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People power and magic numbers
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Pass it on
I'm reading
People power and magic numbers
Pass it on
Pass it on
I'm reading
People power and magic numbers
Pass it on
Pass it on
11 December 2019

People power and magic numbers

Writer Jane Hoan explores the ‘magic number’ of people needed to effect change and tackle the climate emergency, and the role that the clean money movement can play.

Written by Jane Hone

This story originally ran in issue #61 of Dumbo Feather

This article is sponsored by our partners Bank Australia

What does this mean?

As climate change tensions have ramped up over the past two years, there have been two phrases, in particular, quoted and re-quoted: “The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it,” and, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” The first, attributed to environmentalist Robert Swan, speaks to the need for individual action and responsibility. The second, from anthropologist Margaret Mead, is about the power of the people.

Both actions—the individual and the collective—are important. Change needs to start with us; with personal responsibility and the ways in which we each behave in the world. Yet to stay motivated and committed, we need to see that we’re part of something bigger; that we’re not paddling alone against an oncoming ocean swell, but on-board a sturdy ship populated by people heading in the same direction. Behind every incredible changemaker is a support team capable of weathering the storm: If we want to create real, structural change, we can’t do it alone.

I remember hearing in a meditation course years ago that only one million people are required to form a “critical mass” and create change. Maybe the teacher was talking about some kind of energetic change, but this idea always filled me with a quiet hope about the state of the planet.

It turns out this concept of a critical mass is not just an esoteric idea, but a phenomenon backed by social science. It goes by a few different names, including “the boiling point” and “the tipping point”. This refers to a situation that’s been simmering under the surface or teetering on the edge and then finally enough people share an idea, and are willing to push for it, that they topple the status quo.

In other words, if there is a group of people pushing up against a small building, there will be a certain point—a certain number of people—at which the building falls. Maybe 100 people can’t topple the building, but 101 can. The 101st person might be the magic number that provides the imperceptible nudge required. Which means not only that the actions of each person count, but also that it’s by coming together that we find real strength.

“Look at the world around you,” writes Malcolm Gladwell in 2000’s The Tipping Point. “It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.”

In The Tipping Point, Malcolm identifies three characteristics that are shared by scenarios where this occurs. The first is that the idea must be somehow contagious; “sticky” or memorable in some way (think about Greta Thunberg’s recent “right here, right now” speech, which went viral on social media).

The second is that the movement starts off very small and ends up having a huge impact. Malcolm uses the example of Hush Puppies, which were unfashionable shoes until a small group of New York hipsters starting wearing them in 1995, and which soon after were featured in high fashion shows and hugely popular across the country.

The third characteristic is that the tipping point happens quickly. While most social change has a history of being slowly chipped away at, the tipping point itself is reached seemingly overnight.

This makes me think of the vegan cafes that started popping up in the coastal area where I live. Several years ago there were zero vegetarian eateries, and then, over the course of a few months, four or five vegan ones appeared. The number of locals wanting plant-based options had reached a critical mass.

But what is this magic number needed to effect change? Research tells us that it’s smaller than we think. Scientists at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI) found in a 2011 study that it’s around 10 per cent of people. If less than 10 per cent of the population believes in a certain idea, not much will happen. But once this number hits 10 per cent, the idea spreads rapidly. Interestingly, it turns out that around 12 per cent of Australians currently follow a vegetarian diet, which might explain why I saw the vegan cafes materialise a few years ago.

Researcher Erica Chenoweth, who has looked at the success of non-violent versus violent forms of resistance throughout history, found that the magic number when it comes to political change is more like 3.5 per cent. In Australia’s case, this is a mere 875,000 people, or less than a fifth of Melbournians.

It seems reasonable to imagine that 875,000 Australians could share the same sustainability values. And if this sum of people mobilised and started aligning their finances with these values, like we’re seeing begin to happen with the clean money movement, we could change the game. 875,000 people paying attention to the ethics of their bank or superannuation accounts: What would this mean for funding to the fossil fuels industry? What could this do for the renewables sector? (To check how your bank invests your money, head to an independent website such as marketforces.org.au or dontbankonthebomb.com).

Ethical money management has the potential to create huge change because it involves a combination of both people power and the power of money. It also provides the opportunity to take our personal values beyond ourselves and to feed into a greater collective force where resources are pooled.

“Whether it’s 3.5 per cent or 10 per cent, our thinking is: how can people be using their money for good instead of harm—that’s the first thing,” says Bank Australia Strategy Manager Victoria McKenzie-McHarg. “But also, at what level do we need to work together to actually shift the whole of the financial system?”

The research also shows that groups of changemakers can be comprised of virtually anyone. The RPI scientists say that the group just needs to be a “committed minority.” Gladwell says it must include those who are energetic and influential among peers, because it’s these people who can change the minds of those who are ambivalent about an issue. But they don’t need to be wealthy or in a high-status position. Once again, it’s a question of strength in numbers.

“Right across the globe we see narratives and stories of people with money having power, and it’s definitely true that organised money has a lot of power, but so do organised people,” says Victoria. “And when we come together and we work together, and we acknowledge the power that we all have, and actually step into that, we can change and achieve extraordinary things.”

We should all be filled with a quiet hope. We don’t need every single person on board for change to unfold. We don’t even need a majority. We need commitment from individuals, to work together as a collective, and to remember, when it feels like we’re pushing up against an unmoving structure, that dramatic change can happen—and quickly.

Bank Australia doesn’t lend its customers’ money to harmful industries like fossil fuels, live animal exports, gambling, arms, or tobacco. Instead, they prioritise investing your money into affordable housing projects, renewable energy, and not-for-profit organisations. Read more at bankaust.au/cleanmoney. 

Jane Hone

Jane Hone is a writer and yoga teacher based on the Mornington Peninsula. She’s passionate about helping people to slow down and realise the magic of the every day. 

Photograph by Chris Zielecki

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