29 October 2011

Tipping Points

By Mark Crutchley

The evidence is beginning to mount that the developed world may be close to reaching a tipping point beyond which nothing we know will ever be the same again.

Most people are probably aware of the concept of tipping points, having come across them in association with environmental effects. So the threat of an ice free Arctic in the Summer, irreversible melting of the Greenland ice sheet, or collapse of the ocean circulation system which keeps us warm through the gulf stream, are examples of systems where an environmental tipping point has been discussed. The concept is that while small changes in a system may to date have resulted in equally small consequences, there is a threshold beyond which any further change may have a significant effect on the system.

But it isn’t in the context of the environment that I want to discuss the possible approach of a tipping point, but rather in society as a whole. We live in a system where our economic lives are ruled by a global capitalism model in which the majority of the rewards are channelled to a very small minority of people. It is a winner takes all society, where 99% of the people are losers.

It is a society where people are encouraged to believe that they too could be an X Factor winner, millionaire footballer, lottery winner or successful entrepreneur; but where the reality is more likely to be that their job is off-shored to India, their care-home closed or their house repossessed.

Most people in the developed world have acquiesced in the operation of this society because they too felt they were getting better off or had a good chance of doing so. But as the economics of this have begun to unwind in the last few years, so we have seen the beginning of people questioning just whether this model of society really is what they want. Not that you would know it to listen to our politicians. Keen though they may be to lecture the rest of the world on where it is going wrong and what is needed for a more just society, the idea that we need a social revolution here in the UK, Europe or the USA, doesn’t seem to have entered their consciousness. Apparently all we need is to arrange a few more loans and get the growth show back on the road again. Take a look at this excellent little video to see what I mean:


Do people still believe that? Or are we at last waking up to the fact that being passive consumer fodder for the global capitalism machine is not something we should be aspiring to? Is it significant that the ”occupy” movement began in the heart of American capitalism and has been gathering strength as time has gone on rather than petering out as many expected? The thing about tipping points is that you can see them very clearly with the benefit of hindsight, but at the time they are happening all is obscure.

Whether society is reaching a tipping point therefore I think is still in question; but I don’t there is similar scope for doubt about the financial world. We have just seen a major Western country have to (effectively) default on half its debt, yet even then its problems are far from solved. The system may struggle on now for a while, but only until Italy, Portugal, Ireland, Spain or one of the other financially crippled nations becomes the next domino to fall. We are tackling a debt crisis by raising more debt! It might have worked in the days when economies were growing strongly, but it cannot do so now, because the multi-national companies which dominate our system have no stake in the welfare of any individual nation. Growth and jobs will go where labour is cheapest, not here, and the benefits will flow to the few.

If I am right and we really have passed the financial tipping point though, it brings closer the time when we reach the social one; and as I said at the start, things will never be the same again.

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