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 9. When the Dam of Denial Breaks

When the Great Awakening occurs, the response of society is quite predictable based on previous major national and global crises. We consistently respond the same way.

It will be dramatic, high-profile, and expensive; it will engage most or all sectors of society; it will be framed by a shift into a “whatever it takes” approach to solving the problem at hand; and it will involve strong, direct intervention by government. Even though it is hard to imagine today, the global community will at this point—rapidly, though messily—develop a global emergency response to cut climate pollution and pursue a safe climate “whatever the cost.” The transformation around sustainability more broadly will then follow rapidly.

The response will be framed by a single, critical idea. To quote my favorite climate change strategist, Winston Churchill: “It is no use saying, ‘We are doing our best.’ You have got to succeed in doing what is necessary.”

Successfully averting the risks posed by climate change and other sustainability challenges will first require the elimination of the economy’s net greenhouse gas emissions within a few decades. Such dramatic action will be dictated by the science of lags and the risk of tipping points we covered in earlier chapters; otherwise the risk of global collapse will be unacceptably high. Therefore, in the context of Churchill’s comment, what will be “necessary” is an emergency response that will involve an extraordinary level of global cooperation and unity of purpose, well beyond anything we’ve ever seen and for which the only comparable, though still inadequate, example is the mobilization of most parts of the world during World War II. It will require a clear goal (a picture of “the enemy”), rapid change, considerable dislocation, and widespread sacrifice.

Humanity will then enter a multidecade response period, as described in forthcoming chapters, that will see us teeter on the brink of collapse but not fall over that cliff. Rather than the long-predicted war among civilizations, this will be a war for civilization. Fortunately, it is a war we can win. It is also a war with an extraordinary upside.

Before we describe how this dramatic shift will occur, we need to add one more piece to the jigsaw puzzle, without which this scale of shift in our political world is just too difficult to imagine.

In a real war, the objective is simply not to lose and, as a result, to keep things as they are. There are collateral benefits in technology, united societies, and so on, but the costs and suffering in a real war far outweigh the benefits. The “war” in our case is different. While losing is still catastrophic, as in a real war, thus eliminating the option of not acting, winning is not about keeping things as they are, but about making things immeasurably better from almost every angle.

Without in any way belittling the great suffering that will inevitably occur during this period, it is important to recognize early on just what an extraordinary opportunity this will be. While the initial response will focus on climate change, particularly energy, transport, and agriculture, it is clear as argued in earlier chapters that climate change is a symptom, not the problem. This means that to succeed we will have to rapidly expand our response to other sustainability issues, including addressing the consequences of a range of other environmental and resource constraints, creating a new model of economic development that doesn’t involve consumerism or material growth, and eliminating poverty and extreme inequity. We will do this while building a more cohesive society both globally and locally. So the shifts we face will be deep and genuinely transformational and of great significance, even in the context of human evolution.

Even during the initial narrow focus on climate change, however, there will be countless social, economic, and quality-of-life benefits. These changes won’t happen overnight, but they will happen much faster than most people think because of the urgency with which we will need to act globally.

An energy system, for example, based on solar, wind, and water power means that every country will have sufficient secure supplies of energy to be independent of the geopolitical and price risks of imports. The scale of investment in new technology required will be such that the costs of renewable energy will inevitably fall dramatically, providing even poorer countries with access to abundant, locally generated energy. This will certainly require funding from rich countries initially, but this is widely accepted in the international politics of climate change. As energy is so fundamental to improving the quality of life, this potential for energy independence has far-reaching consequences for economic development and poverty alleviation.

All economies will benefit greatly from having price and supply certainty on all energy supplies; after all, no one is going to be able to corner the market for sunshine and wind! Even at the individual consumer level, we can expect great savings through energy and fuel efficiency once this transformation is complete. The fuel cost, for example, for an electric vehicle is around 80 percent lower than the fuel cost for a gasoline vehicle. So even allowing for amortized battery costs, transport will become much cheaper and therefore more widely accessible.

Having cities with clean air because we eliminate the pollution from cars, trucks, and power stations will result in healthier children and lower health costs by, for example, greatly reducing asthma and other respiratory diseases. One study has shown that between 2005 and 2007 in California alone, failure to conform with federal clean air requirements created more than $193 million in hospital costs, with public taxpayer insurance schemes covering two thirds of that cost.1 Designing our cities for walking, cycling, and smaller vehicles will result in stronger, safer, more cohesive communities and healthier people, delivering real enhancements to our quality of life.

