Understanding EcoTipping Points and Sustainability: Vicious Cycles and Virtuous Cycles

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An EcoTipping Point is a lever that reverses environmental decline, setting in motion restoration and sustainability. EcoTipping Points do this by transforming the feedback loops (vicious cycles) responsible for environmental decline into virtuous cycles that power restoration.

Feedback loops are the key to how EcoTipping Points work. EcoTipping Points set in motion a cascade of effects that reverse the vicious cycles responsible for environmental decline. The vicious cycles are transformed into “virtuous cycles” that propel the eco-social system toward sustainability. The ensuing proliferation of positive effects creates additional virtuous cycles that “lock in” the benefits. Environmental success stories point to the key ingredients that make it all happen.

EcoTipping Points are typically an environmental technology (in the broadest sense), coupled with the social organization to put it into effective use. They are catalytic. EcoTipping Points set in motion a cascade of far-reaching effects through the system.

However, far-reaching effects are not enough. The environmental success stories that we’ve analyzed tell us that the crucial action for both problems and solutions resides in feedback loops, circular chains of cause and effect that amplify small causes into large effects.

Feedback loops explain why vicious cycles are so hard to break. But they also expose the strategic points at which the cycles can be reversed. Like Aikido, the martial art that turns an attacker’s thrusts back on the attacker, EcoTipping Points can identify critical maneuvers for reversing the currents of ecological destruction. Instead of continuing to wear the system down, the same forces begin to build it back up.

Environmental decline can be turned around if the vicious cycles responsible for decline are reversed. EcoTipping Points connect to vicious cycles with the force necessary to do that. Once reversed, the vicious cycles become “virtuous cycles”, driving positive change with the same power that drove the negative change. In effect, the virtuous cycles mobilize natural, social, and economic forces to work for sustainability instead of against it.

EcoTipping Points transform the feedback loops (vicious cycles) responsible for environmental decline into virtuous cycles that power restoration. The examples below show how this happens.

Community Gardens (New York City)

This story is about urban decay and restoration in New York City’s Bowery District. A fiscal crisis in city government during the 1960s precipitated the negative tipping point: a reduction in services (e.g., police and fire protection) in the already depressed Bowery. A system of interconnected and mutually reinforcing vicious cycles was set in motion by the cascade of effects that followed:

  • Reduction in public services led to a deterioration of public infrastructure and safety, causing people to move away.
  • Fewer people on the streets and more vacant properties led to garbage dumping, criminal activity, and homeless beggars, with further deterioration of public safety and more people moving away.
  • Less income for local businesses and less tax revenue for city government led to even less expenditure by city government, landlords, and local businesses for maintenance of buildings and other infrastructure. Buildings and streets fell into disrepair, contributing to further neighborhood deterioration, and more people moved away.
New York City Negative Tip

The positive tipping point began in 1973 when a young artist named Liz Christy saw a small boy playing in a trash-filled, rat-infested vacant lot and she decided to do something about it. She organized some friends to haul out the garbage and truck in soil to establish the Bowery Houston Community Farm Garden.

At first skeptical, the mostly African-American and Hispanic neighbors began to pitch in, and within a few months they were taking home armloads of tomatoes and cucumbers. Besides displacing rats and drug dealers, and creating a much needed green space, the garden also became an “outdoor community center.”

As can be seen in the diagram below, the garden served as the EcoTipping Point that reversed the vicious cycles described above. The vicious cycles of the negative tip were transformed into virtuous cycles (shown in black below):

  • The improvement in neighborhood quality – public safety, buildings and other infrastructure, visual attractiveness, and community spirit – attracted people to move into the neighborhood. More residents meant even more people on the streets and even greater public safety.
  • More residents and fewer vacant properties meant more business income and tax revenue, leading to investment in neighborhood restoration.
  • More income and tax revenue also increased public and private services, further contributing to neighborhood quality.
  • At the same time, a new virtuous cycle of “success breeds success” (shown in blue) arose around the garden, which served as a symbol for improving the neighborhood. The success of the garden, experience with managing it, and improvements in neighborhood quality instilled awareness, pride, and commitment to improving both the garden and the neighborhood even further.

