Dampening feedbacks

As in natural systems, tipping points in human systems are prevented by dampening (or mathematically negative) feedbacks: a decrease in a variable leads to a closed loop of causal consequences that further decreases the same variable. Dampening feedbacks are system-stabilising forces. In the enabling phase, these forces – which in the case of human systems may be hegemonic political, social, discursive, economic, institutional or infrastructural – are typically still strong. They act as barriers to broader systems change. For example, in the political domain, the efforts of fossil fuel companies to obstruct, dilute, reverse or delay climate policy is well documented (Srivastav and Rafaty, 2022). In the socio-behavioural domain, a lack of trust or information, high perceived risk and uncertainty, institutional inertia, conformity, or ingrained habits may present barriers to people switching to more sustainable lifestyles (Rosenbloom et al., 2019; Constantino et al., 2022). Economic barriers to change may include high costs, supply-chain bottlenecks, or uncertainty surrounding future policy which delays new investment (Hamilton, 2009). In the technological domain, influential opposition may prevent the building of solar or wind farms. These and other forms of resistance, including system-preserving narratives based on excessive cost and over-regulation, should be expected to become more vocal and pervasive as system changes approach PTPs (Geels, 2014, Jost 2020).

A shift in the balance between dampening feedbacks (which maintain the status quo) and reinforcing feedbacks (which drive nonlinear change) can take a system out of its stable state and over a PTP, beyond which it enters an acceleration phase towards systemic transformation. Weakening the dampening (negative) feedbacks and/or strengthening the reinforcing (positive) feedbacks can bring a system closer to a PTP. The strategic sequencing of these interventions can also sometimes be important: for example, a policy process for radical change may first require a political process ( 

In this section of the report we focus exclusively on PTP systems. These are human (social) systems that we want to tip because this (in theory) leads to predominantly beneficial outcomes. We are not concerned with systems explored in Section 2.3 related to negative social tipping, where systemic change is unwanted because it leads to social harms such as war and social breakdown. Therefore, in this section alone, we can describe self-reinforcing feedbacks as being both normatively as well as mathematically ‘positive’. Similarly, dampening feedbacks can be described as being both normatively and mathematically ‘negative’. 

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