The End as a New Beginning: Real Utopias for Social Tipping Dynamics

Tipping point of a waterfall. Image: Carola von der Dick

Several major environmental thresholds – known as ecological tipping points – are in danger of being crossed if the world heats up 1.5°C above pre-industrial temperatures. In the face of these ecological tipping points, we can predict planetary shifts that will unleash dangerous and widespread damage to people and nature that cannot be reversed. Thus, as a civilization, we are challenged to conceive of social tipping dynamics: fundamental and accelerated societal changes that impact the socio-ecological Earth system, argues Carola von der Dick, by revisiting real utopias.


Amidst the era labeled “the Anthropocene”, the recognition of the vulnerability and (inter)dependence of the human species among each other, between nation states, as well as toward the environment and all other forms of live has received more attention in mainstream public discourse, as well as in academic and scientific debates across disciplines. The mode of relations between (re)-production, human and other resources, that was established in Europe since the “Enlightenment” and has since dominated Modernity on a global scale, are being heavily scrutinized and questioned. Many scholars across the humanities as well as natural sciences agree that alternative ways of relating – between Nature and Culture in general and in economics in specific – are urgently needed.

In this essay, after noting how and why dominating economic relations and the imperial mode of living are being criticized, I introduce the concept of social tipping dynamics. I look at three texts (Wright 2010; Kostakis and Bauwens 2014; Kimmerer 2020) concerned with ideas of how economic relations could be organized otherwise, and are already being practiced inside – albeit at the fringes – of capitalist economy. In my conclusion, I argue that such existing real utopias, or as Foucault would say, “heterotopias” of economic relations are necessary to add to the potential of creating social tipping dynamics.

The end of the world “as ‘we’ know it”

“It is said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism. No one needs to imagine the end of the world anymore; it has already begun. From now on, we are free to imagine how capitalism will end.” (Bini Adamczak)

With the realization that the human species is now a geological force, and is seriously endangering its very own life conditions, comes the question how “we” relate to all that is “other” – the environment, the places and people of the Global South, or MAPA; how we relate to the reproductive labor that provides the basis for production; and, more fundamentally, how we acquire and cultivate knowledge about our world. An awareness of environmental issues and the conviction that there is an urgency to act only recently entered mainstream debate in the Global North. While some locate the beginning of the criticism of the economic growth paradigm in the time of the 1960s, many others have shown that the roots of the criticism lie within the rise of colonialism and capitalism and itself. Capitalist logics where always resisted by colonized and racialized “Others”. However, it was not until the early 1990s that the criticism and warnings on the limits to growth took hold in mainstream discourse in the Global North.

Nation states are failing to react adequately to the global crisis and formulate new laws to appropriately address pressing issues. Despite this setback, the threat that global warming and pollution pose toward livelihood of the planet today is undisputable.

The failings of governments to securely provide the basic needs (drinking water, breathable air, fertile soil etc.) to a growing number of global poor challenges their legitimization. In other words, the shortcomings of the narrative of capitalist development, based on cheap fossil energy and progress measured in terms of a growing GDP, call for new narratives in dealing with the climate crisis. This goes beyond the realm of the dominating economic system; it includes the very basic premises and concepts of Western ways of knowing and knowledge production. As Jason Moore notes, this challenge “calls for a more thoroughgoing rethinking than scholars typically want to do – not least because to unthink the structures of knowledge, and to challenge the geocultures of domination to which they connect, requires us to give up many of our sacred analytical objects (nature, society, the market, the state, the worker, the city, and so forth)”.

In times of crisis, it becomes uncertain how everyday life will continue, and taken for granted forms of knowledge and social practices become questioned. Clive Spash points out that “humanity now faces a ‘triple conjuncture’ of global crises: climate change and ecological breakdown; a systemic crisis of global capitalism and neoliberal economic globalization; and the current global COVID-19 pandemic. So, it comes as no surprise that once granted concepts (the dualism of Nature/Culture, capitalism as an economic system etc) are now being questioned at the root.

Interestingly, the pandemic is itself a consequence of the environmental crisis: SARS-CoV-2 presumably emerged in humans after a zoonotic spillover (animal-to-human transmission) from bats and research suggests that such zoonotic spillovers become more probable and frequent with the global environmental change underway. These facts exemplify the vulnerability and interrelatedness of our earthly relations and survival. Indeed, the world “as we know it” – one where we can pretend to ignore such interdependencies – is beginning to end, or, more precisely, as has already ended.

It seems needless to provide more evidence to the central criticisms of capitalism as an economic system. There are countless analysis of the flaws of this system, how its dynamics reinforce unjust and exploitative relations among humans and more-than-humans. However, why is it then so difficult to imagine the end of capitalism? Or is it really? As the following examples show, there is an abundance of ideas of how alternatives could look like.

