You only need 10 percent: The science behind tipping points and their impact on climate activism

Way back in 2000, author Malcolm Gladwell published The Tipping Point, a book that explains how ideas and messages spread like viruses. With catchy phrases of its own, like “the law of the few”–which attributes the success of any social epidemic to 20 percent of the population–The Tipping Point led to an explosion in the pop science genre.

While Gladwell’s work has been greatly debated, scientists working far from the literary spotlight have produced complex, but no less compelling, findings in the realm of tipping points. The latest came out this summer when scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York published a paper with findings that truly trump Gladwell’s assertions. They found that when 10 percent of the population holds an unshakable belief, the majority of the society will eventually adopt it.

Here’s their prophetic equation in all its mathematical glory:

p<pc, Tc~exp[α(p)N], whereas for p>pc, Tc~lnN

That, in a very calculated nutshell, is what explains the Arab Spring, Occupy Wall Street and other such global phenomenons. Don’t ask me to explain it, though. I can only assume it means what they say it means.

“When the number of committed opinion holders is below 10 percent, there is no visible progress in the spread of ideas. It would literally take the amount of time comparable to the age of the universe for this size group to reach the majority,” said SCNARC Director Boleslaw Szymanski, the Claire and Roland Schmitt Distinguished Professor at Rensselaer. “Once that number grows above 10 percent, the idea spreads like flame.”

Gladwell might be wrong about the 20 percent figure, but he’s probably right about the types of people who make “the law of the few” possible. You need connectors, mavens and salesmen to spread the idea. Perhaps that’s why it’s taken me six months to even hear about this fascinating new study. After all, scientists aren’t exactly socialistas in the Gladwell sense.

It was Grist columnist David Roberts who alerted me to this fascinating 10 percent figure in a recent piece where he argues for being a climate hawk.

There’s long been an obsession among climate/energy folks with finding a message that appeals to to the “middle” (about which myths abound, but that’s a subject for another time) or the climate undecided/uncommitted/skeptical. Since honest (read: terrifying) talk about the severity of climate change doesn’t win over the uncommitted or disinterested, it is deemed unhelpful to that effort and scolded whenever it pops up.

As I’ve said so many times, though, what drives social change and shifts politics is not broad-based support but intensity. An intensely committed minority can act as a lever that moves larger populations.

According to a Yale study, 12 percent of Americans are “alarmed” by climate change. If that’s the case, why hasn’t it invoked a tipping point?

What complicates matters, of course, is that there’s a roughly equally sized (but vastly better funded and organized) cadre of people who are passionately intense about spreading doubt and blocking action. I’m not sure what the Rensselaer researchers would say about the spread of ideas in the face of concerted opposition, but I imagine it requires clearing a higher hurdle.

Roberts goes on to argue that because of these “two opposing camps battling it out,” the vast majority of “Normal People” don’t know what to think. This, he says, “explains why public opinion is shallow and fickle on the subject.”

Ironically, the right wing once stood in this position of trying to push its views through to the mainstream.

Forty years ago, supply-side economics and opposition to basic social safety net protections were crank, extremist views held by a small minority of hardcore conservatives — the folks who rallied behind Goldwater in 1964 and lost. But as historian Rick Perlstein recounts in Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, they didn’t stop. They kept organizing and pushing, organizing and pushing. Then came Nixon, Reagan, GW Bush, Sarah Palin. Now extremist conservative views are part of the mainstream fabric.

What if they’d given up after 1964? What if they’d looked at surveys, concluded the American middle didn’t favor their views, and spent the next decades trying to tone down and soften those views?

Are you starting to see the potential for climate activists?

That’s where climate hawks are — their own 1964. Surely one of their most important tasks is to grow and support the committed minority of people who have absorbed and understood the severity of the climate crisis. From this perspective, it doesn’t matter if climate truth initially fails to reach the mushy middle. What matters is that the committed minority grows.

There are plenty of signs of that happening, from 350.org to Tar Sands Action to the grassroots movements against mountaintop mining and fracking. Action–particularly that which is honest and unmediated in regards to the threats we face–is the key ingredient.

There’s no reason that intensity, activism, protest, and agitation — “alarmism,” as they’re snottily called by Very Serious People — need to be seen an alternative to pragmatic, incremental process pushed by moderate insiders. They are not mutually exclusive; indeed, they ought to be mutually reinforcing. At the very least, less infighting would be nice.

But everyone, it seems to me, no matter what role they play, could stand to push the edge a little bit occasionally, reminding their audience, whatever audience, that climate change is some genuinely dire sh*t and that now is the time for ambition and courage.

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