Once news of the garden’s success spread, an entire movement developed. Neighboring neighborhoods established gardens, and in 1978 the city parks department began the Green Thumb program which offered plants, tools, expertise, and $1-per-year leases to community groups. By the late 1980s New York City was home to over 800 community gardens. They even attracted international attention, with people from as far away as China and Sweden visiting to learn how to start community gardens.

Most important, new virtuous cycles “locked in” the benefits. When property values in neighborhoods with gardens increased, the city government tried to sell garden lots for development. However, the pride and commitment of neighborhood residents, as well as experience and organizational capacity they acquired in the course of developing the gardens, enabled residents to take on the city bureaucracy, consolidating the legal tenure of the gardens.

New York City Positive Tip

Read this story as it appeared in World Watch Magazine.

Read the full story of Community Gardens in New York in the EcoTipping Points in-depth article.

Apo Island Marine Sanctuary (Philippines)

The negative tipping point occurred throughout the Philippines with the introduction of destructive fishing methods such as dynamite, cyanide, and small-mesh fishing nets after World War II. Two interlocking and mutually reinforcing vicious cycles were set in motion:

  • The use of destructive fishing methods reduced fish stocks directly through overfishing. Destructive fishing reduced the stocks indirectly by damaging their coral habitat. With declining fish stocks, the fishermen were more and more compelled to use destructive fishing methods to catch enough fish, further degrading habitat and reducing fish stocks.
  • As home fishing grounds deteriorated, fishermen traveled further and further to find less damaged sites where they could catch some fish. They used destructive fishing without restraint because places far from home were of no particular significance for future fishing. Sustainability of the island’s fishing grounds also became less important as fishing shifted away from the island.

The downward spiral of destructive fishing, habitat degradation, diminishing fish stocks, and fishing further from home continued until many places were virtually worthless for fishing.

Apo Island Negative Tip

The positive tipping point for Apo Island was creation of a marine sanctuary, setting in motion a cascade of changes that reversed the vicious cycles in the negative tip. In the diagram below the vicious cycles transformed to virtuous cycles are shown in black. Additional virtuous cycles that arose in association with the marine sanctuary are shown in blue and red.

  • The sanctuary served as a nursery, contributing directly to the recovery of fish stocks in the island’s fishing grounds.
  • Success with the sanctuary stimulated the fishermen to set up sustainable management for the fishing grounds. A virtuous cycle of increasing fish stocks, accompanied by growing management experience, pride, and commitment to the sanctuary, was set in motion.
  • As fishing improved around the island, fishermen were no longer compelled to travel far away for their work. Fishing right at home, where they had to live with the consequences of their fishing practices, reinforced their motivation for sustainable fishing.

Lock in” to sustainability came with the formation of additional virtuous cycles:

  • The increase in fish populations and the health of the reef ecosystem around the island led to tourism. Earnings from tourism provided a strong impetus to keep the marine ecosystem healthy. Although coral reef tourism is frequently not sustainable because tourists damage the coral, the experience of Apo Island’s inhabitants with managing their marine sanctuary and fishing grounds gave them the ability to manage tourism so it didn’t damage the coral.
  • Positive results from the marine sanctuary stimulated the island community to develop a strong marine ecology program in their elementary school, so the new generation values the island’s marine ecosystem and knows how to keep it healthy.
  • Income from tourism gave islanders the ability to send their children to high school and university on the mainland. A few have gone on to study marine science in graduate school. The high educational level of the island’s new generation will give it the ability to deal with unexpected future threats to their fishery and marine ecosystem.
  • Enhanced ecological awareness has led to a family planning program aimed at preventing an increase in population that would overburden the island’s fishery in the future.
Apo Island Positive Tip

Read this story as it appeared in Journal of Policy Studies.