The need for transformation

In recent discussions of the challenges posed by the Anthropocene, a controversial issue has been whether technological fixes such as geo-engineering or the development of new energy generating methods can ensure the necessary planetary conditions for human survival. On the one hand, proponents of technological fixes and innovation argue that humans have always had the capabilities to access and develop new technologies when necessary. From this perspective, a future in which the now dominant mode of production based on resource extraction and economic growth continues to thrive and remains unquestioned. On the other hand, however, proponents of degrowth argue technological fixes alone are not sufficient to tackle the challenges related to global warming, pollution of land, water, etc., and that the existing mode of productions is unsustainable in itself. To achieve degrowth on a global scale demands for a “non-material intensification of our ‘way of life’ which is to say, a total transformation thereof” and a transformation of several core values of modern, capitalist societies.

While it is undebatable that this globally dominant way of organizing economy has provided a higher living standard for a growing number of people over the last 200 years, this comes at a cost: In their article “Scientists’ warning on affluence” Wiedmann et al. demonstrate that although more energy efficient and “sustainable” technologies are being developed and adopted, this cannot compensate the amount of resources needed and pollutions produced by a growing number of more affluent people consuming more goods and services. According to Wiedmann et al., the hope that green new technology and geoengineering will be able to tackle the challenges posed by the Anthropocene are unlikely. This goes in line with Spash’s arguments, that economic growth via increased production and consumption, however “green” it may be, “must increase inputs of material and energy into the economy, and so increase waste loads into the environment. Pollution is an all pervasive problem for an industrialized growth economy” and thereby the belief in such a possibility goes against the laws of physics.

Social tipping dynamics

Before moving on to the examples of alter-growth economies, I will introduce the concept of social tipping dynamics. With this concept in mind, small-scale, local approaches to resist the dominant growth paradigm appear in a new light. Coming back again to the question of why it may be difficult to envision economic systems based on other principles than capitalist accumulation, one identified problem has been the lack of imagination, but also a postmodernist rejection of grand narratives. In a multicentric world, after the rise of the Global South there may never be such a dominant narrative as liberal capitalism and enlightenment again. Erik Olin Wright diagnoses:

“We now live in a world in which […] radical visions are often mocked rather than taken seriously. Along with the postmodernist rejection of “grand narratives”, there is an ideological rejection of grand designs, even by many people still on the left of the political spectrum. This need not mean an abandonment of deeply egalitarian emancipatory values, but it does reflect a cynicism about the human capacity to realize those values on a substantial scale.”

When combining Wrights observation with the idea of a multicentric world, one “grand narrative” does not seem suitable for aiding a global transformation toward sustainable human-environment relations. Many different “radical visions” put to practice according to local contexts appear to be more convincing. By applying the concept of social tipping dynamics, the gap between small scale initiatives and a “grand design” to mitigate climate change impacts may be bridged.

Climate impact research differentiates between ad hoc catastrophes and a linear increase in the negative physical processes such as ice melt or rainforest deforestation and a third scenario, located in between: Incremental buildup toward tipping points. Once these are reached, a quasi-autonomous exponential change sets in. Applied to the social realm, this mode of change is also discussed in the positive:

“The social tipping dynamics […] are typically manifested as spreading processes in complex social networks of behaviors, opinions, knowledge, technologies, and social norms, including spreading processes of structural change and reorganization. These spreading processes resemble contagious dynamics observed in epidemiology that spread through social networks. Once triggered, such processes can be irreversible and difficult to stop. Similar contagious dynamics have been observed in human behavior, for example in assaultive violence, participation in social movements, or health-related behaviors and traits, such as smoking or obesity.”

A social tipping point dynamic can be located between the options of radical rupture and linear incremental change. It begins with small steps, but at a certain point develops an exponential dynamic and thus possibly does not stop at “tinkering” in the right direction but gains enough momentum to spark contagious dynamics in human behavior.

Small scale real utopias

There is certainly a lack of imagination of how economy could be organized otherwise on a global scale. One scenario present in many science fiction stories is the apocalypse, or a complete collapse of civilization. In contrast to traditional eschatological thinking, collapsology is concerned with sometimes more and at times less scientific endeavors to study the risk of the collapse of industrial, globalized civilization. Some proponents see a collapse as the only chance for serious change.

However, there have always been myriads of (community based) projects in which alternative ways of organizing relations are being practiced. These are “not a utopia or simply a project for the future. Rather, [they are] rooted in an already existing social and economic practice”. These projects often “experiment with alternative practices […] e.g., practices of care and provision, repair, recycling, and renunciation, sharing and exchanging, or of using local or alternative currencies and bicycles instead of cars”, in the hope of creating more sustainable ways in relating to the environment, that manifest more sustainable food production and consumption of resources. Also J.K. Gibson-Graham have been invested in the project to “identify and amplify the myriad practices and relations that continually ‘escape’ the hegemonic narrative of the Economy”.

