I’ve just finished reading The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding. I finished it in half a week, not being able to do much else until I’d absorbed every page. It was fantastic. Kind of like a slap in the face, a call to arms and a breath of fresh air all at once.
Okay, now I’ll rewind a little and tell you what it’s actually about without getting so abstract and ahead of myself. (I’m terrible for that). It’s subtitled How the climate crisis will transform the global economy and it’s basically about how over the next few decades we will globally go through a massive transformation as we are threatened by climate change, resource peaks and other ecological limits, suffer the crash of the world economy and eventually build a new ‘steady-state’ economy based on well-being, sustainability, and a focus on qualitative improvement rather than quantitative growth.
The way he covers climate change is refreshing. Many people are still talking about it in terms of ‘if we don’t do something soon we’ll be in danger because of climate change!’. Paul instead says that was thirty or so years ago, we didn’t do anything, so now climate change is already under way. What’s more, due to the length of time it takes for pollution emitted now to take on it’s full green house effect, even if we stopped emitting CO2 tomorrow we’d still have a large climate change problem for decades to come. The icecaps have been melting since 2008 and low-lying islands are already struggling with the sea-level rise. We didn’t listen and climate change is no longer avoidable. All we have to worry about now is adapting to and surviving its effects while not only stopping CO2 pollution but actively removing it from the atmosphere to keep average levels of warming to no more than 1 dangerous degree.
He also recognises that climate change is just one of many ecological limits we’re currently hitting up against. He says that although the environmental movement is gathering power and numbers daily, the majority of humanity will not act until the effects of ecological meltdown (e.g. extreme weather and sea level rise from climate change) are everywhere, severe and obvious for all to see. He thinks that when it comes to that point, the mass reaction of denial will quickly evaporate as we globally fly into action. He says that governments and all sectors of society, once they can see with their own eyes that all of civilisation is at stake (i.e. not just polar bears), will fully engage and act in a terribly late but impressively fast war-like fashion. …Great, so when is this magical point in history? Not actually very far away at all… He estimates around 2020 will be when we start to really buckle down and get to work on this. He artistically calls it The Great Awakening. In case you were wondering, the Great Disruption mentioned in the title refers to the combined forces of the economic crash Gilding forecasts and the ecological crash that will cause it. The reason for this is simple. Infinite growth on a finite planet is impossible. Not morally wrong, but impossible. Economic progress is basically about using natural resources to manufacture stuff, which is transported around the globe to consumers who use it for a little while before throwing it out (usually into landfill) and buying more stuff to replace it. This is already happening way faster than key resources such as oil, timber and fish, can be replenished. This problem however is only getting worse because the population as you know is rapidly expanding, and the ‘consumption rate’ of each person is growing every year. This is actually how we measure our progress. Economic growth is supposed to bring the word’s poor out of poverty and make life even better for the ‘lucky billion’. As the world isn’t getting bigger but the demand most definitely is, it’s common sense that we’ll hit a limit to growth soon. No one can really argue about that. What people do argue about is when that limit will approach and what we can do to delay it. According to Gilding (and many scientific sources that he quotes) that limit is now being reached and that’s why economic growth has met it’s demise. He says the economy will enjoy a temporary boom when we start to truly tackle what will then be a climate crisis with surprising innovation in business and especially huge investments in the renewable energy industry, but that it will be a short lived thing – that the death of growth is unavoidable and coming very soon.
So this Great Disruption will be a crisis with environmental, social and economic aspects. (e.g. coastal areas being flooded, climate refugees and loss of homes, property devaluation and loss of income from tourism…) Gilding says it will be a crisis like nothing we’ve seen before and will ”shake us to our core”. He says when it comes to it, we’ll have only two options. One is to descend into chaos and look on as temperatures trip over the critical 2 degrees causing runaway climate change at an exponential rate which will make the earth inhabitable for most life, including humans. The other is to mobilize the whole species into saving our selves from collapse. He argues that although humans are slow and selfish, they also want to live and are good in a crisis. He says after long periods of doubt, he is now sure that we will make it through. Not without large doses of suffering, anarchy and conflicts over resources and refugees, but that we will get through this phase and will even be able to create a new economy and social system that is better than our present model. That life will be greener on the other side. He even suggests that this transformation will be the next development in humanity’s evolution.
He writes all this in an engaging way, with a style that is intelligent yet accessible. The tone is of realism flirting with optimism. He does not in any way under estimate the scale of the challenge ahead, in fact he emphasises it’s hugeness at every turn. However his core message is that despite the odds against us, ultimately, we can succeed.
All I can say is:
Wow, don’t we live in interesting times?
I whole heartedly recommend this book – it’s a fascinating read.