Can we change fast enough? When thinking about the enormous need for social change as we attempt to move the world economy onto a sustainable path, I find it useful to look at various models of change.

Three stand out. One is the catastrophic event model, which I call the Pearl Harbor model, where a dramatic event fundamentally changes how we think and behave. The second model is one where a society reaches a tipping point on a particular issue often after an extended period of gradual change in thinking and attitudes. This I call the Berlin Wall model. The third is the sandwich model of social change, where there is a strong grassroots movement pushing for change on a particular issue that is fully supported by strong political leadership at the top.

The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, was a dramatic wakeup call. It totally changed how Americans thought about the war. If the American people had been asked on Dec. 6 whether the country should enter World War II, probably 95 percent would have said no. By Monday morning, Dec. 8, perhaps 95 percent would have said yes.
The weakness of the Pearl Harbor model is that if we have to wait for a catastrophic event to change our behavior, it might be too late. It could lead to stresses that would themselves lead to social collapse. When scientists are asked to identify a possible “Pearl Harbor” scenario on the climate front, they frequently point to the possible breakup of the West Antarctic ice sheet. Relatively small blocks of it have been breaking off for more than a decade now, but huge parts of the sheet could break off, sliding into the ocean.
It is conceivable that this breakup could raise sea level a frightening two or three feet within a matter of years. Unfortunately, if we reach this point it may be too late to cut carbon emissions fast enough to save the remainder of the West Antarctic ice sheet or the Greenland ice sheet, whose melting is also accelerating. This is not the model we want to follow for social change on climate.

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The Berlin Wall model is of interest because the wall’s dismantling 20 years ago, in November 1989, was a visual manifestation of a much more fundamental social change. At some point, the people living in Eastern Europe, buoyed by changes in Moscow, had rejected the great “socialist experiment” with its one-party political system and centrally planned economy. Although it was not anticipated, Eastern Europe experienced a political revolution, an essentially bloodless revolution, that changed the form of government in every country in the region. It had reached a tipping point, but it was not expected. You can search the political science journals of the 1980s in vain for an article warning that Eastern Europe was on the verge of a political revolution. In Washington, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) “had no idea in January 1989 that a tidal wave of history was about to break upon us,” reflected Robert Gates, formerly with the CIA and now U.S. Secretary of Defense, in a 1996 interview.

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Many social changes occur when societies reach tipping points or cross key thresholds. Once that happens, change comes rapidly and often unpredictably. One of the best known U.S. tipping points is the growing opposition to smoking that took place during the last half of the twentieth century. This anti-smoking movement was fueled by a steady flow of information on the health-damaging effects of smoking, a process that began with the Surgeon General’s first report in 1964 on smoking and health. The tipping point came when this information flow finally overcame the heavily funded disinformation campaign funded by the tobacco industry.

Published almost every year, the Surgeon General’s report both drew attention to what was being learned about the effect of smoking on health and spawned countless new research projects on this relationship. There were times in the 1980s and 1990s when it seemed every few weeks another study was being released that had analyzed and documented one health effect or another associated with smoking. Eventually smoking was linked to more than 15 forms of cancer and to heart disease and strokes. As public awareness of the damaging effects of smoking on health accumulated, various measures were adopted that banned smoking on planes and in offices, restaurants, and other public places. As a result of these collective changes, cigarette smoking per person peaked around 1970 and began a long-term decline that continues today.

One of the defining events in this social shift came when the tobacco industry agreed to compensate state governments for past Medicare costs of treating smoking victims. More recently, in June 2009, Congress passed by an overwhelming margin and President Obama signed a bill that gave the Food and Drug Administration the authority to regulate tobacco products, including advertising. It opened a new chapter in the effort to reduce the health toll from smoking.

The sandwich model of social change is in many ways the most attractive one, partly because it brings a potential for rapid change. As of late 2009, the strong grassroots interest in cutting carbon emissions and developing renewable sources of energy is merging with the interests of Obama and his administration. One result is a near de facto moratorium on building new coal plants.

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There are many signs that the United States may be moving toward a tipping point on climate, much as it did on civil rights in the 1960s. Though some of the indicators also reflect the economic downturn, it now seems likely that carbon emissions in the United States peaked in 2007 and have begun what will be a long-term decline. The burning of coal and oil, the principal sources of carbon emissions, may  be declining. And with the cars to be scrapped in 2009 likely to exceed sales, the U.S. automobile fleet size may have peaked and begun to shrink.

The shift to more fuel-efficient cars over the last two years, spurred in part by higher gasoline prices, was strongly reinforced by the new automobile fuel efficiency standards and by rescue package pressures on the automobile companies to improve fuel efficiency. The combination of much more demanding automobile efficiency standards, a dramatic restoration of funding for public transit, and an encouraging shift not only to more fuel-efficient gas-electric hybrid cars but also to both plug-in hybrids and electric cars could dramatically reduce gasoline sales. The U.S. Department of Energy in past years had projected substantial growth in U.S. oil consumption, but it has recently revised this downward. The question now is not will oil use decline, but how fast will it do so.
Shifts within the energy sector, with rapid growth in wind and solar energy while coal and oil are declining, also signal a basic shift in values, one that could eventually alter every sector of the economy. If so, this, combined with a national leadership that shares these emerging values, could lead to social and economic change on a scale and at a pace we cannot now easily imagine.

Of the three models of social change, relying on the Pearl Harbor model is by far the riskiest, because by the time a society-changing catastrophic event occurs, it may be too late. The Berlin Wall model works, despite the lack of government support, but it does take time. Some 40 years elapsed after the communist takeover of the governments of Eastern Europe before the spreading opposition became strong enough to overcome repressive regimes and switch to democratically elected governments. The ideal situation for rapid, historic progress occurs when mounting grassroots pressure for change merges with a national leadership committed to the same change. This may help explain why the world has such high hopes for the new U.S. leadership.

Adapted from Chapter 10, “Can We Mobilize Fast Enough?” in Lester R. Brown, Plan B 4.0: Mobilizing to Save Civilization (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), available on-line at