The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New Worldby Paul Gilding
It's time to stop just worrying about climate change, says Paul Gilding. Instead, we need to brace for impact, because global crisis is no longer avoidable; we have come to the end of a world economy based on consumption and waste, where we live beyond the means of our planet's resources. The Great Disruption offers a stark and unflinching look at the/i>
It's time to stop just worrying about climate change, says Paul Gilding. Instead, we need to brace for impact, because global crisis is no longer avoidable; we have come to the end of a world economy based on consumption and waste, where we live beyond the means of our planet's resources. The Great Disruption offers a stark and unflinching look at the challenge humanity faces-yet also a deeply optimistic message. The coming decades will see loss, suffering, and conflict as our planetary overdraft is paid; however, they will also bring out the best humanity can offer: compassion, innovation, resilience, and adaptability. Gilding tells us how to fight-and win-what he calls the "one-degree war" to prevent catastrophic warming of the earth, and how to start today.
Praise for The Great Disruption:
"Gilding offers a clear-eyed and moving assessment of our predicament, but more important, he offers a plausible way forward and good reasons to think we will rise to the occasion." -David W. Orr, author of Hope Is an Imperative
"Paul Gilding offers some excellent insights into how we might weather that which we can no longer completely prevent-and how we can still prevent that which we won't be able to weather. If you're planning to stick around for the twenty-first century, this might be a useful book to consult." -Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth, and founder of 350.org
A leading advocate for action on climate change asserts that the world is already in the midst of a global emergency that will mark not the collapse of civilization, but a positive transformation of society.
Gilding, former chief of Greenpeace International, argues that our planet cannot sustain the present rate of economic growth and that the crash of the global ecosystem is now underway. While the coming social and economic stresses will be enormous, the author sees the disruption as an exciting opportunity for humanity to make a great leap forward. Updating his 2005 paper "Scream Crash Boom," in which he predicted that economic and social crises would drive an investment boom in a new industrial revolution and economic transformation, Gilding here expands the scream, sounded first in the early '60s by Rachel Carson inSilent Spring; the crash, which became apparent in 2008; and the boom, which must be the response. He states that the end of economic growth and the threat of climate change will provoke both massive technological changes and profound sociological changes, and that while some people will act selfishly out of fear, many will act positively. The author foresees a society "built on the quality of life, a more equitable sharing of the world's wealth, and learning to operate in harmony with the ecosystem's capacity to support us." He cites dozens of examples of positive changes that are already underway, such as Recycle Bank, an American business that has increased recycling by rewarding recyclers; Ocado, a British supermarket that has reduced its carbon footprint; Sodra, a sustainable-forestry company in Sweden; and E+Co, a nonprofit organization bringing clean energy to developing countries around the globe. Gilding acknowledges that these are small changes, but they demonstrate the capacity of humans to find cooperative and innovative solutions to tough problems.
A remarkably optimistic view of the brave new world in our future—certain to be widely and strongly challenged.
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The Great DisruptionWhy the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World
By Paul Gilding
BLOOMSBURY PRESSCopyright © 2011 Paul Gilding
All right reserved.
Chapter OneAn Economic and Social Hurricane
The earth is full.
In fact our human society and economy is now so large we have passed the limits of our planet's capacity to support us and it is overflowing. Our current model of economic growth is driving this system, the one we rely upon for our present and future prosperity, over the cliff. This in itself presents a major problem. It becomes a much larger challenge when we consider that billions of people are living desperate lives in appalling poverty and need their personal "economy" to rapidly grow to alleviate their suffering. But there is no room left.
This means things are going to change. Not because we will choose change out of philosophical or political preference, but because if we don't transform our society and economy, we risk social and economic collapse and the descent into chaos. The science on this is now clear and accepted by any rational observer. While an initial look at the public debate may suggest controversy, any serious examination of the peer-reviewed conclusions of leading science bodies shows the core direction we are heading in is now clear. Things do not look good.
These challenges and the facts behind them are well-known by experts and leaders around the world and have been for decades. But despite this understanding, that we would at some point pass the limits to growth, it has been continually filed away to the back of our mind and the back of our drawers, with the label "Interesting—For Consideration Later" prominently attached. Well, later has arrived.
This is because the passing of the limits is not philosophical but physical and rooted in the rules of physics, chemistry, and biology. So passing the limits has consequences.
