EcoTipping Point - What's In It For You


Ecotipping points often involve obvious actions. Image credit:J. Pfeiffer.

After Earth Day, what's next? Earth Week certainly isn't going to get us where we need to be. Ditto for Earth Month. How about Earth Life?

In other words, how about using your life as leverage to tip things in an ecological direction?
Imagine a playground seesaw, with two persons of equal weight sitting on opposite ends. We'll call this "status quo". The seesaw doesn't move - it stays in a perfectly horizontal position. Now picture one of those persons shifting their weight, and with a mighty shove of their legs against the ground, setting the seesaw in motion.

That person has just tipped the seesaw. They upset the status quo, and got things moving.

If we use the metaphor of a seesaw to represent our usual habits, we can divide the movement of the seesaw into a "before" and an "after phase".

Before = business as usual, continuing all those bad ecological habits that drive our personal and national economies. Over-consumption, widespread pollution, habitat destruction, etc. etc. Without an ecotipping point, we just keep on keepin' on with these really nasty habits.

But once a person decides to act, the situation changes. Bad habits are reversed. The seesaw tips in another direction. The after phase = low impact living, urban renewal, cleaner waterways, restored habitats.

An ecotipping point represents the moment in time when one or more people act, and through their actions, tip the environment in more positive direction.

Yet just because there is a defined point - or moment - to this tipping, doesn't mean this is a temporary act. Ecotipping points are preceded and followed by years of work.

There's an entire website devoted to ecotipping points. The EcoTipping Points Project is all about "small actions that make a big difference". They collect stories of ordinary people = whom they call "eco-pioneers" - turn ecological problems around.

Their website aims to get the stories out, inspire more action.

For example, on the US East Coast, Green Guerillas hit their ecotipping point by establishing 800+ community gardens in New York City. EIGHT HUNDRED gardens. In New-York-Freakin'-City. The gardens revitalize neighborhoods, reduce crime, improve diets, clean the environment.

On the West Coast, a consortium of restaurant owners and teachers set up Edible Schoolyards in the San Francisco Bay Area. They teach students where their food comes from. They improve school lunches. And they create (love this term!) "gastronomical literacy".

In the case of this year's Goldman Environmental Award winners, the ecotipping points involve lifetime dedication by women and men who risk their lives to do good for the planet and its peoples. The 2009 winners helped halt rain forest destruction and mountaintop removal mining, eliminate toxic industrial practices, reclaim ancestral lands for tribal peoples, and develop sustainable waste management practices for marginalized communities.

Oh, and knowing them, that's just what they do for part of the week.

At Earthwatch Institute, we have our own ecotipping points. The coolest stories are about teens whose Earthwatch field research expeditions became their personal ecotipping points.

Here are three stories:

- At the age of 16, Christopher Golden (now 26) joined Dr. Luke Dollar's expedition to Madagascar to study the elusive carnivore, the fosa, in 1999. He went on to pursue a degree in environmental conservation at Harvard, winning two university prizes for his thesis work on how bushmeat harvesting was affecting other Madagascar mammals.

- When she was 17, Brett Howard (now 21) went on a leatherback turtle expedition in Costa Rica in 2004, graduated from high school and enrolled in an animal science program where she is conducting an independent study on jellyfish - a key food source for these endangered turtles.

- Another 16-year old Earthwatch expedition member, Hannah Graae (now 22), went on to pursue environmental law in large part because she went on a Hawksbill sea turtle Expedition in Barbados in the summer of 2003.

Hannah recalls: "I remember standing on a beach in the pitch black of night as an Earthwatch volunteer, tense with excitement as I watched a hawksbill turtle emerge from the sea, this beautiful ancient species that has a lineage older than 100 million years. I was young and inexperienced at the time, but Earthwatch did not discount me for my age. I developed a real understanding of conservation and its importance to the world and to myself. In fact, I became more passionate in those two weeks than I had ever been in my life."

Christopher, Brett, and Hannah found their ecotipping points on Earthwatch expeditions, where they realized they were making a difference by taking field data that directly helped conserve an endangered species. Each of these individuals chose life careers that would enable them to make a long-term contribution.

What's your ecotipping point?

By: Jeanine Pfeiffer

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Tags: Conservation | Ecology