Peruvian women protest in front of the Brazilian embassy against Bolsonaro's environmental policy Photo: joannapg / Shutterstock.com

Flare up like a forest fire

  • August 28, 2019

People & Power

Watching the Amazon burn, it is hard not to feel despair. But we have to remind ourselves that social transformations can take off as rapidly as a forest fire.

A Portuguese translation of this text is published by Lavra Palavra.

The climate and ecosystems all have tipping points. For instance, it is estimated that 20 percent tree loss in the Amazon will change rainfall conditions, and push the forest into irreversible decline. And as temperatures rise, the thawing permafrost will enter a positive feedback loop in which melting releases the greenhouse gas methane, heating the atmosphere and accelerating the disappearance of the permafrost.

But there are also social tipping points, and the Amazon Fires can push us over one.

In sociology, a tipping point is passed when a group or society rapidly and dramatically changes its behavior by adopting a previously rare practice. It usually follows some crisis which makes the old way of doing things impossible or intolerable, and the introduction of new practices, which are rapidly adopted.

Rapid deforestation has long been ongoing in Indonesia, Central Africa, the Amazon and elsewhere. But the enormous material and symbolic significance of the Amazon means that the fires there are a wake up call for millions of people in Brazil and across the world.

But the shock of disaster isn’t enough. To get out of bed after a wake up call requires you to have something to get up for. You need to know you’ll do something with your day. This is why it’s so important to combat cynicism, and why it’s so important to inform yourself and others about what can be done.


So what can be done? Overall, we need a rapid transformation of the global economy of fossil fuels, predatory agriculture and extractivism. What you can do depends on your place within this economy, on where you live, your skills and who you might act with.

Don’t ask how the Big Problem can be solved, but how you can be a part of the movement that changes the present state of things, and what you can contribute to it. At best, there will be an ecology of practices, of tactics and strategies, and you have to seek out your niche, your symbioses, your role in the circulation of ideas and energies.

Getting started is what matters, no matter how small. Because the best cure for feeling despair and worry is to act together. And when you get together, unforeseen possibilities and ideas arise. You learn and you find people to learn from.

A good, small way to start is to get together with some friends and create a map: a map of the initiatives happening near you and the movements that are active. You might want to join them — to learn something, help out a bit, maybe get involved. Even if you want to start your own thing they’ll be good contacts, and you might also learn from their mistakes.

In that initial conversation with your friends you’ll realize you know a lot of stuff together. You will get more easily excited about getting active than if you ponder alone, and you’re likely to have a rare in-depth conversation about the state of the world. It might not leave you uplifted, but certainly you’ll feel less lonely with your worries.

If you’re already active, do the same: Get together with the people you trust and you love. Inspire them, but don’t tell them what to do. Help them to understand what they can and what they want to do, and help them get started.

No matter how small we start, it’s an event, a personal tipping point passed, sadness now tempered by a joyful realization: we have the capacity to act.


That the problems are global doesn’t mean we are too small to do something, it means that we all — except those who profit from disaster — have a part to play, and distinct places and trajectories to act from.

As a consumer, you can organize and participate in boycotts of soy, beef, palm oil and other goods driving deforestation. You can fight for public transport and bike lanes and co-commute with others. You can petition your local power company to switch to renewables and the list gets much longer if you start thinking about the ways your life touches ecological destruction. If you’re complicit in it, don’t feel guilty; find out how to leverage or refuse your complicity against those who depend on our staying complicit.

As a worker you can refuse to do certain types of work, you can strike or work slowly, or you can do your job differently: For instance, teachers can teach the curriculum radically, and some can change it. Some workers can transform the work process to be less polluting, less wasteful, or inform communities and environmentalists and the press about the damage the bosses ask us to do.

We’re so used to speaking about consumption, but it’s easier for workers to act collectively, and they have a lot of power when they do so. And we all need to think about how we refuse and help others refuse the ecologically destructive “batshit jobs” that capital needs us to continue to profit.

Some people fetishize ethical, individual choices, and others wrongly take that as a reason to reject all individual actions. The truth is that the personal is political and transindividual, and the actions of one person might inspire others to act, change habits, and values, or make them open to the idea that things can be done differently.

And as long as you don’t fall into the illusion that personal actions are sufficient (which is getting harder to believe by the day), then they may prime you for participating in collective actions, which are infinitely more powerful than whatever we can do as individuals.


Imagine many among the millions who have received the wake up call from the Amazon, informing themselves and others about what can be done, and getting involved, however small. Imagine a multitude embarking on a learning process, inspiring anger and joy in one another.

All those people would, in effect, have passed a social tipping point. They’d have experienced an event, their lives likely changed forever. They would change what they do, do it differently, or feel very differently about it. And they’d be ready for more.

So how many would it take for this tipping point to really tip the scales?

It’s less than you might think. One hint comes from research that shows it doesn’t take more than 15 percent of a population engaging in civil disobedience to make a government fall.

It’s just a hint, because when it comes to climate and ecological breakdown we’re dealing with tipping points on many scales and types, neighborhoods, schools and workplaces, municipalities, regional governments, national governments and international governance and local, national and global trade. But the point is clear: we can stop believing that nothing will change until we get 50 percent of the population on board.

Majorities matter a lot when it comes to elections, but radical democratic governments are almost always the product of social change, before they become shapers of it. An active, organized minority can shift common sense and make the status quo break down. That will shape elections, but most importantly it’ll shift social power relations and practices, in turn making possible progressive governments more durable and accountable.

Shifts in social power relations are most powerful and durable when they respond to the key problems of their time, and when the powers that be don’t have much of a clue what to do. This being the case, it’s useful to remember that we’re not just facing irreversible destruction, but the chance of durable change for the better.


It doesn’t matter that you can’t concretely imagine how all this will work out. Great social transformations and revolutions are processes in which new, hitherto unimaginable possibilities are developed or discovered. And there are people, plans and practices on our side that you haven’t heard about yet, and many more to come.

To be clear, we shouldn’t imagine large-scale social transformations as the result of one-off social tipping points being passed, but more like a cascading process in which a tipping point creates the conditions for the next.

In the last year we’ve already experienced one tipping point in the struggle against planetary destruction. The crisis experience of 2018 — the summer drought in the Northern Hemisphere, the IPCC report, the California fires, etc. — created the conditions for tens of thousands to get active for the first time: school kids and students across the world went on #climatestrike and thousands of people joined the #ExtinctionRebellion.

Those who got active after the wake up calls of 2018 were those who found ways to act collectively: the school strikes, the road blockades, first of all. What determines the next tipping point is not so much people’s consciousness, but finding, sharing, and circulating tactics and forms of organization.

The Amazon Fires have pushed us closer to the next social tipping point if we find ways to turn anger and despair into action, if we find ways to act where we are. Be open to what others are doing, be inventive, be creative, be inspirational. Sometimes social transformations can take off as fast as a forest fire.

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Bue Rübner Hansen

Bue Rübner Hansen has a PhD from Queen Mary University, London. He is an editor of Viewpoint Magazine, and has been an activist researcher in student, municipalist and migrant solidarity movements. His current research focuses on social reproduction, ecology and interest formation.

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