If you cut down more trees than you grow, you run out of trees. If you put additional nitrogen into a water system, you change the type and quantity of life that water can support. If you thicken the earth's CO2 blanket, the earth gets warmer. If you do all these and many more things at once, you change the way the whole system of planet Earth behaves, with social, economic, and life support impacts. This is not speculation, this is high school science.
In all this though, there is a surprising case for optimism. As a species, we are good in a crisis, and passing the limits will certainly be the biggest crisis our species has ever faced. Our backs will be up against the wall, and in that situation we have proven ourselves to be extraordinary. As the full scale of the imminent crisis hits us, our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy, including our energy and transport industries, in just a few short decades. Perhaps most surprisingly we will also learn there is more to life than shopping. We will break our addiction to growth, accept that more stuff is not making our lives better and focus instead on what does.
This is why we shouldn't despair in the face of what the science is telling us—it is precisely the severity of the problem that will drive a response that is overwhelming in scale and speed and will go right to the core of our societies. It is the crisis itself that will push humanity to its next stage of development and allow us to realize our evolutionary potential. It will be a rough ride, but in the end, we will arrive at a better place.
This is the story we will tell here. It is a story that starts in the past, passes through the present, and extends into the future. The past is the story of warnings issued and decisions made. The present, the story of today, is the factual result of our failure to heed those warnings. But rather than a platform for issuing recriminations, our present situation is the foundation for our future story, a story of great challenges and comparably great opportunity.
This is our story. It is about our world, what has been happening in it, the state it is currently in, and what is going to happen next. It is not, however, a passive commentary about the world we live in. It is a call to arms—a call to decide what kind of world we want to live in and what kind of contribution we can each make to define that. It is about a future we must choose.
By coincidence, this story also spans my lifetime. As I was being born in Australia in 1959, the start of this dramatic story was unfolding in the United States. The U.S. Department of Agriculture banned the sale of cranberries, just before Thanksgiving, due to the poisoning of the national crop by the excessive use of inadequately controlled pesticides.
It was what I consider the beginning of modern environmental awareness. It was the moment people on a large scale started to wake up to the fact that there were limits to the earth's capacity to cope with our abuse, that we had grown so powerful as a species that we had "now acquired a fateful power to destroy nature," as scientist Rachel Carson stated. It was when people came to realize that while we had for ten thousand years learned to control nature around our houses, villages, and farms for our immediate benefit, the scale of our impact had now changed the game.
Our story will go through this period to give us context for our present situation, where we find we have ignored earlier warnings and have now exceeded the limits, breaking the rules on which our system and its stability is based.
As you read this history, you may share the angst many feel about the lack of response to the decades of warnings. Environmentalists like myself also have to acknowledge a sobering reality in this. Given that we were unsuccessful in convincing society to respond to the challenge that was coming, there must have been failings in the approach we took. While I too lament the result and wonder what we could have done differently, I have now moved on. It is what it is. We can only change the future.
In that sense, this is a kind of guidebook to that future. While my views are shaped by decades of experience and a thorough analysis of the facts, they are of course my views. I hope they will help you come to your own conclusions on where we are and where we are going and, most important, how you personally are going to respond.
Before we start the journey, though, let's consider our starting point. If you're one of the billion or so people at the top of the global economic tree, and if you're reading this, then you probably are, then how good is this? We get a good meal whenever we want it. We all have housing that prevents us from being exposed to the elements. Most of us rarely face violence in our day-to-day lives, and if we do, we can get a response that pretty much reduces the threat to a manageable level. We generally get basic health care needs met, with even the poorer-quality care light-years ahead of what the average person received just a few generations ago.
And this quality of life is no longer just for those in Western countries, as it largely was a few decades ago. There are now many hundreds of millions of people in China, India, South America, and other developing countries who live this relatively luxurious life.
We, the lucky billion, now spend most of our lives seeking ever-greater and subtler refinements in what we perceive to be our quality of life: nicer clothes, better music, more comfortable furniture, more interesting holidays, more convenient technology, more unusual variations of food, a more secure retirement. It doesn't get much better than this.
Our grandparents, let alone the generations prior to them, would look at us in amazement. They would see us living like kings and pharaohs, with every convenience dealt with, every basic human need met, and our arguments on what needs to improve going to ever-greater refinements to all of this. They would hear us complain about interest rates, not being able to afford a larger house or a renovation, and having a degree of uncertainty that we will be able to live this lifestyle when we stop working. A few generations ago, no one stopped working unless they were dead, let alone spent their latter years in physical comfort with decent health care.
