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Tipping Point

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The authors of Tipping Point, in Waterloo The authors of Tipping Point, in Waterloo

“Because I am an astronomer, I am apt to see the problems of to-day set against a background of time in which the whole of human history shrinks to the twinkling of an eye, and to think of these problems specially in relation to man's past history on earth.”


So said James Jeans in 1930. As a popularizer of astronomy, he was the Carl Sagan of his day in the 1920s and 30s.


Have things changed since 1930? Sure, but set against Jeans' “background of time” is it really that different? Both American authors of a new book on the fate of our planet spoke recently at the Centre for International Governance Innovation auditorium in Waterloo. And both are still reeling from the election of Trump.


Elizabeth Hadly at Stanford University said “as a scientist this has really rocked me to the core. I haven't fully processed it myself- grief has many stages. My heart says just keep doing it. I'm talking to everybody outside of academia to try to shift people's perception of the future.”


Anthony Barnosky at the University of California, Berkeley, was more sanguine. “It doesn't mean all is lost, but the big danger is we don't have several decades. I don't think we're doomed but it is a setback.”


The authors identified three groups of people: 20% are altruists, 20% are free riders (“I'm going to do what's best for me”) and 60% are willing to cooperate with anyone depending on circumstances. In assessing the election results, they said the “free riders were great at getting their message out.”


Political considerations tend to muddy the message they are trying to deliver in both the lecture and the book. I spoke to one person in the audience, who said “they lost me” due to their terrorist-related comments on Palestine on pg. 214. He said their Western-centric viewpoint fails to see the whole world. I also found the doom-laden scenario laid out over several pages in the War chapter to be misplaced. One could write a whole book of future scenarios, but how reasonable would you consider any of them to be from people who could not even predict the outcome of a presidential election?


The book is a curious mix of academic-report style and the folksy style that leads off most chapters. “Sitting around the campfire, life was good. We' just watched the kind of nightfall you can only experience in the desert. The heat-shimmering sky had faded...” and it goes on like a novel. And I found the bleating about trying to change the want-more lifestyle of the developed world, and what constitutes happiness, to be purely utopian. Human nature is not going to change.


It is not unusual to find upwards of 15 to 20 numbers on a single page, either printed in words or numerically. The number of phones, the number of Barbies, the number of fires, the number of metric tons, the number of jobs, and innumerable percentage and dollar figures does take its toll on all but the most dedicated green reader. A raft of numbers relating to something termed Disability-Adjusted Life Years on pg. 157 would be far better placed in a table.


So what about the tipping point? Will it be a point for good or bad? Barnosky says “we have to invent our own future, and we know how to get to the good future: stabilise population growth, stop climate change, increase global cooperation and make more efficient use of food and water.” Whatever happens, looking at it as an astronomer will help cushion the shock.



Tipping Point for Planet Earth (264 pages) is US $25.99 from St. Martin's Press.



Clifford Cunningham

Dr. Clifford Cunningham is a planetary scientist. He earned his PhD in the history of astronomy at the University of Southern Queensland, and has undergraduate degrees in science and ancient history from the University of Waterloo. In 2014 he was named a contributor to Encyclopedia Britannica. He is the author of 14 books on asteroids and the history of science. In 1999 he appeared on the TV show Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. Asteroid 4276 was named in his honor in 1990 by the International Astronomical Union based on the recommendation of its bureau located at Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.

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