Creating a tipping point for radical change

On 8 August 2023, CCS Director, Ben Twist, spoke at a Climate Co-Lab event hosted by Edinburgh Science – ‘Co-creating a sustainable ecosystem for tourism & cultural events’. This blog is a slightly edited version of his provocation along with some post-event notes.

There’s a risk here that we are fiddling while Rome burns. I’ve been to and spoken at many events over the past 10 years, and to be honest, nothing much has changed. Carbon emissions are increasing. We have wildfires and a life- and crop-threatening heatwave across much of Europe, deadly floods in China, another heatwave in North America, ocean temperatures way above normal and at record levels. We have the risk that the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation may break down within my lifetime and that of just about everyone here (we’ll be thinking differently about cultural tourism then!). And summer Arctic sea ice is disappearing fast.

Meanwhile, we have governments in Scotland and the UK – along with all other rich world nations and nearly all opposition parties – still fixated on economic growth. But nobody has yet shown how you can decouple economic growth from a rise in carbon emissions.

Take a moment to look into your hearts, and then raise your hand if you really, really believe that economic growth can be decoupled from growth in carbon emissions.

[Post-event note: about 10% of attendees raised their hands, suggesting that 90% weren’t sure that this decoupling is possible. I found that a very powerful comment on the credibility of a widespread government approach.]

So, to avoid fiddling amongst the flames, we need real change.

Some questions to start.

When we talk about co-creating a sustainable ecosystem for tourism and cultural events, what do we mean by sustainable?

What are we trying to make sustainable? Are we trying to co-create an ecosystem that is itself sustainable in the face of climate change, so it doesn’t get legislated or taxed or priced out of existence? Or are we talking – and I hope we are – about co-creating an ecosystem for tourism and cultural events, which means that the wider environment is sustainable?

Sustainable over what time frame? Are we talking about co-creating an ecosystem that will be sustainable for the foreseeable future – maybe until we all retire and don’t have to worry about it anymore? Or are we saying – and I hope we are – that this ecosystem should result in wider sustainability not just for now, but for our children’s children’s children? At the moment we’re trashing their future.

Sustainable for whom? Are we saying it should be sustainable for the people who come and take part, who earn a living from these industries? For the people of Edinburgh, some of whom never participate? Or are we saying – and I hope we are – that it should be sustainable for the people of sub-Saharan Africa and other affected places, who are paying the price today for every event, every festival, every tourist attraction that isn’t carbon negative, or at least carbon neutral ?

And finally, what kind of sustainability do we mean? Alongside the climate crisis there’s an inequality crisis – one which is partly caused and is certainly exacerbated by the climate crisis. It is local – inequality between communities in Edinburgh, Scotland and the UK – and global – inequalities between nations across the world. Are we trying to co-create a socially as well as an environmentally sustainable ecosystem for tourism and cultural events?

Those are my glass half empty questions. Here are some glass three quarters full thoughts.

There is still hope

First, I don’t think we should despair. Humans have caused more carbon emissions since 1992 – the year of the Rio Summit – than in all the years before that. If you look at the graphs of atmospheric CO2 and global temperatures, the big change took place in the 1980s, when consumption grew rapidly, owing to the falling cost of travel and transport, the ending of constraints on international capital flows and, arguably, the increased use of shipping containers, which were only invented in the 1950s. If we can do so much damage in 30 or 40 years, we can stop doing that damage in the same period – between now and 2050, say. But we’ll have to work just as hard to do so as we did on growing consumption since the 1980s. Really, we need to make good the damage we’ve already done – and by the way, neither offsetting nor carbon capture and storage is a magic bullet.

Complex systems

Second, an ecosystem is a good way to think about this challenge. I’m going to get a bit technical for a moment, so bear with me – I’m reusing some thinking from my PhD here.

An ecosystem is a complex system: an open system consisting of many elements or agents that interact dynamically between themselves and indeed with influences outside the system. These interactions are rich, in that one agent may influence and be influenced by many others. They are non-linear, in that small changes can have large effects or vice versa. My point here is that the ecosystem for tourism and cultural events involves many agents of all sorts: castles, museums and festivals, yes, but also restaurants and hotels, B&Bs, off licences, campsites, bus companies, airlines, train companies, sole traders and corporations, public bodies, local authorities, governments at all scales.

Complex systems have emergent properties – properties of the system as a whole rather than of any one agent or element. And the emergent properties of the current ecosystem for tourism and cultural events are deeply unsustainable practices and outcomes. It’s an ecosystem causing carbon emissions, big-time – through travel, energy use and consumption by producers, audiences and visitors. If we want sustainable emergent properties, we have to change the complex system. And that’s hard.

The thing about complex systems is that no one agent controls them. Some agents have more influence than others, but it requires joint and co-ordinated action to bring about change. We need to work together to create a tipping point – another feature of complex systems – so that radical change happens.

