The Phenomenon of Discontinuous Change – from Active Hope by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone

Posted by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone
12 May, 2015

If we look at change as something that happens incrementally at a steady, predictable rate, in which the progress – or lack thereof – in one decade gives a measure of what is likely to take place in the next, we can get very discouraged. But along with continuous change, there is also discontinuous change. Sudden shifts can happen in ways that surprise us; structures that appear as fixed and solid as the Berlin Wall can collapse or be dismantled in a very short time. An understanding of discontinuous change opens up a genuine sense of possibility.

Mass Movement

Consider what happens to a bottle of water when it is left in the freezer. As it cools down, there is a steady, continuous change in its temperature. The water won’t change much in appearance until it begins to get near the critical threshold of its freezing point. Then, just as it passes this, an extraordinary process happens. Tiny crystals form, and when they do, other crystals form around those crystals, until there is a mass movement of crystallization in the water that rapidly changes state from liquid to solid. This is discontinuous change.

With discontinuous change, a threshold is crossed where, rather than just more of the same happening, something different occurs. There’s a jump to a new level, an opening to a new set of possibilities. We might think it impossible that a small amount of water could crack something as hard as glass, but as the ice expands, it breaks the bottle.

Even when we don’t see a visible result from our actions, we may be adding to an unseen change that moves the situation closer to a threshold where something crystallizes. When a line is crossed and something new starts to happen, the change may appear to come out of nowhere.

Inspiring change

Discontinuous changes can be triggered by quite small events. When you’re close to a threshold, one tiny step can take you over it. An example of this is when a tipping point is reached and a critical mass of people starts to believe a change can happen. If those who are undecided have been hovering on the edge beforehand, waiting to see what happens, something small can tip the balance and nudge them into giving their support. Before this threshold is crossed, the change may seem unlikely. Yet only a short while later, everyone wants to join in.

Discontinuous shifts can happen in both directions. Just as new ways of thinking can catch people’s imagination and pivotal innovations can unexpectedly take off, so too can tipping points bring about rapidly worsening conditions. While we face the very real danger of catastrophic collapse, we can also be poised on the edge of a major evolutionary leap.

Taking the step

We can’t know how things will unfold. What we can do is make a choice about what we’d like to have happen, and then put ourselves fully behind that possibility. An inspiring wave of change is spreading through our world. The Great Turning is happening in our time, and we may already be participating in may ways. If we want this change to catch on more thoroughly, deeply, and rapidly, how can we let it do so in our own lives? What thresholds do we need to cross? When we step over the line from one state to another, we take part in this shift.

From Active Hope © 2012 by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone, published by New World Library.



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