, Volume 41, Issue 1, pp 96–105 | Cite as

Tipping Points and the Human World: Living with Change and Thinking about the Future

  • Mark Nuttall


The term “tipping point” has become increasingly popular in scientific and media usage to refer to the world in which we live, to describe the probable effects of the processes arising from the consequences of the ways we live with and transform the world, to describe our relationships with the environment, and the effects of our actions. Through this shift in scientific thinking, climate is talked about and represented as having the power to influence our lives in ways we have never before experienced or imagined, suggesting something transformative, disruptive, and decentering. Yet, in doing so, the complexity of the human world is explained in terms of scientific models that suggest a return to climatic determinism that simplifies our understanding of human–environment relations. How is anthropology to contribute to this discussion and to research and policy action on climate change? This article reflects on this and other questions as a way of contributing to the discussion of tipping points: are tipping points and thresholds metaphors, are they to be understood within contexts of speculative forecast, or are they descriptions of real events and indications of future change? What do we mean when we use these terms to imagine, describe, and represent the world? What relevance do they have for anticipatory knowledge and anticipatory practice? Indeed, how does anticipation guide us through a world of shifting conditions and sudden surprises and influence ways we orient ourselves toward the future?


Arctic Tipping points Environmental discourse Human–environment relations Representations Anticipation 



My thanks go to the three anonymous referees who provided considered, positive and encouraging comments on the first draft of this article, as well as to members of the audience of the annual Canadian Anthropology Society (CASCA) conference, held at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, New Brunswick in May 2011, at which I tried out some ideas about anticipation initially hinted at during the annual Arctic Frontiers conference in Tromsø 4 months earlier. I also thank Paul Wassmann for his editorial comments and his commitment to multidisciplinary conversation and debate.


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Copyright information

© Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of AlbertaEdmontonCanada

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