Plan B 4.0 Book Byte: Three Models of Social Change

Plan B 4.0 Mobilizing to Save Civilization
Lester R. Brown
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.

[social_buttons]The surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was a dramatic wakeup call. It totally changed how Americans thought about the war. If the American people had been asked on December 6th whether the country should enter World War II, probably 95 percent would have said no. By Monday morning, December 8th, 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.

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.

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.

One comment
  1. Dara

    You may be interested in this link to a news release announcing a major boost to the Media & Policy Center’s “Growing Greener Schools” initiative: mediapolicycenter.org. The project, which includes the airing of a documentary on PBS stations next April, encourages local community support for establishing healthier, greener schools for our children.

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