EcoTipping Points: The Fine Art of Environmental Aikido

Success stories, where environmental decline is actually reversed, are an alarmingly small part of what is happening in the world today. But they do exist. The EcoTipping Points Project has collected environmental success stories from around the world, to identify the lessons they offer.

Examination of environmental success stories has revealed two important features they have in common:

  • Dramatic switches in human/ecosystem interaction that characterize both decline and restoration.
  • Identifiable levers – “tipping points” – which set the switches in motion.

Like an aikido master, who redirects an opponent’s momentum to his advantage, EcoTipping Points marshal ecological and social forces responsible for environmental problems, so they serve as driving forces for restoration and sustainability. Small changes can make a big difference. The EcoTipping Points Project is now disseminating the findings so local communities can create their own EcoTipping Points. 

When I stepped off the outrigger canoe that motored me over from the mainland, Apo Island greeted me like a palm-shaded Shangri-La. Thirty minutes from the coast of Negros, in the Philippines, the feeling was laid-back. From under a thatched roof, women approached the boat ramp. They were offering tee shirts and sarongs, emblazoned with tropical fish. Young children were playing on a teeter-totter, made of bamboo and driftwood. Older ones were still in school.

It was early afternoon, but the men had already come in from fishing. Some had their nets spread out on the shell beach for repair. Another picked up extra cash by ferrying a pig to market on Negros. Farther back from the beach was a dive shop and a small hotel, catering to tourists enticed by the pristine coral reefs. Still further, along a well-swept concrete path, I could see where some of the extra income was going. Many of the houses sported TV antennas. In the evening, after the island’s diesel generator cranked up, some of the families would be watching their favorite soap opera. Their sets would be turned towards the window, so the neighbors could pull up chairs and watch from outside.

On the surface, it was an easygoing existence. But as I talked to some of the islanders, I discovered they didn’t take it for granted. Thirty years ago, their livelihood had been endangered by a creeping ecological disaster. Fishing was the foundation of island life, and that foundation was eroding away. The fish were disappearing.

If you want to glimpse the direction in which Apo Island was headed, you can look at hundreds of other communities around the archipelago. Their fishing economies have collapsed and taken their cultures with them. A typical example is the Cibulon fishing community near Dumaguete City. There, a fisherman can go out all day and come home with just a couple of fish, or none at all. Many of the young men have traded in their boats to drive taxis. Others have taken jobs as construction workers or peddlers. They’re working harder and longer and still earning less.

What separates Apo Island from so many other Philippine villages? When I asked any islander, I got the same answer: the marine sanctuary. Twenty years ago, in a break with tradition, the island’s fishermen set aside part of their shoreline. They agreed that from that day on, they would no longer fish there. That lone event set forces in motion that saved both their fishery and their way of life. That lone event was an EcoTipping Point. (See the complete Apo Island story).

A Paradigm for Paradise Regained

These days, when we read environmental stories in the daily paper, we hear about more Cibulons than we do Apo Islands. Around the world, there’s a parade of paradises lost, and with them, the lost fruits on which humans depend. Rainforests are turning to cattle ranches. Grasslands are turning to deserts. Rivers are drying up, aquifers are running down, and cities and countries are scrapping over what’s left.

Over the past forty years, environmental protection has won many battles. But many of us have a gnawing sense that we’re losing the war. For every ancient tree that’s saved, a dozen others seem to get cut down. For every industrial poison that’s outlawed, five new ones are created. The very climate of the earth is out of balance, and scientists fear it’s poised to pass a point of no return.

As we wrestle with threats like pollution, global warming or extinctions, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed. We’re straining to paddle our boat upstream, while the currents shove it implacably towards the rocks. The currents pushing against us are social, economic and political. They’re impersonal forces like the population explosion and globalization, the consumer society and its relentless drive to cut economic costs at the expense of environmental ones. They’re overrunning our natural resources, and they’re no easier to oppose than a raging river.

Not that we haven’t tried. Over the decades, we’ve thrown billions of dollars and words at environmental problems. Although we’ve attempted a wide range of remedies, they seem to boil down to three common paradigms:

  • The machine. We attempt to control ecosystems, redesigning them to work more like machines. We turn a river into a canal. We replace manure and mulch with chemical fertilizers. We estimate the maximum number of fish we can catch without destroying the fishery – and too often, get it wrong.
  • The rulebook. Like a dam restraining a river, we try holding back the social currents. We pass laws and regulations to prevent pollution, to limit the deer a hunter can shoot or the acres a developer can pave over.
  • The market. At the opposite extreme, we get rid of government regulation and trust that free-market economies will solve the problems they create. As a resource grows scarce, we assume clever inventors will devise substitutes, and they’ll do it before the environment is damaged beyond repair.