Read the full story of the Apo Island Marine Sanctuary in the Philippines in the EcoTipping Points in-depth article.

Rainwater Harvest (Rajasthan, India)

The negative tipping point in this story was commercial logging concessions granted by the rajahs shortly before India’s independence. A system of vicious cycles was set in motion by the ensuing cascade of effects:

  • Logging reduced the forest’s protection of the watershed from soil erosion. Soil erosion and the sediment load in rainwater runoff increased. More sediment was deposited in johad ponds, reducing their capacity to channel water to the aquifer. With less water input to the aquifer, the water table slowly dropped. Trees and other vegetation died when the water table fell beyond reach of their roots. The loss of vegetation led to even more erosion and sediment in the runoff.
  • Villagers compensated for the drop in the water table by using tube well technology to dig deeper wells. That lowered the water table even further, forcing the digging of even deeper wells.
  • More sediment deposition in the johad required more labor to remove it. This, and the fact that the water supply was shifting to deeper and deeper tube wells, reduced the villagers’ motivation to maintain the johad. As they fell into disrepair, the johad gradually went out of use along with the social institutions and technology for maintaining them.
  • Eventually the water table was so low that even the deepest tube wells were drying up. So did the irrigation water necessary for dry-season agriculture. Men moved to cities to find work, leaving villages without the labor supply needed to maintain the johad. This accelerated decline of the johad and depletion of the aquifer even further.

As can be seen in the diagram below, the four vicious cycles listed above were interconnected and mutually reinforcing. The end result was disappearance of the johad and loss of the local water supplies and village forests. Women and children were cast into a nightmare of walking long distances to collect water and fuel wood. Children had no time for school, and women had little time for other family responsibilities and economic activities.

Rajasthan Rainwater Harvest Negative Tip

The positive tipping point was the restoration of a single johad in Gopalpura village, along with restoration of the traditional gram sabah village council to manage it. The ensuing cascade of effects reversed three of the feedback loops in the negative tip, transforming the vicious cycles to virtuous cycles:

  • Water soon returned to wells near the johad, stimulating the villagers to restore more johad. The technology and social institutions for restoring, maintaining, and building new johad, evolved as more johad were put into service.
  • The water table rose, filling more wells and restoring irrigation agriculture. Men moved back to the villages, providing the labor necessary to restore, build, and maintain even more johad.
  • With the water table once again close to the surface, the villagers planted trees to restore the village forest. The forest not only provided fuelwood but also reduced soil erosion, reducing sedimentation of the johad and making them easier to maintain.

The virtuous cycles continued until all village wells were flowing and the village locked into a sustainable water supply. Women and children no longer had to spend long hours getting water and fuelwood. Children returned to school and women returned more attention to family and economic activities. A new virtuous cycle was set into motion when people from other villages heard about the success in Gopalpura and came to see what happened. Johad spread to hundreds of villages.

Rajasthan Rainwater Harvest Positive Tip

Read this story as it appeared in World Watch Magazine.

Read the full story of the rainwater harvest in India in the EcoTipping Points in-depth article.

Escaping The Pesticide Trap (Andhra Pradesh, India)

The negative tipping point came in the early 1980s with the introduction of cotton farming that included chemical pesticides as an integral part of the production package. Insect control with chemical pesticides proved unsustainable. The farmers descended into a downward spiral of pesticide poisoning and debt:

  • The pest insects developed resistance, setting in motion a vicious cycle of heavier pesticide use and more resistance. Human pesticide poisoning became common.
  • Natural control of the pest insects by birds and predatory insects declined as these animals were killed by heavier insecticide use. This made the farmers even more dependent on insecticides, increasing the quantity of insecticides applied to the fields.
  • Heavy insecticide use cut deeply into the farmers’ income. Compounded with sometimes catastrophic medical expenses due to pesticide poisoning, debt increased, and so did despair and suicides. Debt to pesticide dealers made it difficult for farmers to break away from cotton production and the pesticides.
Andhra Pradesh Negative Tip

