The midwinter solstice and other turning points

14 December 2021

Dr. Trevor Hancock

702 words

This evening I will gather with others in our neighbourhood at Lights on the Gorge, our annual event to mark the midwinter solstice. We will light some of the trees along Gorge Road, sing songs appropriate to midwinter and the solstice and have a lantern parade for the kids. It’s not a major event in itself, but it certainly marks a major event, a key turning point each year.

Its importance, for me, is not only that the sun has ceased its retreat and now the days start getting longer, although that is certainly part of it. But more than that, it is a way of connecting ourselves to nature and the great annual cycles that mark our year. 

My recent columns, as you will have seen, have been based around the theme of ceasing our war on nature and instead making peace with nature, as the UN Secretary General has urged. But as with all peace initiatives, this means coming to know your ‘enemy’ – and as the recent extreme weather events have shown, nature can at times seem like an enemy, even though these events are at least to some extent caused or exacerbated by humanity.

So getting to know and respect nature, to treat nature as an ally and partner, not a foe and competitior, begins with increasing our contact with nature. Recognising the winter and summer solstices is part of that process.

The solstice is also a time when my mind turns to other turning points. One of those has to do with the set of human-induced global ecological changes that we are witnessing, most obviously climate change. Unfortunately, the decision-making systems in our societies and economies are not set up to deal well with changes in complex dynamic systems such as ecosystems (and our societal systems, for that matter). We assume a degree of stability and slow, fairly smooth and linear change.

But that is not how complex systems change; they can both resist pressures and maintain stability and then, when the right trigger happens or the pressure becomes too much, they can flip quite suddenly to a new state. “Sometimes”, notes the recently-established Cascade Institute at Royal Roads University (I am on the Institute’s Science Advisory Board) “a small change in one component of a complex system causes an enormous shift in the system’s overall behavior; but other times, even large changes in multiple components produce little effect.”

The timing of non-linear change in a system, adds the Institute, is hard to predict, and such shifts to a new stable state “are usually extremely difficult to reverse”. That is a problem, because we face “the real possibility that . . . [our planetary socio-ecological] system is close to an irreversible shift to a new pathway that would radically degrade human well-being and civilization’s long-term prospects.” This is a turning point we really don’t want to bring about.

On the other hand, there are turning points we do want to trigger. As leading Earth scientist Will Steffen noted a couple of years ago, in contemplating the possibility of rapid and irreversible shifts in the planetary Earth systems that are our life support: “We need to reach a social tipping point, before we reach a planetary one.” It is not yet clear we have reached a social tipping point for climate change, but after the extreme weather events of 2021, we may be getting closer.

Societal systems also maintain stability in the face of pressures (which is one of the unstated purposes of a bureaucracy), but if they reach a tipping point they too can flip. We have seen this with respect to the shift in the social acceptability of smoking a few decades ago or the fairly sudden acceptance of gay marriage in many countries in recent years. Now we need some fairly rapid societal shifts with respect to our overall relationship with – and dependence upon – nature.

That is the central focus of the work of the Cascade Institute; to try to figure out how we might intervene to “produce a virtuous cascade of change that helps flip humanity onto a far more positive path”. So Happy Solstice, I wish all of us a positive turning point soon.

© Trevor Hancock, 2021

thancock@uvic.ca

Dr. Trevor Hancock is a retired professor and senior scholar at the

University of Victoria’s School of Public Health and Social Policy

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