Each of these strategies has had its triumphs, but each has built-in limits. Ecosystems are ever-changing systems, not predictable machines. Regulations can be expensive to enforce and obey, and so they often get steamrolled by political and economic pressures. Markets tend to run wild, without a hefty dose of oversight, and they don’t account for costs that don’t show up on balance sheets, like the loss of a rainforest or coastal salt marsh.

What’s more, all three paradigms are missing a critical component: the individual. They operate above the level of the average citizen and deprive us of ways to have a meaningful impact.

I believe there is another way. Quietly, around the globe, ordinary citizens are creating a new paradigm for saving our natural systems. Though most are not thinking in such lofty terms, together their stories show how small groups can solve problems that big government and big business can’t.

They’re rediscovering the ancient principle of the lever – a device that allows a tiny force to move a large object. The Greek scientist Archimedes said in the Third Century B.C. that with the right lever and the right place to stand, he could move the world. Press on the right lever, and a small action can tip an entire system in a new direction, from ruin to rebirth. Adapting the “tipping point” phrase popularized by author Malcolm Gladwell, I call these levers EcoTipping Points – levers that turn environmental decline to a course of restoration and sustainability.

The essence of the EcoTipping Points paradigm is that, when we put a lever in the right place, a small push can jump-start nature’s ability to heal itself. A minor change can multiply into major ones, until the entire system is changed.

EcoTipping Points take advantage of a central insight of ecology: that natural systems organize themselves. Unlike a machine, which is designed from without, a natural system largely designs itself from within. It changes continuously, to adapt to changing conditions. In the process, it can amplify small causes into large effects.

Many of our environmental crises grow out of nature’s self-organizing powers, after a small disturbance sets a vicious cycle in motion. Cattle overgraze a grassland, prickly shrubs replace the grass, and an ecosystem tips to being a desert.

But understanding this dynamic gives us a chance to reverse it. An apt analogy is the martial art of Aikido, which can be translated as “The Art of Peace.” Instead of meeting force with force, the goal is to turn an attacker’s force back at the attacker. With EcoTipping Points, the same forces that have been breaking ecosystems down turn around and begin building them back up.

Flipping Ecological “Switches” in East Africa and Southeast Asia

In my career as an ecologist, I’ve seen time and time again how a small action can launch a cascade of effects that switch an entire ecosystem from one state to another. New species and new processes replace many of the old ones, and the ecosystem’s new habits are hard to break.

The first dramatic switch I observed was in Africa, in the waters of the world’s second-largest freshwater lake. Lake Victoria was a living museum of biodiversity, an underwater equivalent of Darwin’s Galapagos Islands. Over a surface area the size of Ireland, bordering three countries - Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania - fish populations had evolved into some 350 species. I was there to figure out why many of those species were declining, particularly on the Kenyan side of the lake. Fifteen years before, a hundred-meter gillnet would come out of the water with fifty fish tangled in its mesh. By 1973, when I arrived, the same net might catch only two or three.

At first, the cause of the problem seemed obvious: overfishing. But after three painstaking years of counting catches, it began to dawn on me that the biggest culprits were not human. They were other fish. Lake Victoria was in the midst of a massive switch.

The switch had been set in motion in 1962, when British colonial administrators in Jinja, Uganda had slipped an Ethiopian species into Lake Victoria’s waters. Their well-intentioned goal had been to increase fish catches, but the effect was like setting Godzilla loose in Tokyo. The Nile perch was a carnivore with no natural predators of its own. A single specimen could grow up to six feet in length and weigh over 400 pounds. Its size was matched by its appetite.

Bit by bit, this real-life monster was spreading throughout Lake Victoria, and it was catching many times more fish than the local fishermen. By the time I left Kenya, in 1976, Nile perch were starting to replace native fish in the market stalls. Ten years later, the perch had crowded many native species out of the entire lake.

