The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World - Paul Gilding (2011)

Chapter 1. An 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,1 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.”

We will do all this not just because we can, but, more important, because we have to. The alternative is no longer an option. The ecological-system changes now under way present a significant risk of global economic and social collapse. So the choice we need to make is not a philosophical one.

The good news gets better. The global nature of the problem means only a global solution can fix it, and that means we are going to come together as a people like never before. Protecting national interest will have to be confined to the sporting field. Again, not just because we might choose to, but because it is the only way we can address the challenges we face.

Getting through to the good side of this crisis, however, is going to require us all to engage. That’s why I’m writing this book. We are going to have to change our expectations about our material lifestyles, about the nature and focus of our work and career, about our expectations of government, and about how we all behave in our communities and our companies. The good news is that most of these changes are going to make us happier anyway.

This crisis presents what may be a “once in a civilization” opportunity for a step change in human evolution, but one driven consciously rather than biologically.

So this is your story. There is no one else. We are the people we’ve been waiting for. This is the time. This is our time.

Let’s get to work.