In his book “Envisioning Real Utopias”, Wright provides a criticism of capitalism as a way of organizing economy, as well as four examples of what he calls “real utopias”, all working against capitalist logic: 1. Participatory city budgeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil in 1989; 2. Wikipedia, as a “anti-capitalist way of producing and disseminating knowledge” (it is at least questionable if this form of knowledge production is really that egalitarian as Wright likes to think); 3. The Mondragon worker-owned cooperatives in the Basque region of Spain, which debunk the myth that employee-owned and managed firms only work if they are small with a fairly homogeneous labor force; 4. Unconditional basic income, which was never implemented at a state level, however some states or NGOs are experimenting with fragmented versions of it (i.e. a pilot program in Namibia, Mein Grundeinkommen).

Vasilis Kostakis and Michel Bauwens provide another approach in finding examples of heterotopias to the dominating capitalist system. Among the classic examples they focus on are peer-to-peer networks, where in a direct relationship, common goods are created through a) open, participatory production and governance processes, and b) a universal access is guaranteed through licenses such as the Creative Commons. Well known examples include open-source software movements, open hardware, and open access to sources used for education and science.

Both above approaches speak of the fact that a transformation of values is necessary to make these kinds of visions more numerous and applicable on a larger scale economically. But they are not so much invested in thinking about the impact participating in alternative economies has on an individual, emotional level.

This aspect is ever more present in “The Serviceberry”, written by botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. She wrote her essay in the time of the COVID-19 lockdowns, when many people in the Global North were experiencing empty shelves in supermarkets the first time in their lives. Kimmerer starts out asking “What is economics for anyway?” The answer she receives when consulting the American Economic Association’s website is: “It’s the study of scarcity, the study of how people use resources and respond to incentives.”

While Kostakis and Bauwens see this scarcity in industrial capitalism to be created especially as an “artificial scarcity of knowledge”, Kimmerer identifies scarcity as the main principle of economics taught in US schools: “With scarcity as the main principle, the mindset that follows is based on commodification of goods and services”. While she does acknowledge that moments of real scarcity do occur in nature (i.e. lack of rain), Kimmerer proposes to focus on the abundance of “gifts” from nature. That way, the mindset is transformed from thinking in the capitalist logic of scarcity into thinking along logics seen in the economic relations of the serviceberry, standing in for the relationships of plants with air, sunlight, fungi and other animals: “With a serviceberry economy as our model, it prompts the opportunity for articulation of the value of gratitude and reciprocity as essential foundations for an economy.” She describes the values of gift economies, practiced among indigenous communities, and described by anthropologists around the globe. In them, she sees a possible remedy to the problem that today, “we’ve surrendered our values to an economic system that actively harms what we love”. In a gift economy,

“wealth is understood as having enough to share, and the practice for dealing with abundance is to give it away. In fact, status is determined not by how much one accumulates, but by how much one gives away. The currency in a gift economy is relationship, which is expressed as gratitude, as interdependence and the ongoing cycles of reciprocity. A gift economy nurtures the community bonds which enhance mutual well-being“

while naturally occurring scarcity, such as the consequences of too little rain, are equally shared. Although, as Spash observes, “alternative economies and ways of social provisioning by indigenous communities are typically regarded as backward and unprogressive and their values derided”, and market capitalism is unlikely to disappear anytime soon, Kimmerer points out the possible potentials:

“we can create incentives to nurture a gift economy that runs right alongside the market economy, where the good that is served is community. After all, what we crave is not trickle-down, faceless profits, but reciprocal, face-to-face relationships, which are naturally abundant but made scarce by the anonymity of large-scale economics. We have the power to change that, to develop the local, reciprocal economies that serve community, rather than undermine it”.

Decentralized heterotopias

If we consider the many years of activism that it took to bring ecological awareness into mainstream public debate, take into account, that even the nation-states which signed the Paris Agreement struggle to enforce legislation to effectively meet the agreed on goals and the lack of “grand narratives” that would be necessary to change millions of peoples behaviors in a very short time, small step-by-step approaches seem the only hopeful and probable path toward a transformation to sustainable human-environment relationships. By introducing the concept of social tipping dynamics, it is possible to interpret each of these initiatives as one step toward a social tipping point, in which human behavior and economic relations would be altered even on a large scale and then would be difficult to revert. The more economic heterotopias are practiced on a day-to-day basis, the more potentials for positive tipping dynamics are created.

The logic of decentralized heterotopias hardly allows for a directed and concerted effort to achieve pre-determined social tipping points and effects. But given the lack of reliable concepts and modes of sustainable post-capitalist modes for producing knowledge, goods and mutually beneficial relations amongst individuals, collectives, and species on a large scale, they might hold the potential for desirable outcomes.

Quite different from the reliably predictable ecological ones, social tipping points can neither be predicted nor can their consequences easily be projected. In lieu of yet another grand narrative, doomed to fail when challenged by the globally deeply entrenched institutions of capitalism, the incremental change brought about by numerous local and/or community-based attempts to adapt alternative economies might gain the momentum necessary to not only raise the urgent question of post-capitalistic production, but to provide viable answers. Hence, further research on small-scale heterotopias and the ways in which they influence, propel and consolidate one another and especially how their ideas can spill over into a mainstream discourse seems a promising way of exploring pathways beyond a logic of societal organization that resulted in the current state of global vulnerability.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.