"We are slow, but we're not Stupid" Paul Gilding's new book on the coming Great Disruption

 

Australian Paul Gilding straddles the NGO and the corporate worlds. A former international head of Greenpeace, he subsequently moved into consultancy with global corporations and others on the transition to sustainability. Transition can sound a comfortingly gradual process, but that’s far from the case with the transition foreseen in his striking new book The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global Economy. paul gilding  

 Gilding stands firmly with those who have been warning for half a century that our economies are pressing environmental limits to breaking point. Their warnings have now become realities. We have passed the limits of the planet’s capacity to support our economy. Ecosystem change and breakdown is now under way globally. Gilding takes his stand on the science, whether of climate change or the many other areas where sustainability is crumbling.

We didn’t heed the warnings. So now change will be forced upon us by actual physical consequences. The laws of physics, biology and chemistry defy the dream of ever-growing economies. We will throw everything we can at keeping growth going, as we did in 2008, and there will be measures of apparent success, but we can’t succeed because of the physical restraints of resource availability and the physical response of the global ecosystem, particularly the climate, on which our economy depends. The economy cannot keep growing and we will soon experience what Gilding calls the Great Disruption.the great disruption

This means sustained economic downturn and a global emergency lasting decades. Climate change, particularly melting polar regions, extreme weather events and changes to agricultural output, will drive a series of ecological, social and economic shocks. This will lead to strong government intervention and generate a sense of global crisis. Sustained increases in food prices will trigger economic and geopolitical instability. The key ecosystem services of water, fisheries and agricultural land will be further reduced in capacity. Oil prices will continue to rise. Risk in global share markets will be repriced, leading to a dramatic drop in the markets and a tightening of capital supply.

Too pessimistic?  A natural optimist, Gilding doesn’t think so. But he is at pains to say that he’s not foreseeing an inevitable slide into collapse. He’s talking about major and highly unsettling disruption, but a disruption that will in turn drive a transformation of extraordinary speed and scale. People ask why he thinks we can escape collapse. He explains. First, climate science denial will evaporate virtually overnight when the risk of collapse is in our faces. When climate change hits it will hit economically and people at large will pay attention because they are directly affected. Second, we can respond quickly when we choose to. We are slow but not stupid. Third, we can make an absolutely remarkable turnaround.  There will be a Great Awakening.climate 1

But won’t it be too late? It will certainly be very late. He doubts that we will accept the need for the change for another few years, which means that a great deal more will be required than would have been the case if we had started earlier. He looks at what is necessary, concluding that we need to return to below one degree of global warming. Two degrees is an inadequate goal and a plan for failure. To those who say it is impossible he points to the impossible things that were achieved quickly during World War II.  He and his friend and colleague Jorgen Randers, one of the authors of the Club of Rome 1972 report The Limits to Growth, have worked out a one-degree war plan which is outlined in the book. (A draft copy of the full plan can be seen here.)

The plan has three phases. The first, years 1-5, is the climate war. Modelled on the action following the entry of the US into World War II it launches a mobilisation to achieve a global reduction of 50 percent in greenhouse gas emissions within five years. This would shock the system into change and get the job half done by 2023 if we start in 2018.  Phase two is a fifteen-year push to move the world to net zero climate emissions by 2038. Phase three is a subsequent eighty-year haul to remove sufficient CO2 from the atmosphere to move the climate back towards the preindustrial “normal”.

Some excerpts from the plan give a flavour of what is proposed for the climate war five-year phase. They include cutting deforestation and logging by 50 percent, closing one thousand dirty coal power plants, rationing electricity and rapidly driving efficiency measures, refitting one thousand coal power plants with carbon capture and storage, creating huge wind and solar farms in suitable locations, reducing airplane capacity, recycling and reusing all used materials, binding 1 gigaton of CO2in the soil, and so on. 

Although governments will play a leading role as we pull ourselves back from the brink Gilding sees adequately regulated and guided business and markets as a vital part of the mobilisation, and gives space to discussing how they will deliver the required changes. There are some hard lessons here about business complacency and failure to read the science. Many companies won’t make it.  Many will. Gilding draws on the creative destruction theories of Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter, of an economic structure incessantly revolutionised from within. climate disaster 33

In crude terms for business and investors, where is the money to be made? Gilding offers some cautious predictions himself in the energy field. He sees a likely dramatic marking down of the value of oil and coal companies as it becomes apparent that a high percentage of known economic reserves may never be extracted. Carbon capture and storage he thinks remains unlikely to be employable on a wide enough economic scale to rescue coal. Nuclear power, though far preferable to climate change, is surrounded by serious safety questions. He plumps for renewables, particularly wind, solar and geothermal, recommending Al Gore’s book Our Choice for an analysis of the whole picture.

Successfully meeting the challenge of climate change is only the beginning. We still have to cope with the end of growth. Climate is not the only boundary we have come up against. There isn’t room here to explain in any detail Gilding’s take on an economy no longer dependent on material growth, but he espouses the steady-state economy which he considers long understood by capitalism’s founding fathers as a logical point we would eventually arrive at.  He tackles the questions of poverty and inequity, neither of which have been well served by the current growth economics, and sketches the rough outlines of a fully satisfying life with less stuff and more human interchange.