How do we do this? We at Creative Carbon Scotland were involved in a project called Clyde Rebuilt with Glasgow City Region, which was funded by EIT Climate KIC, the EU’s climate innovation hub, and used an approach they have developed. First, you need to understand the complex system – mapping it to grasp who the agents are and how they interact. Then you need to identify where the points of intervention are that might create tipping points. Then you try to do just that, exploring different ways of bringing about change.

But the crucial point is that it requires lots of different agents working together: providers of finance, the people who create the rules such as local and national governments, industry and commercial players, community organisations and civic society, public bodies, the media. And, I suggest, the arts and cultural sector.

It’s not necessary for every agent to be involved in the work to create a tipping point, but you need the relevant and important ones. There’s an interesting book by Simon Sharpe, called Five Times Faster, in which he points out that three jurisdictions effectively shape the regulations for vehicle emissions: California, the EU and China. If you could get the right people from those places to agree radical emissions reduction regulation for road transport, the rest of the world would follow: a tipping point.

But, if one of those groups isn’t pushing in the right direction, there’s a danger that it stalls progress.

Currently, one of the problems we have is that different players are pushing in different directions – and sometimes some of them are pushing in two directions at once. There’s a demand for increased turnover, increased productivity, increased customers, increased audiences – and a demand to reduce emissions.

So, my provocation to you is to ask: Are you pushing in the right direction? Are you working sufficiently hard with others, maybe in completely different fields to your own, to understand your own and others’ place in the ecosystem and to find the points of intervention where you can bring about a step change, a tipping point?

There is perhaps a particular responsibility on those who make the rules – the local and national governments, but also the financiers, the trade bodies, the bigger parties which have more heft – to play their part.

The role of arts and culture

My third glass three-quarters full point is about the role of culture and tourism in this venture. Obviously, they play a big part in Edinburgh’s and indeed Scotland’s and the UK’s economy and character. But I think they’re more important than that. In fact, I think they’re essential.

Changing the ecosystem so that its emergent properties are sustainable doesn’t just mean tweaking it around the edges. We’ve been doing that for the last three decades and it hasn’t worked. It means radical change. I think we need a paradigm shift, where we’re working within a different, shared view of how the world is arranged, how it works.

Thomas Kuhn was the philosopher of science who popularised the term paradigm shift. He argued that science – and I think we can widen this to society as a whole – operates within a paradigm, where everyone agrees on the basic structures and mechanisms and we argue about details within that paradigm, without disagreeing about the overall picture. But there are always anomalous results, things that don’t quite fit. Eventually there are too many of these to ignore, which creates a need to shift to a new paradigm, where everything we knew for certain is still explained, but the problem results, the uncomfortable bits, also make sense.

The bit of Kuhn’s thinking that is often forgotten in the popular use of this theory is that to have a paradigm shift, it’s not enough to know what the problems are with the current system. You also need to have a new paradigm to shift to. And I think one problem now is that we know there are lots of problems with the current paradigm, but we don’t yet have the new one to shift to. That’s one of the reasons no one can think beyond economic growth as the sole measure of success of a society.

Cultural organisations – from festivals to theatres to museums to those who look after castles and everything in between – provide all sorts of opportunities to do thought experiments about different ways of imagining society. Heritage organisations have knowledge about how things were or were done in the past – for good or ill – and what we can learn from that. Theatres, novels, films ask the question: ‘What if…?’ and the characters and the audience explore that idea together.

There’s a researcher at the University of Edinburgh, Alette Willis, who’s also a storyteller. She argues that ‘We live by stories’. The stories we tell ourselves, each other, our children, our colleagues, create who we are and shape the society we live in. Cultural organisations tell stories, in the work they make and present and the way they engage with their audiences. They bring communities together to think about those stories collectively – to interrogate them, to understand them, to improve them. Through those stories, cultural organisations can try out new paradigms – and nobody needs to die in the process. If the paradigm is wrong, we try out another. Artists are quick at dumping bad ideas and trying a different one.

And so my third point is that to create this new paradigm, we must recognise that cultural organisations need to be in the mix.


  • We need change, and radical change.
  • We need to co-create an ecosystem for tourism and cultural events that is socially and environmentally sustainable not just for itself, and for the short term, but for the wider environment, for people across the world and for future generations.
  • To achieve this we need to work fast and hard.
  • We need to understand the complex system, and work together to activate tipping points.
  • And culture has a role to play.
[For more thinking about measures of success other than economic growth, you may be interested in the Beyond Growth conference website. Beyond Growth 2023, held online and in person in May, was a cross-party initiative of 20 Members of the European Parliament, offering an opportunity for discussion across institutional boundaries and with European citizens. Videos of many of the sessions are available as is more news and information.

You can also watch a recording of ‘Decolonising the social imaginary degrowth, culture, and new narratives of the good life’, Dr Halliki Kreinin’s keynote from SPRINGBOARD 2023.

In Scotland, both the Wellbeing Alliance Scotland and Enough! provide useful resources, information and opportunities.]

(Top image ID: A visual depiction of crossroads. The left side of the road is black and white and the sign reads ‘Economic growth’. The right side of the road is bright and the sign reads ‘Sustainability’.)

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