the future at our fingertips

zanny begg: tipping point australia, sydney

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney


Tipping Point was formed in the UK by Peter Gingold to create a network of environmentalists, scientists and artists committed to achieving this aim. Gingold explained that he was moved into action after renowned environmental journalist, and founder of, Bill McKibben bemoaned the lack of cultural material on climate change: “where are the books? The plays? The goddamn operas?” Tipping Point aims to fill this gap with a variety of creative works that inspire us to change the impact human society is having on the earth.

Tipping Point has taken its own message for change seriously—its conferences were regionalised (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane) to avoid large numbers of people expanding their carbon footprint by traveling to one central event. Some sessions were held with natural lighting to avoid burning up electricity and some invited speakers spoke via Skype rather than make the resource-costly trip in person. Concurrent with the idea that the facts are largely self-evident and the key change that needs to happen is our willingness to act, the conference was structured like an extended coffee break; the majority of time given over to open space, informal meetings and small group discussions.

The two days began with an icebreaker game—all participants formed two circles and moved along introducing themselves to each other. While it would have been impossible to allow the 100 or so people to actually introduce themselves this exercise gave the impression that this should and would continue to happen over the ensuing two days (and in large part it did). In my part of the circle was Steve Pekar, one of the few keynote speakers flown from overseas to address the conference in the next session.

Pekar is a Geology Professor at Queens College and has been investigating past climate and oceanographic changes during times (45-16 million years ago) when CO2 was as high as predicted for this century (500-1000 ppm). His frustration over the lack of action on climate change burned with the focused intensity only possible in someone who spends their entire life researching its potential consequences. His speech was full of familiar yet terrifying statistics as he rolled out maps of the “hot plate” our earth is to become if we continue to emit carbon at current levels.

After the first presentations we moved into a room with four signs pinned to the wall; “Legislation and Compulsion”; “Fear and Aversion”; “Incentive and Rewards”; and “Vision and Inspiration.” We were asked to choose which we felt would be the most motivating to stop human induced climate change. The crowd spread unevenly with the largest group forming in the “Vision and Inspiration” corner and the smallest in “Fear and Aversion.” This activity had the desired effect of highlighting the importance of artists in bringing change. While not armed with all the facts Pekar had at his fingertips, we were hopefully qualified in “vision and inspiration.”

The rest of the conference was mainly spent in “open space” sessions. Despite the loose title given to these, they were in fact highly structured around a set of axioms: “whoever turns up is the right group,” “whenever it starts is the right time,” “whatever happens is the only thing that could have.” People were encouraged to be “bumblebees and butterflies,” bumping noisily into conversations or drifting around the room looking for something interesting to talk about.

Having spent most of the last decade in various environmental and social justice conferences that got bogged down in intense and sometimes pointless fights between competing left factions I can see the appeal of such a structure. It was nice to be free to drift, to listen when you wanted to, to interrupt whenever you felt like it, to avoid any attempts at domination by any group or individual.

However the discussions sometimes lacked a certain depth. Encouraged to be “mobile” people wafted away from discussions that sometimes needed commitment to bear fruit. Perhaps I was too schooled in my left training; I stayed in my group until the end and it was only starting to get interesting when the session was politely, but firmly, closed for the next to start.

While I enjoyed the open sessions I felt they were, on the one hand, a little too de-centred and, on the other, not quite de-centred enough.

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

Tipping Point Australia, Sydney

The conference organisers encouraged a specific culture of discussion that facilitated positivity and openness yet discouraged disagreement and the difficult, time consuming yet potentially rewarding, struggle to find common ground.

Whatever the structure of conferences, people inspired by each other will usually find time to meet and talk. Deliberately creating time for this to happen within the conference planning is definitely a worthwhile shift in how we talk about politics.

Whether we write operas, books or plays about climate change as a result might not be the right premise for Tipping Point. Jean Luc Godard once commented that he didn’t want to make political films—but to make films politically. While everyone who attended Tipping Point might not make a work directly on the topic of climate change (although I hope many do) I think all of us will think a bit harder about the ways we make our works and how this could become more sustainable.

I would like to see the discussions begun at Tipping Point continue and deepen to foster an active network for artists, arts organisations and scientists planning how we can reduce our own carbon footprints whilst also contributing to a campaign for genuine political action against the companies and decision makers who make our carbon feet look like twinkle toes. We might not have that much time left before “vision and inspiration” give way to “fear and aversion.”

Tipping Point Australia, producer Angharad Wynne-Jones, Tipping Point UK directors Angela McSherry, Peter Gingold, Performance Space, Nov 5-6;

RealTime issue #100 Dec-Jan 2010 pg. 14

© Zanny Begg; for permission to reproduce apply to

1 December 2010