The positive tipping point was the introduction of Non-Pesticide Management based on neem and an assortment of other ecological insect control methods. It started in Punukula village. The vicious cycle involving resistance to chemical insecticides disappeared. The ensuing cascade of effects reversed the other two feedback loops in the negative tip, transforming the vicious cycles to virtuous cycles:

  • Natural control was gradually restored as birds and predatory insects returned to the farms.
  • Free of heavy medical expenses and chemical insecticide costs, the farmers realized enough profit to start paying off their debts. Suicides declined and they were able to break away from the pesticide dealers.
  • Confidence from success with Non-Pesticide Management, along with higher incomes from farming, set in motion additional virtuous cycles involving entrepreneurial activities and projects for village welfare:
  • Some of the farmers used their extra money to lease more land for agricultural production. In addition to increasing their income, the additional demand for farm labor increased farm wages.
  • The village was stimulated to undertake a project to rescue indentured children and others that dropped out of school, providing them with catch-up education to return to school.
  • A new virtuous cycle was set in motion when people from other villages heard about the success in Punukula and came to see what happened. Non-Pesticide Management spread to hundreds of villages.
Andhra Pradesh Positive Tip

Yellow: Vicious cycles reversed by positive tip to form virtuous cycles.
Blue: Spin-offs and associated virtuous cycles.

Read this story as it appeared in The Ecologist.

Read the full story of escaping the pesticide trap in India in the EcoTipping Points in-depth article.

Community Mangrove Forests (Southern Thailand)

The expansion of commercial aquaculture and charcoal production into coastal mangrove forests (estuaries), along with expansion of commercial trawling in the region, formed a negative tipping point that set in motion vicious cycles degrading the estuaries and adjacent near-shore fisheries:

  • Deterioration of the estuaries led to deterioration of the nearshore marine ecosystem because (1) estuaries serve as nurseries for many near-shore fish species and (2) they protect coral from sedimentation by filtering sediment from rivers as they flow through the estuary. Illegal intrusion of trawlers into near-shore fishing grounds added to the decline in the fishery. To catch enough fish, fishermen were forced to use destructive fishing methods such as dynamite and poisons, leading to further decline of the fishery.
  • As fishermen were less and less able to catch enough fish to support them as full-time fishermen, they had to work in charcoal production, aquaculture, or on trawlers, contributing even further to the decline.
  • As the mangrove forests deteriorated, the estuaries provided smaller quantities of products such as crabs, construction materials, and medicinal plants for local consumption, reducing the commitment of local people to maintaining the estuaries and increasing their tolerance of commercial activities that were damaging them.
Thailand Community Mangroves Negative Tip

The positive tipping point was the establishment of community mangrove management, which reversed the vicious cycles, transforming them into virtuous cycles:

  • Healthier estuaries improved the health of the adjacent marine ecosystems, increasing fish stocks. It was less necessary for fishermen to use destructive methods. Fish stocks increased even further.
  • As fish stocks increased, fishermen left their jobs in charcoal production, aquaculture, or trawling to return to fishing. Charcoal production, aquaculture, and trawling declined, contributing to recovery of the fishery.
  • As the estuaries returned to health, they provided more products for local consumption, increasing the commitment of local people to the estuaries, reducing their tolerance of commercial activities that were damaging the estuaries, and ultimately contributing further to recovery of the estuaries.
  • New virtuous cycles were formed as “success bred success.” Community management became stronger and more effective as experience and commitment increased. For example, once organized, the community successfully lobbied the government to keep trawlers out of their fishing grounds, contributing further to recovery of the fishery.
Thailand Community Mangroves Positive Tip

Read the full story of Community mangrove forests in Thailand in the EcoTipping Points in-depth article

Agroforestry and Community Forests (Nakhon Sahon, Thailand)

It was a time when farmers from Northeast Thailand were moving into this relatively uninhabited region, seeking a better life. Commercial logging concessions opened up new land for farming, accommodating landless families and a growing population. The process was accelerated by expanding domestic and foreign markets for timber, rice, maize, and cassava, accompanied by government policies that encouraged agricultural exports in order to increase government revenues. 

