DEEPTI’S RESEARCH DISPATCH

About Social Tipping Points and Climate Action

Also known as phase transitions and critical mass. A research roundup

Deepti Kannapan
9 min readJun 8, 2023

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Photo by erin mckenna on Unsplash

Social tipping points are the mechanism by which social change spreads and sparks transformation. In my writing, I frequently talk about social tipping points toward climate action as a goal to aim for.

Here, I dive deeper into the concept of tipping points and its connection to social change with a tour of the research I’ve collected.

I’m hoping this will be a useful reference to come back to whenever discussions of the topic arise.

What are tipping points?

A tipping point is the colloquial term for a phase transition, or the phenomenon where incremental changes in a system reach a critical threshold, leading to rapid transformation.

You may have heard of tipping points from Malcolm Gladwell’s book, The Tipping Point.

This phenomenon goes by many names, since it’s seen in many parts of the natural world, including changing phases of matter, nuclear fission (where the term ‘critical mass’ comes from), ecological shifts, swarm behavior of insects, epidemics, and the rise and fall of societies.

Going forward, I will use the term ‘phase transition’ most of the time.

Phase transitions in everyday life

Phase transitions are a common mental model in popular culture for situation where we keep applying effort, but we don’t see the results until all the pieces click into place.

This blog post on Farnam Street has a good roundup of writing on the concept, and explains:

As a mental model, critical mass can help us to understand the world around us by letting us spot changes before they occur, make sense of tumultuous times, and even gain insight into our own behaviors. A firm understanding can also give us an edge in launching products, changing habits, and choosing investments.

In Atomic Habits, James Clear uses the metaphor of incremental temperature change and the melting of ice to describe habit change.

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Deepti Kannapan

Painter, occasional cartoonist, aerospace engineer. Writes about sustainable technology, creativity, and journaling.