Humanity has on balance performed extraordinarily well. As we've swept across the world in just ten thousand years, we have established a quality of life for billions of people that was unimaginable at this scale even just a few hundred years ago.
Of course, still left behind are many more billions, many of whom live in grinding, soul-destroying poverty. While we strive for larger televisions, DVD screens in our cars, and the perfectly grilled tender steak, they die for a glass of clean water or a bowl of rice. We will return to this cancer on humanity's soul, but for now let's stay with those of us who are, by comparison, filthy, stinking rich.
We have done well. Our needs are met. We have the capacity not just to make our lives comfortable, but to explore space, to develop extraordinary scientific knowledge, to cure diseases, to invent amazing technologies that will help us and future generations live even better lives. We can now connect to one another instantaneously and globally to share our hopes, our dreams, and what we had for breakfast. It is an amazing point in human history.
You all know where I'm heading with this, don't you. That's the really interesting point here. We all know where we're heading.
When I started presenting the ideas in this book five years ago, the thing that struck me most was how little push-back I got on the basic situation we were in. Most audiences, whether activist, corporate, or government, agreed that the path we were on was, in summary, completely unsustainable, that we wouldn't change until the crisis hit, and then it would be a big, bloody mess.
So question time became a discussion about whether or not this would lead to the collapse of the economy, whether the population would crash to one billion or fewer, and how ugly the descent could be. Then everyone would have a cup of tea and go back to their lives.
We all know where we're heading. We know it from the science, we know it from the politics, and we know it in our hearts. That's why I get so little push-back. We know.
We've been borrowing from the future, and the debt has fallen due. We have reached or passed the limits of our current economic model of consumer-driven material economic growth. We are heading for a social and economic hurricane that will cause great damage, sweep away much of our current economy and our assumptions about the future, and cause a great crisis that will impact the whole world and to which there will be a dramatic response. We know this to be true.
The science says we have physically entered a period of great change, a synchronized, related crash of the economy and the ecosystem, with food shortages, climate catastrophes, massive economic change, and global geopolitical instability. It has been forecast for decades, and the moment has now arrived.
I use the analogy of a hurricane because we need to understand this is not a forecast of a hurricane season, but a forecast of a category six hurricane that is clearly heading for our coastline—and every time the forecast is revised, the category goes up one level. It is already higher than the rating system allows.
We now need to get ready. We can manage our way through the hurricane, but only if we acknowledge it's coming and are clear first on how we will survive it and then on what our recovery plan is.
Despite the evidence and the straightforward logic of the crisis being here now, or at least soon, denial is still the dominant response. I say this not in despair, but as a fact. This doesn't mean we should see the cause as hopeless. It just means we should accept that we won't change at scale until the crisis is full-blown and undeniable, until the wind really kicks up speed. But we will then change. And we need to get ready for that as well.
This is where the story gets really interesting, not to mention a lot more cheerful and uplifting!
We are an extraordinary species, and we are capable of great things. History is full of evidence that when our backs are against the wall, all the great qualities of humanity, our compassion, our drive, our technical brilliance, and our ability to make things happen on a massive global scale, come strongly to the fore.
Yes, it is also true we have a shadow side, left over in our reptilian brains, that can take us to a bad place, where fear and anger reside. In the circumstances now emerging, this kind of response could lead to the breakdown of society. So, yes, we could choose to have a dog-eat-dog response drive us into ever-smaller conflicting groups of regions, nations, and communities—of defensive and scared people fighting over what's left, fighting for physical survival. In that scenario, we would lose hundreds of thousands of years of human development and have to effectively start again, just hoping the cycle won't repeat itself.
I don't believe we will do this. Given our natural survival instincts, our history as a species, our new global connectedness, and the scale of the threat, I believe we will instead choose to consciously overcome that tendency, as we have many times in the past. We will draw on what is great about being human and dig deep to express our highest potential—the potential that can take us through the coming crisis and out the other side to a stronger, safer, and more advanced society.
This story will describe that journey we have now embarked on and the choices we face.
I will tell you what I think this journey will look like, what it means for you, and how you can be involved in helping us all get where we need to go. We all have a role, as individuals, in companies, in government, in our communities, and in our families. The good news is that the things I'm going to suggest we all do now to help us get where we need to be in the long term are going to make our lives better and our communities, companies, and countries stronger in the short term as well.