It’s an invigorating book. Gilding doesn’t sell his readers short on sustainability or the climate issue which is right at its heart. He is utterly realistic about climate change and the drastic measures now required to avert it. Whether he is equally realistic in believing that we will in the next few years take those drastic measures may be debated by some. Perhaps we will take the path to collapse rather than the more immediately demanding alternative. Gilding himself has faced that possibility. But his conviction that we will do whatever it takes to avoid terminal decline once we realise what is happening doesn’t sound hopelessly idealistic, nor does the kind of plan he outlines to get us there. 

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7 comments

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GFW (anonymous)

I wish Gilding was right when he says "... climate science denial will evaporate virtually overnight ... will hit economically and people at large will pay attention because they are directly affected. ... We are slow but not stupid."

Unfortunately a lot of Americans(*) really are pretty stupid. They are not going to understand that the generally depressed economic conditions and high prices are the results of climate changes mostly occurring elsewhere. They will blame whoever Rush Limbaugh tells them to blame.

(*) Why am I picking on Americans in particular, as opposed to everyone, or everyone in an industrial economy? Well, the US is exceptional in both positive and negative ways. In the US, it's perfectly legal for a news organization to tell the public things known to be false. (Whereas, for example, Canada just upheld a law against that.) Thus, a large number of Americans have been subject to demagoguery of false information for years, in a way that simply hasn't happened in most other industrial nations. Next, as sharp as the divisions between political parties can be in other countries, the ones with Parliamentary systems seem to have kept the sense that whoever is in charge is governing for the benefit of everyone, not just their supporters. The US two party system has frayed that gentleman's agreement to the breaking point. Third is the strain of anti-intellectualism that rears its head here every so often, and is currently running quite strong.

Written in March 2011

GFW. The American political scene as it relates to climate change is certainly highly dismaying and puzzling. My own country, New Zealand, is far from adequate in the steps it is so far offering but outright denial of the science is not part of the political picture except for one minor right-wing party. It's a strange paradox that the US should produce world leaders in the science and ignorant denial in some of its presumably educated political leadership. Your analysis is interesting. One hopes that collectively the society will survive what Al Gore called the assault on reason in his book of that title.

Written in March 2011

Vicki B. 75°

The book looks really good actually.Like the thought process. Is it on sale yet?

Written in March 2011

It was due to be on shop shelves today.

Written in March 2011

Rebecca M. (anonymous)

I am less optimistic about the world accepting that climate change is man made. I wouldn;t be surprised if with an increase in natural disasters many people still cling to the idea that human activity is not enough to affect the climate and that as some have stated more CO2 is actually better for the planet.
" The first, years 1-5, is the climate war. Modelled on the action following the entry of the US into World War II it launches a mobilisation to achieve a global reduction of 50 percent in greenhouse gas emissions within five years. This would shock the system into change and get the job half done by 2023 if we start in 2018. "
I just don't see all the major countries (in terms of their economies) coming together and all agreeing to reduce emissions. As it's been shown so far, even though there are opportunities for jobs and growth over some segments of the economy, it would still be a huge burden on tax payers and governments to try and fund these massive changes.
While I don't disagree that these changes need to be made I think they will be forced upon us in very unpleasant ways and only after we have tried to pull every last trick out of our hats to keep the status quo.
"They include cutting deforestation and logging by 50 percent, closing one thousand dirty coal power plants, rationing electricity and rapidly driving efficiency measures, refitting one thousand coal power plants with carbon capture and storage, creating huge wind and solar farms in suitable locations, reducing airplane capacity, recycling and reusing all used materials, binding 1 gigaton of CO2in the soil, and so on. "
What is being proposed here in this transition is massive conservation and shrinking of the economy. People will have to learn to live with much much less (of everything) and like it. There are those that would cut down every last tree while claiming that if we did not it would ruin our economy. This is true. What they don't realize is that our economy will be ruined when they've cut all the trees down and there is nothing left to sell.
The major reason I am skeptical about a positive transition is because as it stands now, world oil production peaked in 2006. There is a good change that while there may be fileds brought online to offset the decline to a small degree, we are heading into an ever tighter supply crunch. You need oil to make solar and wind power. There is not amount of renewables that can replace the amount of energy we get currently from oil. When oil prices get to be cost prohibitive (consumers simply can't afford sustained $10 or $20 gas and the price of heating oil that $200 or $300 a barrle oil would bring) our economy would crash. You can mine for coal in an electric powered dump truck. You simply cannot create all the renewable power needed with renewable power. Not to mention how cheap oil has allowed the massive growth in food production. What will replace that?
Honestly I think before we see world wide effects of climate change to a very serious degree, we will see resource wars mainly for oil and in some places water. I am not very optimistic over all about the future.

Written in March 2011

Rebecca M. (anonymous)

"You can mine for coal in an electric powered dump truck. "
Meant to say- can't.
Many spelling errors in my post.

Written in March 2011

Anders (anonymous)

I don't think our behavior will change until the underlying system changes more drastically. Steady-state economy is a good step in the right direction, but I don't think we will reach true sustainability until we fully transform to a resource-based economy. Before that, all the incentives to cheat, steal and take environmental shortcuts will still be there.

Written in March 2011

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  • Posted on March 28, 2011. Listed in:

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