Green Caution: The Tipping Point Fallacy

I asked a person involved in a green initiative how her organization assembled evidence of their material impact on the community's carbon footprint. She was clearly taken aback by my question and replied to the effect that, "We haven't, but I believe that we are moving the community toward a tipping point." Her response was instructive on two counts.

The first is the fact that she was both unprepared for and put off by the query. Her organization was clearly not engaged in a discipline of evidence-based greening.

Second, in falling back onto belief, rather than knowledge, she invoked the idea of a tipping point.

The concept of tipping points was popularized by writer Malcolm Gladwell. It is generally understood to mean a level at which change becomes unstoppable or the point at which a formerly stable system changes state. The term is sometimes used interchangeably with 'critical mass'.

What we know of tipping points allows us to be descriptive, but not predictive. We can characterize the quantity and timing of a tipping point that has happened, but we cannot predict these attributes for future tipping points. Therefore, it is not possible to objectively determine if any particular initiative is or is not accelerating a hypothetical tipping point.

The statement "I believe that we are moving the community toward a tipping point" is a faith-based, rather than an evidence-based, one because it can neither be proven nor dis-proven. When our green initiatives forego the hard work and social risks inherent in establishing baselines, measuring progress, and executing transparently in favor of vague assertions of virtue, we are in danger of doing a disservice to ourselves, our communities, and the environment.

As always, Green ICTers and other STEM practitioners can help by the fostering quantitative, objective aspects in sustainability initiatives within their enterprises and communities.