Nakhon Sahon seemed a land of opportunity, but soon the landscape and the community were caught in a downward spiral that threatened to close off the prospects for a better life the settlers had sought. It happened because of a chain of events initially set in motion by expanding markets for timber and cash crops (see diagram below):

  • Expanding agricultural markets encouraged a shift from subsistence polyculture to monocultures of the most profitable cash crops.
  • Monoculture encouraged mechanization and a diminishing role for traditional draft animals (which provided manure).
  • Cash cropping encouraged multiple cropping (i.e., more than one crop a year), meaning more time devoted to farm work and less time to contribute to the community support system.
  • Chemical fertilizer use was increased to achieve higher yields and compensate for a diminished supply of animal manure. Chemical pesticide use increased because monocultures generally have more severe pest problems than polycultures.
  • Farm land fertility declined due to intensive use, soil erosion, and chemical burden in the soil. 
  • Family food expenses increased as cash cropping provided less food for home consumption.
  • Debt increased due to expenses for chemical fertilizers, pesticides, mechanical tillage, and a generally perceived need for greater material consumption, along with increasing family expenses for food, medicine, and other essential commodities.
  • Farmers expanded the amount of land they were farming to earn more money to cover increasing expenses for agricultural inputs and service their debts. Debt also increased the need for income from commercial logging and stimulated overexploitation of forest products.
  • Deforestation increased soil erosion and reduced the hydrological integrity of the watershed, reducing infiltration of rainwater to subsurface aquifers. Water shortages threatened the viability of human settlements while reducing agricultural production and the quantity and diversity of forest products for sale or home consumption. 
  • A less reliable water supply and more floods from a deteriorating watershed, greater dependence on food purchases for family consumption, and deterioration of the community support system eroded food security, financial security, and resilience to stresses such as downturns in farm income due to bad weather or market fluctuations.
  • Debt forced able-bodied men (and later women) to migrate to cities, at first seasonally and later year-round, seeking work to supplement family incomes. This eroded community solidarity and traditional support systems, while increasing the cost of farming as it became necessary to mechanize further or hire labor from outside the family.
  • Community fragmentation and impoverishment increased usury and debt, along with dysfunctional social behavior such as thievery.

The result was an interconnected system of mutually reinforcing vicious cycles that drove the landscape and the community into progressively greater decline.

Thailand Forests Negative Tip

The positive tipping point was the introduction of agroforestry and establishment of a community protection forest accompanied by a process of community dialogue and problem solving that enabled successful implementation. 

Agroforestry offered the following benefits:

  • More income and opportunity for debt reduction if the agroforestry was commercially successful.
  • “Weeds” around tree crops protected the soil from erosion and helped maintain soil fertility.
  • Diversity of agroforestry provided both cash crops and food for home consumption.
  • Less mechanization and a greater role for draft animals and their manure reduced the need for chemical fertilizer.
  • Less chemical fertilizers and pesticides reduced input costs.
  • Lower labor inputs associated with agroforestry allowed time to contribute to the community support system.
  • The diversity of agroforestry was more resilient to weather and market fluctuations.

Maintaining a protection forest as an integral part of the landscape provided:

  • A healthy watershed for reliable water supply, protection from soil erosion, and flood prevention.
  • A more secure supply of forest products for cash and home consumption.

Reversal of vicious cycles in the negative tip transformed them into virtuous cycles that fostered and sustained a healthier and more productive landscape and an economically and socially healthier community.

Thailand Forests Positive Tip

Read the full story of agroforestry and community forests in Thailand in the EcoTipping Points in-depth article.

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