EcoTipping Points Presentation for the Hawaii Conservation Conference (HCC), 2007

Keynote presentation given to the Hawaii Conservation Conference by Gerald Marten (East-West Center, Honolulu, HI) on “EcoTipping Points”.

– Introduction
– Apo Island (see story)
– Pesticide Management (see story)
– New York community Gardens (see story)
– Arcata Coastal Wetland (see story)
– Conclusion

Date: July 25, 2007 – Time – 19 min 39 sec

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Slide 1

Thank you….. I appreciate the opportunity to talk to everyone this morning.

Slide 2

The problem with environmental problems is they’re so overwhelmingly complex, so overwhelming in scale, and driven by overwhelmingly powerful social and ecological forces. Often it seems we’re swimming helplessly against the current when we try to make a positive change. Today I want to tell you about an approach to this problem that makes the complexity more manageable, while pointing to what we can do to make things better.

Over the years, as a systems ecologist focusing on human ecology (, I’ve seen and heard about situations that have been turned around from disaster or potential disaster and put on a track to sustainability. I’ve wondered what factors are at play in these situations, and in recent years, set about investigating this. My goal now is to disseminate what I’ve found to be useful, so people can be more effective at creating solutions for their communities.

Several years ago I teamed up with two journalists to look for lessons in environmental success stories. We collected about a hundred stories from around the world, and made site visits to document several dozen of the stories. We went to India, Southeast Asia, and around the United States. We found that the scripts of the stories had a lot in common.

Slide 3

In every story, biodiversity, ecosystem integrity, and ecosystem health went hand in hand with human well being. And in every story, the sweeping changes from environmental decline to restoration could be traced back to a lever – a lever that set the change in motion. I call this lever an “Ecotipping Point”.

I’ll tell you one of the stories to show you what I mean.

Slide 4

The coastal fishery in the Philippines –one of the worlds largest – is in big trouble. The trouble started back in the sixties, with the introduction of destructive fishing methods such as dynamite and cyanide – Very effective for catching fish, but not a good idea for the long haul. The fishery descended into a vicious cycle of damaging the coral reef habitat, declining fish stocks, and the need to do even more destructive fishing to catch anything at all. The government reacted with laws against destructive fishing, but they weren’t effective. Today, the fish stocks are only a few percent of what they were 50 years ago. In some places, a fisherman may catch zero, one, or two fish a day.

Slide 5

25 years ago this was well on the way to happening at Apo Island, but it did not happen there. The island’s fishing grounds are coral reef habitat extending 500 meters from shore, like a donut surrounding the island. The fishermen were paddling long distances from the island, dawn to dusk, searching for places that still had some fish – And fishing destructively to get all they could.

Slide 6

You can see these two interconnected and mutually reinforcing vicious cycles. One is the spiral of declining fish stocks and more destructive fishing that I already showed you, and the other is more and more fishing far from the island, where stewardship doesn’t matter.

Slide 7

A marine scientist at nearby Silliman University spent two years talking with Apo’s fishermen about what was happening and what they might do about it. In 1982 they decided to set off 450 meters of the island’s shoreline, about 10% of the fishing grounds around the island, as a no-fishing zone: A marine sanctuary. The islanders weren’t sure it would improve their catches. There was no kapu tradition there. They played it safe by picking an area where the fish were badly depleted – There wasn’t much to lose by not fishing there.

Slide 8

Here is the sanctuary.

Slide 9

Three years later, the sanctuary had an amazing number of fish. And there was improvement in catches close to the sanctuary. But most important, the fishermen were so inspired by what happened inside the sanctuary, they decided to do something about the rest of their island fishing grounds. They made, and enforced, two rules: Only Apo Island fishermen could fish there, and no destructive fishing. There was noticeable improvement within a few years, though it took about ten years for stocks of large fish to recover fully. Now the fishermen are back to fishing right around the island. A few hours of fishing each day get them all the fish they need.

Slide 10

You can see in the diagram how the two vicious cycles were reversed to form virtuous cycles, allowing the fishermen to do more of their fishing at home as fish stocks improved there bit-by-bit. And reinforced by a new virtuous cycle of pride, commitment, and success-breeds-success.

Slide 11

The restoration of Apo’s coral reef ecosystem has set in motion a cascade of spin-offs that created new cycles reinforcing the switch into sustainability. Reef tourism has brought in cash to the local government and many families on the island. There are two small hotels and dive shops – and ladies selling T-shirts. I bought 10! – Every one different. The island community now has the ecological savvy to make sure tourists don’t damage their coral ecosystem.

Slide 12

And even more significantly, they’ve used some of the money to improve their primary school, including a marine ecology curriculum. Now most of their children go to high school, and many make it to university. I met a graduate student studying marine resource management and strongly committed to sustaining the integrity of the Island’s marine ecosystem. Apo has also started a family planning program to ensure the Island’s future population doesn’t exceed the carrying capacity of their fishing grounds. Everybody’s into it. Ask the kids how many children they want, and they all say “Two!”