The decline of native species that fed on water plants cleared the way for a second invasive organism and a second switch. The water hyacinth took over 30,000 acres of the lake surface. Its floating weeds choked out fish and smothered the phytoplankton on which the fish fed. It made near-shore fishing impossible, because fishing boats couldn’t move. An ecological balance of a thousand years was destroyed in thirty, and with so many species gone, Lake Victoria would never switch back.

The nutritional impact of the switch has been devastating for millions of East Africans. The lake’s native fish had been their main source of animal protein. Now, most locals can’t afford the Nile perch filets, which are flown to markets in Europe and other wealthy nations. (An award-winning film about what has happened to the fishery and people of Lake Victoria because of Nile perch at

I saw more destructive switches in the 1980s, as I studied changes in agriculture and natural resource use in Southeast Asia. In Kenya, I had concentrated on purely ecological changes. Here, I learned to take a broader view, that these switches were a dynamic dance between human society and the environment. My focus shifted to Human Ecology, the study of how ecosystems interact with human social systems. I came to view both as a single, integrated system, an eco-social system in which what happens on one side affects both sides. Once change is set in motion, the effects can reverberate back and forth until both systems are profoundly altered.

I witnessed an especially striking set of eco-social changes in the remote mountains of the Philippines. In the Cordillera highlands of northern Luzon, the fiercely independent Igorot people had fought off both Spanish and American colonizers to maintain their way of life. But they were less successful at resisting the enticements of vegetable brokers.

The Igorot had developed an agriculture that was admirably suited to their precipitous mountainsides. On lower slopes, some of their terraced rice paddies were more than 1,000 years old. On steeper terrain, they plied a sustainable cycle of slash-and-burn agriculture. First, they would cut a patch of forest down. For one or two years, they’d grow a polyculture of subsistence crops like corn, squash, sugar cane, peanuts, garlic and cassava. Finally, they would move on to a new patch, leaving the old one to go wild and rebuild its fertility. Many of these patches had circulated in families for centuries, with no loss of topsoil.

Things changed after World War II. As roads began to connect the rugged valleys to the capital city of Manila, entrepreneurs eyed the mountains as a vegetable basket for they city’s swelling population. They offered farmers of the Cordillera a package deal for a switch to cabbage and potatoes: The middlemen provided seeds, tools and pesticides on credit, and promised to buy their crops.

These deals proved to be a disastrous tipping point. Instead of a wide variety of foodstuffs, mimicking the diversity of the original forest, the farmers grew only a single crop in each field, with lots of bare ground between the plants. Instead of moving on after a few years, they farmed the fields until the soil was exhausted or washed away.

I saw the results with my own eyes. What started with a simple change of crops was leading to deforestation and soil erosion. I stood in potato fields that had lost so much soil in 15 years that the unfarmed land next to them came up to my chest.

A social switch mirrored the ecological one. After a few profitable years, farmers found they had to spend more and more on fertilizers and pesticides. Stuck with mounting debts and barren fields, they had two options. Some chose to farm new patches, destroying more trees and more topsoil. Others abandoned the valleys of their ancestors and joined the hungry mouths in the big cities. As farmers moved away, middlemen moved to new locations and started the whole process over, scarring more and more of the Cordillera. (See more information about what happened in the Philippine Cordillera.)

In years since, I’ve seen the same tragedy repeated around the world, in different countries and different contexts. Tropical forests are transformed to pastures, which deteriorate into useless scrubland, and more forest is cleared for pasture. Coastal mangroves are cleared for shrimp ponds, until the ponds go out of production due to mounting ecological problems, and the shrimp farming moves on to destroy more mangrove. A suburb springs up, as an escape from the decay of the inner city, until the suburb itself decays and new suburbs gobble up more of the countryside.

Once one location is degraded, the vicious cycle moves on to a new location, until it too is degraded. Over time, a lot of local switches add up to switch a much larger region.

When I lived in New Orleans, I saw how this process could lead to the collapse of an entire city. Seventy years of flood control by levees had created a false sense of security that stripped the city of its flood defenses. The city gradually expanded into low-lying areas, where no sensible person would have dared to live before. Flood-resistant designs for house construction were gradually abandoned.

Over the same period, the levee system eroded the region’s natural flood control by disrupting natural cycles of sediment deposition in coastal wetlands. Bit by bit, marsh ecosystems switched to open water. A devastating flood was inevitable, and it came when Hurricane Katrina barreled through in 2005. The marshes weren’t there to soak up the storm surge, and vast areas of New Orleans were damaged beyond recovery.

