Scientists this week warned that the Earth is approaching tipping points past which the biosphere will shift its basic state as humans move towards transforming half its surface to their own uses, threatening mass extinctions and general environmental and social collapse. Our politics is headed towards analogous tipping points: the dominance of money has become so bad that we are fast tipping from any semblance of democracy into full-bore oligarchy. Progressives need to figure out how to reverse that trend so that we start passing tipping points in the other direction to transform into a green, progressive society.
We have successfully passed tipping points on civil rights, feminism, GLBT rights, and other cultural issues, but on key economic and environmental issues we have not. It is critical, I think, to start treating economics as we have identity issues; indeed, economic class is an identity, but people just don't know it. And it is also critical to build up our identities as responsible citizens and stewards of the planet. Consciousness raising, à la 1950s feminism, is a necessary step. Perhaps Occupy Wall Street is an early part of that movement, but that particular round of public protest seems to have run its course, and as with previous movements many assemblies in the streets will be needed.
It will take an increasingly unified campaign not just of street demonstration but of political and legislative organizing; progressive values take hold only when there is complementary action from the civil society wing and from the political party wing. The failure to recall Wisconsin governor Scott Walker was at least in part a failure of the national Democratic party to provide resources and support to bring a successful political conclusion to the process begun last year by the hundreds of thousands who Occupied Madison. In a key political battle like that, the only chance we have to beat the endless millions the oligarchs will pour into advertising in the Citizens United era is to combine our better ground game with as much national money as can be spared, as well as several appearances by the president and other national-level party notables. It takes a full-bore effort that includes grass-roots citizen effort and effective action by political elites to reverse trends and push them towards new tipping points.
The idea of the "tipping point" is a reminder of two things: how trends can build momentum for change, and how fast systems can permanently and irreversibly change state. Both our political and environmental systems currently have momentum towards catastrophe, in the one case oligarchy and in other a denuded biosphere. But the idea should also remind us that we can potentially tip in the reverse direction: with a unified effort to change trends, as was done with civil rights, we can build momentum the other way on the economy and the environment and ultimately pass positive tipping points. That's a good thing, and it can happen more rapidly than people think.