Shooting from the lip on hopium and “social tipping points”

So, a friend tagged me in a Twitter (RIP?) thread which mentioned a rare (1) new article by Benjamin Sovacool, who is my boss and also – sorry, I know this is excruciatingly sycophantic and would get me a Private Eye OBN – a thoughtful and kind person, whose work is really useful (full disclosure – on multiple occasions and in different ways Benjamin has been supportive and wise).

Benjamin’s new article is here-Beyond science and policy: Typologizing and harnessing social movements for transformational social change

I have begun reading it, and it looks very useful indeed.

I have also engaged in the Twitter thread below.

and, bless, the blog post I linked to got read

I replied very short form, but here will expand slightly (but only for a few minutes – grant application overdue, actual papers to be written).


The people pushing “social tipping points” do not impress me much. They do not convince me because they are on the whole throwing around words like “emergence” or “emergent properties” as a kind of mystic woo-woo. They remind me of prophets whose past predictions have come to naught, and are asking their remaining believers to Keep the Faith. And by dishing out the hopium, they’re not forcing themselves, or their followers (awful concept) to rigorously and vigorously reflect on the reasons for past defeat. The only ‘explanation’ that is given is the evil power of The Bad Guys. And I think if you are trying to explain Guatemala 1954, or Chile 1973, (or a host of other imperialist aggressions) then that IS a good enough explanation- the ‘good guys’ were murdered en masse..

But it doesn’t help us understand why, in countries with freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of information etc, that the social movements have not made much much better progress on the One Big Issue – the ecological (broader than climate!) footprint (or bootprint) of the rich societies, the need for degrowth, for new technologies (I am not a “Luddite”), and transfer of those technologies. Lucas Plan on steroids, in other words.

And I don’t know what “social tipping points” would look like for socio-technical systems, anyway. Social tipping points for social mores, for social institutions like same-sex marriage, or overt racism? Yeah, I can understand that, I can believe that, with decades of work by brave and unsung individuals and groups there might appear to be a “social tipping point.”

But for ENERGY systems?


For TRANSPORT systems?

These large technical systems all have immense obduracy

So, I think in the mouths of social movement “leaders”, who vary from pure grifters through to heart-in-the-right-place-but-(wilfully)-ignorant-of-how-the-systems-work, then tipping points is just at best a delay/distraction (throwing a live cat on the table, inviting everyone to say how cute it is. Yes, you too Cameron R) and at worst an actively damaging (albeit soothing) story we tell ourselves during our death rattle.


(1) It’s a standing joke that Benjamin Sovacool publishes more articles in a year than most academics do in a decade. Not always sole or lead author, but still, it’s crazy.

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