On the broader global scale, the benefits to our geopolitical stability of eliminating conflict over oil and energy and being forced to address extreme inequity among nations and people will be considerable.

None of this takes away from the geopolitical, economic, and social challenges we will face during the Great Disruption, but these considerations provide us with important parameters that help frame the onset of the Great Awakening.

The political debates on climate change and sustainability have been framed around the idea of acting voluntarily and with great social and economic cost and risk. The arguments against action are therefore framed in loss to quality of life and risk to economic activity and jobs (ignoring the actual huge economic upside in building a new energy system). In that context, when even mild action such as putting a price on carbon pollution or encouraging a multidecade transition to clean energy is strongly resisted, the sort of shift I’m describing appears incomprehensible, perhaps even impossible. So let me be really clear—this is not the context in which the Great Awakening will occur. Instead it will be like this:

As we discussed in the last chapter, when denial ends, the dam holding back public opinion and climate action will collapse. At this point, our leaders will be forced to act urgently and comprehensively. We saw how strongly they responded to the comparatively minor hiccup of the global financial crisis. Who would have expected the world’s governments to suddenly spend trillions or a U.S. president to take draconian action like nationalizing banks and auto companies? When the alternative is catastrophic, the inconceivable rapidly becomes normal. So imagine how they will act when they realize the very existence of civilization is at stake and economic growth is immediately threatened, not for a few quarters or years, but indefinitely.

This is where the importance of the upside described earlier is key and will frame the response. Unlike war, where it is solely the fear of loss that motivates action, in this case we will have fear of loss and great benefit to acting. So it will become a no-lose decision point. Don’t act, and the economic and social suffering will be immeasurable. Act strongly, and the benefits will be historic, motivating, and future shaping in addition to clearly reducing the suffering otherwise faced.

It is easy to imagine the political speeches we will hear when this moment arrives. Our leaders will be using the rhetoric they use in war, calling on us to act at a moment of extraordinary historical significance, to make sacrifices in order to avoid catastrophe and instead build a more prosperous and safer world for our children.

As argued earlier, when I described how the responses to my presentations changed when I shifted focus to the personal economic risk, it is important when imagining this awakening to remember the nature of the risk and the way it will be portrayed. It is true we have an appalling record of responding to environmental threats, and this will continue.

We will not respond to climate change or sustainability even when it’s clear we risk wiping out 50 percent of the diversity of life on earth. We will respond when the threat is to our economy and lifestyle. Our record of responding to these kinds of threats, whether war, economic calamity, or natural disasters, is impressive. And so it will be in this case.

So what will this feel like in the politics of the day? How will historians view this dramatic shift in humanity’s direction?

There will be two types of responses that will unfold in parallel but at different speeds. I see these two responses shaping the next forty years or so, and we will explore them over the remainder of the book.

First will be the old economy and system trying to fix itself with existing assumptions and mechanisms. This response will assume we can continue to have economic growth, but that it needs to be more efficient and with lower carbon intensity.

Second will be the push to build a new economy with transformational thinking. This will include a shift from consumerism and a physically defined quality of life along with strong moves to more localized economies and stronger global cooperation.

Both the old economy and new economy approaches are critical in different phases; it is not a battle between them. However, it is the new economy response that will ultimately become dominant for the reason outlined in earlier chapters—the physical impossibility of continued material economic growth.

The old economy response will be about leveraging existing economic and political models, systems, and beliefs to mobilize society’s emergency response plan. This will be a genuine emergency, a warlike mobilization of resources and people to apply the brakes before we hurtle off the cliff. It will need strong, dominating government, systemwide intervention, technological fixes, and market mobilization. These are things we’re very good at. I will describe what this approach might look like in some detail in the next chapter, “The One-Degree War.”

Many “new economy” thinkers will resist this response, using arguments like the often used quote from Albert Einstein that you can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it. They will be partly right and partly wrong. They will be right in the sense that if we don’t challenge the fundamental design problems in the global economy, including our beliefs and values, we cannot solve the underlying cause of the climate and sustainability problem—our economic and social model of progress. They will be wrong, however, in the sense that when we wake up to this crisis, we will have very little time left to avoid catastrophic collapse. We will have neither the time nor the political capacity to undertake a genuine system transformation and deal with the immediate crisis. Doing so would create too great a risk of going into economic breakdown and political chaos.

