‘This has proved to be the boost I needed to get on and make those changes’; ‘This group has been so good – challenging and encouraging. Thank you and let’s keep on!’, and, ‘This group has been brilliant and reminded me of things I know are important, and I don’t feel so alone in the struggle’, are just some of the many comments people made. Tipping points come when people feel they’re not on their own but are part of a movement.

Five things that help change a culture. There is more that could be said (for example, the media have been hugely instrumental in building public momentum, with the Evening Standard, Daily Mail, Guardian and Sky News all focusing on plastic over the last year) and I would love to hear what you think are key ingredients so we can keep learning together.

Of course, it has only just begun with plastic and there is much more that needs to be done. And, we need to see many more such tipping points: towards vegetable and grain-based diets, for example, and away from fossil fuels and frequent flying.

Knowing how we build movements and reach tipping points will always be frustratingly elusive. But let’s take encouragement from what we have seen in recent months and know that, when all sectors of society combine to take action, we really can see change.

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