Slide 13

Visitors from other fishing villages throughout the Philippines have come to Apo to see what’s happening, and 400 villages now have marine sanctuaries. Everyone on the island believes the sanctuary is sacred – And their marine ecosystem too. They say that the sanctuary saved their fishery, their marine ecosystem, and their way of life, but in fact the sanctuary was only the lever that got it started. It was an EcoTipping Point.

Slide 14

Here you can see some of the kids on Apo Island tipping their way to a resilient future.

Slide 15

Another story – this time from India. This story is about pesticide dependence, but it could be dependence on fossil fuels or many other things.

15 years ago poor cotton farmers in Andhra Pradesh were caught in a downward spiral of pesticide resistance, increasingly heavier pesticide applications, loss of beneficial insects and birds that preyed on the cotton pests, chronic and acute pesticide poisoning, and mounting debt due to pesticide expenses—resulting in despair, and the highest suicide rate in India, the method of choice for suicide being a pesticide cocktail. They were trapped. They couldn’t stop using the pesticides because natural controls were gone. The crops were a wipe out without pesticides. They couldn’t stop growing cotton because of debts to the middlemen who sold them pesticides, bought their crops and extended them credit, and who of course demanded full payment of all debts if farmers were no longer customers.

Slide 16

Like other villages in the region, Punukula village was already rock bottom when a worker from a local NGO began talking to the farmers there about Non-Pesticide Management – NPM. NPM is built around neem. The seeds and leaves of this common tree are ground into powder, soaked overnight in water, and sprayed onto the crop. The pest insects die of starvation, and beneficial insects remain unharmed.

Slide 17

There was more in the NPM toolkit:

I like the virus. Infected bollworm larvae are gathered from the fields and ground into a solution which is sprayed onto the crop. It’s their own biodiversity resource. No need to buy it from a high-tech multinational corporation. I was also impressed with the small bonfires to attract bollworm moths to their doom on moonless nights.

Slide 18

One desperate farmer courageously decided to try NPM. That was the EcoTipping Point. His cotton crop with NPM had some pest damage like everyone else, but he made a nice profit because he didn’t pay a rupee for pesticides. Within two years everyone in the village was using NPM, and they began to climb out of debt. The middlemen retaliated by paying a lower price for NPM cotton, but the farmers formed a coop and found other buyers. You can see in the diagram how the vicious cycles were reversed. The birds and beneficial insects came back, so did natural control of the cotton pests, and now they don’t even have to use much neem.

Slide 19

Their success with NPM gave the Punukula villagers confidence to take on more challenges. They switched from chemical fertilizer to vermi-compost, reducing their input costs further, some of the women started a business selling neem powder to other villages, and they took on other challenges to improve the village.

People came from other villages to see what was happening, and with assistance from local NGOs, several hundred villages now use NPM. Multi-national pesticide companies lobbied the government to suppress NPM. But instead, the government added NPM to its agricultural extension program.

Slide 20

Here’s another EcoTipping Point story from India: In semi-arid Rajasthan. During the 1980s, an area the size of Delaware was severely depressed because they had sucked the aquifers dry with tube well technology.

Slide 21

Virtually all the wells, streams, and rivers had dried up, village forests died, and wildlife disappeared. Women and children were working all day, hauling water and fuelwood from distant sources. Irrigated dry-season agriculture was no longer possible. Men were compelled to move to cities for work.

Slide 22

The tipping point came in Golpapura village, when a young doctor from outside the village, and a respected village elder, teamed up to revive a johad. People scarcely remembered these traditional earthen dams that catch rainwater runoff and channel it into the aquifer. All the johad had long ago filled in with sediment. It took months to dig out just one. But once done, water appeared in a nearby well, motivating the village to spend the next several years restoring its entire johad system. To manage it, they revived a traditional village council, the gram sabah, in which all village families meet for several days to reach consensus.

Slide 23

Within a few years, the water table was back up, so they replanted the village forest, and the gram sabah crafted simple regulations for its use to be sure it was sustainable. The gram sabah leaders were under frequent threat of jail because underground water and forests were government domain, but they persisted.

Slide 24

Golpapura now has plenty of water and fuelwood right outside the door. People have come from other villages to see what it’s all about, and 800 villages now have johad, their water back, and a normal life. Irrigated agriculture is thriving, men have returned to the villages, women have time for home-based economic activities, children have time for school, rivers are flowing again, and natural vegetation and wildlife have bounced back.

Can the same thing happen in the United States? After all, villages in the Philippines and India are very different from here.

Slide 25

Here’s a story from New York City. In the 1970’s The Bowery was in a downward spiral with rundown and abandoned buildings, perilous streets, and general neglect.

Slide 26

You can see a feedback loop for people moving out as conditions got worse, and another loop for decline in services and investment, and how the two loops were reinforcing each other.