The new economy response will occur in parallel and will be equally critical. It will have a slower start but in the end be more powerful. It will be focused on sustainability in its full implications rather than just climate change. This will involve questioning fundamental assumptions and accepted wisdoms about the global economy. It will challenge the obsession with growth and explore models of steady-state economics, as argued by the former World Bank economist Professor Herman Daly and other eminent economists and commentators. Those advocating this response will argue for a redesign of the global economy to become a closed-loop system with no waste, aligned with biology and the ecosystem, as argued by two of the great thinkers in this area, Janine Benyus in Biomimicry and William McDonough in Cradle to Cradle. Many of these ideas are already being put into practice by entrepreneurial companies and by global corporations, but they will need to be taken to scale and supported with government regulation and pricing.

The deeper ideas behind this new economy are already well established, with growing numbers of people rejecting consumerism and the inherent obsession with material wealth. These people are instead focusing on building stronger communities with greater resilience and on enhancing our quality of life rather than our quantity of stuff. These ideas are focused on making us happier, a worthy cause indeed. This type of response will grow steadily and will have a strong consciousness or spiritual component, arguing for a deeper examination of our values and beliefs. It will put forward an aspiration for a growth in consciousness and for living a life not in fear, but in love and hope.

Many old economy thinkers will resist this, using arguments of market economics and the belief that people are naturally greedy and self-interested. They will argue that material wealth is something we have aspired to for thousands of years; that we are genetically encoded to compete and have conflict; and that all this higher-purpose stuff is for the birds, or at least the monks. They will make the case that we haven’t got time for all that soft stuff, we’ve got a war to fight!

They too will be partly right and partly wrong. They will be right in the sense that the fundamental transformation required to properly address this problem will take too long to attack the needs of the immediate crisis, where solutions must be found in years, not decades. They will also be right that our genetic coding does drive a whole range of behavior and that is a major challenge for us to overcome, as argued brilliantly by Jared Diamond in one of the books that has most influenced my life’s thinking, The Rise and Fall of the Third Chimpanzee.

They will, however, be wrong in that simply applying technology and the power of markets and capital to this problem, while essential, will only buy us time, it will not solve the problem. Even if we stabilize the climate by eliminating greenhouse gas emissions, endless economic growth is still not possible on a finite planet when that economic growth involves material consumption. Decoupling economic growth from material growth is only a “slow it down” strategy. It simply reduces our speed as we head for the cliff. The numbers just don’t stack up, as we covered in chapter 4.

The old economy thinkers referred to above are wrong in another respect as well: Not only are humans capable of fundamental change and overcoming our genetic urges, but such capacity defines our development and growth as a species. It is true that we were only recently apes, but we have come a long way and we still have a ways to go.

To argue we are naturally greedy and competitive and can’t change is like arguing that we engage naturally in murder and infanticide as our forebears the chimps do and therefore as we did. We have certain tendencies in our genes, but unlike other creatures we have the proven capacity to make conscious decisions to overcome them and also the proven ability to build a society with laws and values to enshrine and, critically, to enforce such changes when these tendencies come to the surface.

So don’t underestimate how profoundly we can change. We are still capable of evolution, including conscious evolution. This coming crisis is perhaps the greatest opportunity in millennia for a step change in human society.

While both approaches just described will inevitably be pursued, there will be great debate on which one is right, using the arguments covered above. I believe putting energy into these arguments will not be of great benefit and shouldn’t get much attention. It is inevitable that those in power now, who run the “old economy,” will do their utmost to preserve the existing system and will argue strongly that it can be saved with a new model of economic growth. Many will rail against this, but to little effect. An existing system is powerful and doesn’t give up its power lightly.

Besides, we need them to run the war, something they’re very good at! Indeed, if they don’t run a successful war, we will be building a new economy from the village up with just a few hundred million people and a whole lot less technology and knowledge, making that job far harder and slower. Not to mention the suffering of billions of people on the way to that new starting point.

The efforts of those who seek to build a new economy should instead be focused on doing just that: working on building new economic models and ownership structures, developing successful purpose-driven businesses, and driving the transformation in culture and values we will need. The laws of physics dictate that the old economy approach will fail because continued material economic growth is impossible. So we need to be well advanced on the solutions when that is accepted.

What all this means is that to get past the Great Disruption and to the better world on the other side, we need both approaches to be unleashed with full fury. This will be messy and confusing, but that is just the way many things are going to be over the coming decades.

We will now address the first of these approaches, the inevitable, exciting, emergency response to climate change. This is where the fun really begins.