It is true that the crisis coming will almost certainly see great conflict among nations over resources and refugees, mass suffering, and some difficult situations emerge as fear and nationalism rear their ugly heads. We need to plan for all of this. However, we will also see the best humanity can offer, great compassion, extraordinary innovation, and millions of people digging deep and finding their capacity for brilliance and innovation. This is because scientists, researchers, business leaders, community organizers, policy makers, entrepreneurs, and youth are all out there now, building the future we need. They just need our permission and support to take their work to mass scale.
The Great Disruption will ultimately take human society to a higher evolutionary state, where we will address centuries-old challenges left over from our lower-order animal state—like poverty, consumerism, and conflict. We have the opportunity to build a society that represents our highest capacities, with extreme poverty eliminated; great technology that works with rather than against nature and provides us with abundant energy and resources; a closed-loop economy with no waste; communities that work and support one another; happiness, satisfaction, and service as the central organizing principles of our economy and society, rather than our current approach of "money = happier people."
Excerpted from The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding Copyright © 2011 by Paul Gilding. Excerpted by permission of BLOOMSBURY PRESS. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Paul Gilding is an international thought leader and advocate for sustainability and a member of the core faculty for the Cambridge University Program for Sustainability Leadership.
AudioFile Earphones Award winner Antony Ferguson is a native of London, England. He is a classically trained actor and has appeared in numerous productions in London, Off-Broadway, and regional theater. As a voice actor, he has over fifty audiobooks to his credit. Antony lives in Los Angeles.
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The world's economic base of non-renewable resources has already been exceeded. The Earth's ecology is collapsing. Climate change will soon (or has already) begun to deal humanity of series of devastating and humiliating defeats. Bad news? Not at all. Humanity must and will respond with a new world economic order (haven't we heard that somewhere else recently?). The crooked path of consumer-driven economics will be straightened, prosperity and equality will reign and we will all be 10 to 20% happier. Or so Paul Gilding claims in The Great Disruption. Gilding, former head of Greenpeace International, presents himself as a born-again green corporate insider. His vision of the future is pleasant enough, but what he fails to do in this book is explain why that vision will unfold. The author spends more than 100 of the opening pages in very broad generalizations about climate change, ecologic destruction, etc. before finally getting down to some concrete points which he summarily condenses into bullets, referring the reader to full explanations that supposedly reside in a non-open-source on-line journal article. Given the ascendency of the denier media in controlling the bully pulpit, the author's approach is misguided. Gilding takes pointed aim at the absurdity of consumerism (aka, shopping) and its purported link to economic growth. But, perhaps the weakest link in his analysis comes with the assumption that economic growth equates with the continuous growth of physical, non-renewable resources. The author rightly claims that physical resources are finite, that consumerism is founded on those non-renewable resources and hence must eventually collapse. But that is not the same as proving that economic growth itself is doomed. It all depends on your definition of growth. The service sector of the global economy, for example, such as health services, could conceivably grow irrespective of the limits of physical resources. Consumerism (at least the shop-till-you-drop aspect of consumerism) is a symptom of an underlying malady of our media-driven world, it is not the fundamental cause of humanity's impact on the global ecosystem. Even if media-driven shopping mania were to stop entirely, the disproportionate impact of the rest of western lifestyles would remain unsustainable. Economic growth is a consequence of the specialization that is essential for maintaining the global population of over 7 billion people. If we could survive and provide for all our needs without interacting (money and economy) with others, then growth would stop. So would several billion people. Is that what Gilding proposes? With at least a third of the world currently aspiring to ride the coattails of economic growth and at least another third too busy trying to survive to be in any way concerned about the decline in biodiversity or the collapse of the Greenland ice sheet, it is highly unlikely that humanity will suddenly see the error of Western civilization's ways and spontaneously transform into some brave new sustainable world. The only possible global solutions to impending crises are market forces or war. Social pressures won't operate across the full range of human diversity. Richard R. Pardi Environmental Science William Paterson University
Well written, sound theories.
If you care about your future, you need to understand what is happening to our planet NOW. This is a great overview of where we are headed. It is a no-nonsense break down of our affect on our small planet and what we are doing to our future. This is a good starting point for further reading. Ignore it at your own peril.