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Domino Theory (Hope, part 4)

Updated: Nov 19, 2022


“You cannot experience one day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what difference you want to make. ”

—Jane Goodall

“Faith is contagious when we show it to one another”

Catherine Doherty

Granite cliffs in Mefjorden, island of Senja, Northern Norway. Photo: Filip Van Kerckhoven

In the previous post, I talked about the phenomenon of exponential growth and the reproduction rate of three.

And how those can help make the impossible possible.

'Contagious' behaviors and intentions can cause major shifts in social dynamics and constellations in a very short time, if enough people are inspired to a change of viewpoint, belief and action.

It is one of the reasons for hope: changes in our society that now seem light years away can manifest in a relatively short period of time.

It is a phenomenon that can strengthen our belief that the revolutions that are needed in our societies can actually be realized, if only we dare to put our shoulders to the wheel.

Another phenomenon that may play an essential role in the coming upheavals is what is called ‘domino dynamics’.

On November 14, 2021, journalist, activist and climate thinker George Monbiot published an opinion piece in the British newspaper The Guardian called ‘Domino Theory’.

You can find Monbiot's entire piece here.

Without hesitation I would call it one of the most important opinion pieces of the past decades. Monbiot wrote this piece in response to the failure of the climate summit COP 26 in Glasgow.

COP26 was often heralded as the 'climate summit of last resor'. If it was, we have forfeited that last chance. The promises and commitments in the Glasgow Climate Pact were less than adequate to prevent catastrophic warming of four degrees celsius or more. A warming of four degrees or more is incompatible with any form of human ‘civilization’, and also means the end for most species now living on our planet.

So should we give up all hope? No, says Monbiot, because the change, or rather the massive upheaval needed in our societies, can come even without successful climate negotiations.

Author, journalist and climate thinker George Monbiot. Photo: John Russel

Monbiot also briefly describes in this piece the gigantic challenges we face in reversing our destructive impact on the planet, and how that challenge goes far beyond just the issue of greenhouse gases. Something I also talk about in my essay "Let's stop talking about the climate crisis," which you can read here on the website.

With this panorama, it is not difficult to conclude that the necessary change will be impossible, especially since such powerful forces are opposing this process with all their might. The oil and gas lobby of course, but also a majority of financial powers and the representatives of big business everywhere, have nothing to gain from the transition that will be necessary, quite the contrary.

As I myself also stated, we should not wait for our governments and institutions to do the necessary, because they are far too closely intertwined with the enormous power structures that need to change to make a transition to a sustainable society possible.

Anyone who thinks that the political world will take the right initiatives will have to be patient for a long time - much longer than the time we have left.

Change will have to come from below, and this will be possible through a phenomenon called 'domino dynamics'. Change can be rapid, very rapid, once a critical tipping point within a society is reached. Once such a sociological tipping point is crossed, a cascade of rapidly successive upheavals can manifest and change the world beyond recognition in a relatively short period of time.

Monbiot: For just as the complex natural systems on which our lives depend can flip suddenly from one state to another, so can the systems that humans have created. Our social and economic structures share characteristics with the Earth systems on which we depend. They have self-reinforcing properties – that stabilise them within a particular range of stress, but destabilise them when external pressure becomes too great. Like natural systems, if they are driven past their tipping points, they can flip with astonishing speed. Our last, best hope is to use those dynamics to our advantage, triggering what scientists call “cascading regime shifts”.

A fascinating paper published in January in the journal Climate Policy showed how we could harness the power of “domino dynamics”: non-linear change, proliferating from one part of the system to another. It points out that “cause and effect need not be proportionate”, a small disturbance, in the right place, can trigger a massive response from a system and flip it into a new state. This is how the global financial crisis of 2008-09 happened: a relatively minor shock (mortgage defaults in the US) was transmitted and amplified through the entire system, almost bringing it down. We could use this property to detonate positive change."

What does this mean? It means that how we usually think about sudden and far-reaching social change is wrong. It means that much more is possible than we believe, in a much shorter time than we thought we could reasonably assume. It means that, if enough people in a society start behaving differently, in a very short time that entire society can tip over to a new state, a new balance. It means that a minority of elements in a given system (a minority of people in a society, for example) can cause that system (or that society) to change dramatically by their own changed point of view, belief, action.

How big should such a minority be? Well, no larger than about 25 percent of the population, according to research.

Monbiot: “But where does the tipping point lie? Researchers whose work was published in Science in 2018 discovered that a critical threshold was passed when the size of a committed minority reached roughly 25% of the population. At this point, social conventions suddenly flip. Between 72% and 100% of the people in the experiments swung round, destroying apparently stable social norms. As the paper notes, a large body of work suggests that “the power of small groups comes not from their authority or wealth, but from their commitment to the cause”.

A paper published in Science Direct in February of this year, argues that Greta Thunberg's "Fridays For Future" movement already came very close to causing a critical tipping point in political Europe. This movement was interrupted by the pandemic, but a new movement will be able to continue this 'push' towards a tipping point.

Toppling dynamics of a mass-varying domino system. Source: Researchgate.

And what do you, reader, have to do with all this?

Of course you are involved because of the fact that each of us can be part of that 25 percent, of that minority that can help push the system to the critical tipping point.

Each of us can contribute something to the shift of the collective. We shouldn't aim for 25 percent because that would be the critical threshold, we should aim for much more than 25 percent.

And with the phenomenon of exponential growth, that is anything but an unachievable idea.

Monbiot concludes: “Social convention, which has for so long worked against us, can if flipped become our greatest source of power, normalising what now seems radical and weird. If we can simultaneously trigger a cascading regime shift in both technology and politics, we might stand a chance. It sounds like a wild hope. But we have no choice. Our survival depends on raising the scale of civil disobedience until we build the greatest mass movement in history, mobilising the 25% who can flip the system. We do not consent to the destruction of life on Earth.

Because in the end, that's what it's all about: do we want life on this Earth to have another chance? Do we want our grandchildren to have another chance? Isn't that worth the effort to go all-out for and do something? Isn't that worth the effort to want to be part of the 25 percent that can push our society to a critical tipping point?

Let us not wait for the next climate summit, or the next government formation, or the next party congress. Let us not wait for our governments and institutions to declare a state of emergency. The state of emergency is here. Let us begin the work now.

And what can 'ordinary people' like you and me do to help shift the collective, and help manifest the 'domino dynamic'?

More on that in the next few blog posts.

With this, I bid you farewell and wish you a happy week,

All the best to you,



Questions for contemplation

What is your initial reaction to the given of ‘domino dynamics’?

Do you think it is a hopeful idea?

Do you believe that more people would be inclined to do something if they were aware that social change can be initiated by a minority of the population?

Can you imagine that this would give you the conviction and strength to start your own initiatives or to join existing ones?

Pasture land in Southern Bavaria, Germany. Photo: Filip Van Kerckhoven


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