Slide 27

With one new resident’s vision and the neighborhood’s sweat, a community garden in a vacant lot started providing an attractive community space, habitat for birds, frogs, and other wildlife, and fresh vegetables for people that normally didn’t have them.

Slide 28

That single garden in 1973 – the Ecotipping Point – inspired 800 gardens in New York by the 1980s. Most of the gardens are still thriving, and so are the neighborhoods.

Slide 29

You can see how the garden tied into the vicious cycles of urban decay in numerous ways, reversing those cycles, and reinforced by a new cycle of pride and commitment, setting the neighborhood on a trajectory of re-population and restoration.

Slide 30

Another story. In the late 1970s, Arcata, a small town on the Northern California coast, was ordered by the state to tie into a massive and expensive regional sewage processing system the state was planning. Arcata’s city engineer flipped out when he realized it was going to quadruple the city’s sewage rates. And many city leaders were concerned that the proposed facility would encourage the kind of regional sprawl that they were trying to avoid. The city refused to follow the order.

Slide 31

Instead, with help from scientists at Humboldt State University, who laid out some novel ways to meet sewage effluent standards, the city transformed a derelict saw-mill pond and the city dump into a vibrant coastal wetland.

Slide 32

This was an EcoTipping Point. The wetland purifies Arcata’s sewage discharge to the ocean at low cost, while providing a major stopover for migratory wildfowl, and a place of natural beauty for city residents to stroll and enjoy the sunset.

Slide 33

And community pride. Each year, several hundred thousand tourists visit the wetland for bird watching and other treats such as foxes and otters. And there have been spin-offs such as a municipal redwood forest, which is economically self-financing at the same time it provides community recreational space and protects land from urban sprawl. Other cities in the area have followed Arcata’s lead. And the mega-sewage processing plant never happened.

In the mid-1990s, the Salt Lake City region was on a course of urban growth very similar to what we see in Honolulu today. But the people there changed all that. The tipping point was creation of a private/public coalition called Envision Utah, which drew 20,000 citizens into in-depth, map-based regional planning workshops. Alternative urban growth scenarios from the workshops, and assessments of the implications of each scenario for traffic flow, energy consumption, public expenses for new infrastructure, and other consequences of public concern were distributed to half-a-million people through more workshops and newspaper supplements. An informal public vote on the scenarios, followed by more workshops, led to a Quality Growth Strategy in state law by 1999. Since then, they’ve fully implemented the law with the same kind of citizen participation that created it.

Slide 34

So, what do we make of these stories? There were unsuccessful attempts to deal with a problem – swimming against the current. But a lever was found – and acted upon. What were the levers? In every case, an eco-technology, in the very broadest sense of the word, combined with the social organization to put it into practice – Often an arduous process.

Not just any eco-technology will do. What makes it right for a particular situation? First of all, EcoTipping Points are catalytic. They set in motion a cascade of changes, but it takes more than that. And here we come to the crux of the matter: It’s all about feedback loops. If environmental decline is driven by vicious cycles, the decline will be turned around only if the vicious cycles are themselves turned around. This may not be easy – The cycles may be very powerful. But it’s the only way to switch to a course of restoration under these circumstances.

Here’s the good news. Once the vicious cycles are turned around, the very same feedback loops can work just as powerfully to bring about restoration and health. And they spin off new virtuous cycles of “success-breeds-success” that accelerate the process and lock in the gains. Through all of this, nature is doing a substantial amount of the work, and normal social and economic processes are doing a lot too.

Slide 35

The application of EcoTipping Points is a work in progress. They’re not magic bullets. Turning environmental problems around takes a lot of work no matter how it’s done. Nonetheless, an EcoTipping Point perspective should be able to help. We know that we can map out the vicious and virtuous cycles in success stories by hindsight. How about foresight? How can we identify or create EcoTipping Points where success stories are not yet under way? The first step is analytical – diagramming the vicious cycles that are driving decline. Then comes the creative step, devising what can tie into the vicious cycles, in a way that gives them a hard enough kick to turn them around. The more ways an EcoTipping Point ties into the vicious cycles, the better. Inspiration can often come from existing success stories. Once positive change is under way, the diagram can provide a road map for further actions—And it can be fine tuned as new feedback loops appear.

Slide 36

I’ve only had time to give you a glimpse of the Ecotipping Point paradigm, but you can go to the Project website – – for more about the stories I told you, as well as many additional stories and further explanation about how Ecotipping Points work and what it takes to create them.

A lot remains to be worked out for EcoTipping Points to be used on a routine basis. For example, we’re working on a typology so EcoTipping Points don’t have to be re-invented every time. We’re also starting to work with communities to map out the vicious cycles that are driving their problems – And explore what can be done to give the vicious cycles a kick in reverse. If you know of any communities that would be interested in doing this – Or if you yourself would like to it give it a try – please let me know. I’m also looking for EcoTipping Point success stories in Hawaii. You can contact me at the email address on the screen or through the website.

Thanks for your attention.

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