The Power of Positive Tipping

As I watched system after system pass points of no return, my perspective on environmental problems began to shift. It wasn’t enough to try and stop their downward spirals. We needed ways to break into those spirals to turn them in healthier directions. The answer seemed to lie in the same lever-and-switch dynamic that was driving the problems in the first place. I started looking for positive switches. And I found some examples, though they were not nearly as numerous as the negative ones.

The first was a story I’ve used to teach university students about levers and switches. From time immemorial, people in India have used wood for cooking their food. As the population exploded during the Twentieth Century, villagers stripped trees and bushes from the hillsides. The resulting soil erosion clogged irrigation canals and damaged cropland. To make matters worse, the fuelwood shortage forced families to burn more cow dung and crop residues, instead of using them to fertilize their fields. As a result, they weren’t able to grow as much food. Children did much of the fuel collection, reinforcing the need for large families and further fueling population growth. 

In the early 1980s, a low-tech innovation offered hope for turning these interconnected problems around. Biodigesters were large tanks filled with human waste, animal dung, and crop residues. As the contents fermented, they created methane gas for cooking. But cooking gas was just one of the eco-social benefits. Families needed less fuelwood, taking the pressure off the forests. Leftover solids, removed from the tanks after fermentation, were spread on the fields. The added fertilizer boosted food production. See the biodigester story in more detail.

Biodigesters alone cannot save India’s forests from the enormous pressures of population. They still provide only 2 percent of the nation’s cooking fuel. But more than 3 million Indian households now have them, and they have helped many communities reduce their demand for ecologically-destructive fuels. Most intriguing to me was the idea that a simple change in an energy source could set larger changes in motion. I had found what I later came to call an EcoTipping Point.

A more dramatic case, in which I played a part, used a tiny shrimp-like creature to control a deadly disease.

Dengue fever afflicts as many as one hundred million people worldwide each year. About a million, mainly children, suffer internal bleeding – dengue hemorrhagic fever – which requires hospitalization to save their lives. Dengue is transmitted from one person to another by a mosquito, Aedes aegypti, the same culprit that carries yellow fever. Aedes aegypti is the “house mouse” of the mosquito world, a domestic pest that breeds in storage tanks and other water-filled containers around people’s homes.

Back in the 1950’s and 1960’s, the World Health Organization mounted a worldwide campaign to spray houses with the pesticide DDT. Aedes aegypti almost disappeared. DDT seemed like a miracle, but unfortunately, the success was short-lived.

Health officials had not reckoned with the self-organizing powers of nature: in this case, the process of natural selection. The insects evolved to resist DDT. Heavier applications of the poison only produced more resistant mosquitoes. Eventually, the WHO gave up the race. Governments couldn’t afford more expensive pesticides. In the 1970s, Aedes aegypti and dengue came roaring back.

My idea was to reverse the failed strategy, by working with nature’s processes instead of against them. In the wild, fish and other natural predators usually keep mosquito larvae under control. But these natural enemies seldom make it into the manmade containers where Aedes aegypti breeds. It hasn’t worked to put fish into these containers, but it turns out that other predators can do the job: little-known creatures with the mythological name of “cyclops.”

Cyclops are copepod crustaceans, a mere two millimeters long. But their appetite outstrips their small stature. They’re the great white sharks of the small animal aquatic world. They have no eyes, their name coming from a single, light-sensitive spot in the middle of their head. Using their highly-sensitive antennules to detect vibrations in the water, they pounce on any small animal unfortunate enough to swim nearby. With a mouth like a wood chipper, they can shred an animal up to twice their size within minutes. And they’re soon ready to grab the next meal.

Much as Nile perch tipped Lake Victoria, by gobbling up competing fish, cyclops can tip the miniature ecosystem of a water tank, so that virtually no Aedes aegypti make it out alive.As a bonus, cyclops can be mass produced in plastic garbage cans, cheaply and by the millions. They can be mailed to local health workers on damp foam rubber cubes, fifty cyclops on each one-centimeter cube. Drop one cube into a water tank, like sugar into a cup of coffee, and within a month the water is teeming with thousands of hungry mouths. Spreading cyclops to all the other containers in a community is as simple as ladling water from the tank that already has them.

In 1993, Vietnamese scientists tried out the cyclops strategy in Phamboi, a village of 400 households. Motivation was high. Two million Vietnamese children had been hospitalized with dengue hemorrhagic fever during the previous several decades, and 13,000 had died.

