Critical Transitions in Nature and Society


From shallow lakes that flip from clear to turbid water to major climate shifts, big shifts in social norms to the collapse of societies and ecosystems, Marten Scheffer shows that many complex systems undergo “critical transitions” (or “regime shifts”) between multiple stable states (or “equilibria”). In these transitions, slow and often unseen change in a key system parameter gradually erodes the resilience of one equilibrium so that even a minor perturbation can shift the system to another equilibrium, where it takes on different qualities and behaviors. But because they follow the mathematical form of a catastrophe curve, critical transitions cannot be simply reversed by restoring parameters to where they were when the shift occurred. Scheffer thus provides a rigorous, mathematical model of tipping points in complex systems.

Watch here as Scheffer explains his approach and discusses “Early Warning Signs of Critical Transitions” at the Waterloo Institute for Complexity and Innovation.


Marten Scheffer

Publication Date

26 July 2009


Princeton University Press



Resource Type


Systems Addressed

Climate • Ecosystems • Social Order and Governance • Worldviews

Resource Theme

Societal Collapse • Sustainability and Transition • Theory Building
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