There is a saying among bee keepers that once you start to keep bees, you start to see the world like a bee. You see the lines of travel they take, noticing the locations of particular types of flowering plants. Tristan Gooley in his book, Reading Water, describes how you can use the pathways of bees as way to find water when trekking in the wilderness and that certain types of butterflies also provide clues as they are never seen more than 500m from a source of freshwater. I found myself becoming more observant having read this. In another example, he recounts how Pacific Islanders could ‘read the ocean’ as way to help them navigate between remote islands dotted across the vast Pacific Ocean, learning to recognise wave interference patterns from distant islands not yet visible on the horizon as they deflected the prevailing currents.
We all see the world differently based on our own experiences. As a water professional, I tend to notice all sorts of details that most other people would either miss or just not find interesting. An extreme example being spotting a wastewater treatment plant 2,000m below me while paragliding this summer. I signed up for this this, despite a morbid fear of heights, while on vacation in Turkey as I thought it would be something exciting I could do with my 14 year old son, good bonding time and all that. I was white knuckled and petrified while he was enjoying doing stunts. Despite that, I couldn’t help but recognise the familiar patterns of small circular and rectangular tanks below me quietly and reassuringly doing their work. For most people looking down at the Blue Lagoon of Oludeniz that is not a detail that jumps out from that picture.
Figure 1: A water scientists perspective of the world from 2km.
Back down on terra firma, I also noticed something else, something that I hadn’t seen before that was a stark reminder of howe ever present climate change is becoming. I observed plastic bottles lined up along the road-side. At first I thought it was just some random litter, but they were consistently spaced in lines all along the verge of the road and were all full of water. When I asked what they were I was told that they were placed there so that people could use them to help put out any forest fires if they spotted one starting. There was something unsettling about that picture given the forest fires that raged across Greece and Turkey this summer. In response to the scorching temperatures, Athens appointed a Chief Heat Officer, the first city in Europe to do so. Ironically at the same time as fires were raging in one part of Turkey, flash floods were wreaking havoc elsewhere on near the Black Sea.
Figure 2: Water bottles lined up along the road to help people put out forest fires in Southern Turkey
Images of homes and businesses destroyed in Northern Germany due to extreme flooding events made international news with scientists telling us these have been made 9 times more likely due to climate change. The first ever water shortage was declared in the Colorado River as Lake Mead and Lake Powell which provide water for 40 million people reached record low levels. New York had the rainiest hour on record, with a lighter moment being seeing Barry Manilow shut down mid-song during a live concert as the stadium was evacuated. What seems to be incredibly evident this year, is that these stories are all around us. They are more and more proximate. This makes me think that we must be getting very close to a tipping point in the global psyche around climate change.
There have been similar tipping points in public consciousness around environmental issues in the past. The images in 1969 of the Cuyahoga River in Ohio catching fire, spurred on the formation of the US EPA two years later. A century earlier, The Great Stink in London in 1858, caused the British House of Parliament to be shut due to the unbearable stench from the River Thames. Within 1 year this had triggered the construction of the London Sewage system that is still active today.
Sometimes experiences such as this can be transformative and can cause a shift in our thinking and our perspective and lead to actions. Astronauts (and increasingly billionaires), describe the profound effect looking back at the earth from space has on them. Dutch astronaut Andre Kuipers, tells that when he returned to earth, the first thing he did was to make two phone calls, the first to his wife, the second to the World Wildlife Fund, to volunteer as an Ambassador. The Biospherians who lived for 2 years inside Biosphere II, also underwent a transformative experience. Mark Nelson, the person responsible for water purification inside Biosphere II, has since devoted his life to developing constructed wetlands to improve water quality around the world.
Alexander Humbolt, the man credited with laying down the foundations of how we think about nature, described his experience when he had reached the summit of Mount Chimborazo in Ecuador. Having climbed what was then thought to the highest mountain on the planet, he looked back down at the valleys below and he began to see the world differently. He saw the earth as one great living organism where everything was connected. He conceived a new vision of nature that inspired countless others from Charles Darwin to Henry David Thoreau.
Increasingly we don’t need enter a mini-Biosphere or leave this one to experience the interconnectedness of things. We can see it all around us. First-hand experiences of climate change, mainly experienced through too little or too much water, are bringing climate change closer to us.
In a famous study led by Damon Centola of the University of Pennsylvania, it was found that once 25% of a group changes how they think, it can flip the thinking of the entire group, triggering a social tipping point. This is empowering; it means that we dont need to get to 80% or 90%, winning the hearts and minds of a powerful minority can change society. This has echoes Roger’s ‘Diffusion of Innovations Theory’ which describes how the adoption of new technologies reaches a ‘tipping point’ after which, ultimately, the total diffusion of an innovation becomes very likely. In the Rogers Adoption Model once 16% of the market has adopted a particular solution, that’s when you start to see the corresponding inflection point on an S-curve.
As a water scientist and founder of research firm, naturally I start to wonder, if we do reach a social tipping point, based on these collective transformative experiences of what will it tip us towards? How do we interpret this? What does it mean? Will it make cities see the value of of turning our cities in Sponge Cities using blue-green infrastructure to slow down and store stormwater, of replenishing aquifers with recycled water and reaching leakage levels that are on par with those achieved in cities like Tokyo and Singapore. What new innovations are required, will we need bigger and faster pumps with peaking capacity to move more water in a shorter space of time, better AI and predictive models to anticipate flood events and trigger a response and centrally controlled rainwater capture to attenuate storm events.
As we see these solutions and ideas adopted, when will we get to the tipping point where 25% of major water utilities are carbon neutral, where 25% of the world’s largest multi-national corporations reach water neutrality and when we close the loop locally on water and nutrient cycles.
Just like the bee-keepers, these first-hand experiences of extreme weather events are changing how we see the world. Identifying the practical solutions that can be deployed once we have reached that 25% social tipping point is the area that I am most excited to observe and track.