After the scientists explained cyclops to everyone in the village, members of the village women’s association went door-to-door, sowing them like Johnny Appleseeds. They inspected each tank at least once a month, to make sure the tiny carnivores were still present. Within a year, Aedes aegypti had vanished from the village, and not one has been seen again.

Since then, cyclops have tipped nearly a thousand Vietnamese villages and urban neighborhoods into freedom from the dreaded mosquito. A simple change, introducing an inconspicuous creature into the human-made environment, has rid a million people of the scourge of dengue. What’s more, the mosquitoes won’t be evolving resistance. Cyclops and mosquito larvae have been predator and prey for millions of years. (See the cyclops story in more detail.)

A Search for EcoTipping Points

These two tales of positive switches – the biodigester and the cyclops – inspired me to seek out more. I wanted to help people create their own positive switches. EcoTipping Points could be a tool to make human ecology practical for the average citizen. They could give people a simple but powerful way to make sense of complex eco-social systems. More important, they could inspire action. They could put our hands on the levers of change.

To gather more stories, and to bring them to life on the printed page, I enlisted the collaboration of two journalists. I’ve known Steve Brooks since the late 1980s, when he was a reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune. He now lives in Austin, Texas. Amanda Suutari is a Canadian environmental writer whom I first met in Japan. Together, we’ve been scouting the globe for environmental success stories, for tales in which sick ecosystems have surprised the doctors and gotten better. We’ve analyzed them for EcoTipping Points and teased out the principles and lessons they had to offer.

The more we’ve looked, the more we’ve been surprised, both at how many EcoTipping Points we’ve found and how much they have in common. A few of the cases we’ve unearthed:

  • In Rajasthan, India, thousands of wells had gone dry. By restoring small traditional dams to catch the monsoon rains, villagers have turned wasteland into forests and fields. Wildlife has returned, and vanished rivers have sprung to life, all for a fraction of the cost of a major dam project. (See the entire story.)
  • When Arcata, California, needed an expensive wastewater plant, it chose instead to build an artificial wetland. Today, a former city dump and millpond has tipped into 100 acres of marshes. They filter water while attracting 200 species of migratory birds and 150,000 visitors a year. (See the entire story.)
  • In the Andean lowlands of Peru, a plastic bottle is the key to saving the poison dart frog and the rainforest in which it breeds. It tips the economic balance, so that campesinos can earn more from conserving trees than from cutting them down. (See the entire story.)
  • In New York City, guerilla gardeners have turned rubble-strewn vacant lots into urban oases. Tomato vines have achieved what city police could not: strengthening neighborhoods and driving out crime. (See the entire story.)
  • Portland, Oregon (see the entire story) and Salt Lake City (see the entire story) are fighting the ills of urban sprawl by inviting the average citizen to be an urban planner. Their bottom-up planning processes have created a series of tipping points for reducing traffic, curbing pollution and building a sense of community.

Stories like these show us a pragmatic road to that elusive goal called “sustainability.” We don’t have to draw a detailed roadmap. We don’t need to micromanage each and every facet. Instead, we can make some key changes, and let the system use its self-organizing powers to redesign itself. We can trust nature’s innate ability to heal itself, and people’s innate abilities to arrange their own communities. (See more information about how EcoTipping Points work at

In complex systems, there are no quick fixes. EcoTipping Points don’t solve problems overnight. But in a world of limited resources, they offer a fresh lens for looking at our most vexing problems, from water shortages and species loss to poverty and crime. Moreover, it’s not a vision of a utopian future. It’s at work here and now.

On the EcoTipping Points website, you’ll meet some of the people and places that are bringing this new paradigm to life. In telling their stories, the goal is to provide ingredients for creating EcoTipping Points in your own backyard. Whether home is a South Pacific island or an American suburb, an elementary school or a high-tech factory, you can try this at home.

These tales challenge the conventional wisdom that people and nature are doomed to be perpetually at odds. They challenge the fear that environmental problems are too big, too costly and too complicated to solve. The solutions can be unexpectedly simple, and start out surprisingly small.

In a time when it’s easy to feel hopeless, I believe there’s hope for our biosphere and our societies. Part of that hope lies in a strategic environmentalism that works with natural and social forces, instead of standing against them. It’s not only desirable to live in peace with nature. It’s achievable.

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