Completed: The Great Disruption

The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World
Paul Gilding
Bloomsbury Press: New York

I feel like I’ve had an interest in environmental issues forever. My mom has always been an advocate for organic gardening and “green cleaning.” My dad has spent the last 30+ years biking or walking to work—in all weather. My 5th grade teacher was an environmentalist and so led the school in a P.E.P. week (“Planning Environmental Protection”) every spring. I had a semester-long required course in college that dealt with environmental issues from a building standpoint (and for extra credit I went to visit a completely off-grid house). In the architectural world, “green” has been a growing trend, and I have participated in two projects which earned LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification for meeting certain environmental standards. So when I first heard about The Great Disruption I was intrigued.

The frightening thing about The Great Disruption is how much it appeals to commonsense—frightening because the environmental outlook as painted by Paul Gilding may well be bleak. Reading it, I couldn’t help but be swayed by Gilding’s arguments: that the earth is already full, that we are fast approaching the limits of growth (if we haven’t hit them already), and that when the crash comes it won’t just be environmental but economic. Fortunately, Gilding offers up an optimistic view of what he thinks will happen next: a swift and effective response by humanity that will transform the world and our lives for the better. That said, the book is written in such a conversational manner and without the rigor of a scientific paper that I don’t think it would sway anyone not already inclined towards his viewpoints. (That is, if you don’t believe that global warming is a real phenomenon, you’re not going to be moved by his arguments.) However, it wasn’t the environmental warnings—and Gilding’s background is largely as an environmentalist, including a stint with Greenpeace—that really made an impression on me, it was the economic arguments. In some ways I felt as if the subtitle should have been “It’s the Economy, Stupid!”

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.¹

The bulk of the book deals with the intertwining of the environment and economics. His view is that we can’t use economic excuses to avoid dealing with environmental issues because the environment itself is what provides our economy. For example, if we chose to continue to overfish because we don’t want to put anyone out of work, eventually there will be no fish and the industry will collapse anyways, as happened in Newfoundland in the 1990s. Further, the resources on this planet—renewable and nonrenewable alike—are finite. We only have one planet; we are in a closed-loop system. Gilding points to research by the Global Footprint Network as showing that we are already using a total of 1.4 earths of resources per year—we are borrowing against the future. From there he draws the logical conclusion that growth cannot continue indefinitely, including economic growth. I don’t have enough background knowledge to know whether Global Footprint Network’s conclusions are disputed or not, but the logic that we are in a closed system and therefore growth has a limit is sound. The only question is how soon before growth must stop. Gilding suggests that the recent economic crisis (both 2008 and the continuing unease today) is due in part to humanity bumping up against the limits.

This of course flies in the face of just about every government leader out there. They see growth as a way to strengthen their economy, create jobs, and therefore maintain stability and power—which makes sense. So the question is, what happens if we can’t grow anymore? Gilding takes an optimistic view that we will, with some bumps and bruises admittedly, simply change the system to a better system. It was here, in the second half of his book that he lost me a bit. I didn’t necessarily have any issue with what he was saying, as his logic usually made sense, but I can’t wrap my head around the idea of a steady-state no growth economy, even while I acknowledge the concept of growth limitations. I’m also didn’t feel as convinced for Gilding’s state of optimism as to how we will react. If I assume he is correct, that the crisis point is soon, well, I find myself highly skeptical that we as a world will react on time. Too many people are skeptical that a problem is coming and there are too many vested interests (economic) in maintaining the status quo—assuming it is maintainable. I can’t say for certain though, whether my skepticism arises from my own cynicism or from a breakdown in Gilding’s logic.

One surprising thing as I read this book was how relevant it felt. Granted, it just came out in April, but as I read the earliest chapters especially, I felt that some of the statements could be coming straight from Occupy Wall Street. So I wasn’t all that surprised to find a quote from Gilding in a New York Times opinion column about the demonstrations. Just as Gilding sees the financial difficulties as a sign we are reaching our limits, he sees Occupy Wall Street and other protests as a sign of this as well:

Our system of economic growth, of ineffective democracy, of overloading planet earth — our system — is eating itself alive. Occupy Wall Street is like the kid in the fairy story saying what everyone knows but is afraid to say: the emperor has no clothes. The system is broken.²

While this certainly doesn’t go down well with those dependent on the current economic structure (oh shoot, that’s all of us!), it certainly provides something sobering to think about. What does it mean if Gilding is actually right?

1. From The Great Disruption, Chapter 1 (page 2, U.S. first edition).
2. Quoted in Thomas L. Friedman’s Oct. 11, 2011 New York Times op-ed “There’s Something Happening Here”

One thought on “Completed: The Great Disruption

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