Monday, February 25, 2013

The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding

Staff Review by Chris Saliba 

Paul Gilding’s superb The Great Disruption sums up a lifetime of thought on sustainability and environmental issues. With his first-hand experience as an activist and businessman, he brings many important insights into the most pressing questions of our day.

The basic premise of The Great Disruption can be summed up fairly simply: the global economy is now bigger than the planet. We must shrink the world’s economy to a size that can safely fit within the planet’s ecology. Science, mathematics and simple common sense tell us that a day of reckoning will come when the planet bites back and we will have to act. The dire effects of global warming will tell us our time is up and that we must immediately reduce our carbon emissions to zero. Paul Gilding sees this all as completely logical, and maps out with quite a bit of certainty how the future will look. He repeatedly uses the analogy of Britain preparing for World War Two, and is fond of quoting Churchill.

This is perhaps weakest part of The Great Disruption, depending on your attitude to the art of prediction. Gilding is bold enough in his optimism to make forecasts 100 years out. While there is a lot of logic in what he says, in the end only time will tell. I hope that Gilding’s future scenarios do come to pass. I hope that the world bands together to confront the common enemy that is global warming. (For a more pessimistic view of the future, see military historian Gwynne Dyer’s Climate Wars.)

That’s about as far as my reservations go. The rest of the book is brilliant. Paul Gilding has experience on both side of the fence, as an activist and as a business owner working with some of the biggest names in business. Immersion in real life business problems and meeting eminent CEOs has made him think hard about his intellectual and moral positions. The result is an honest book that tackles the major economic re-structuring that de-carbonising the atmosphere will cause.

There are two attitudes that can be adopted when confronting this ‘great disruption’ to our economy. (The book should really be called ‘the great re-structuring’, or something similar, as disruption indicates a temporary change.) The first is to grieve over the end of the consumerist life as we know it, to dolefully accept that we are going to have to reduce our high standard of living. Or we can see this economic re-structuring as a blessing in disguise. We can all reduce our hours of work, consume less and have more time for the things that matter: friends, family and community involvement.

The best parts of the book (for me anyway) is the critique of the growth economy. Gilding marshals a lot of evidence to show that the presumption that the economy can continue to grow ad infinitum is simply impossible. As surely as day follows night, eventually we will reach the limits of economic expansion. Gilding shows that the fathers of economic thought, Adam Smith and John Stuart Mill, both thought that eventually the economy would reach a point beyond which it could not grow. John Maynard Keynes also felt that economic growth had a limit.

More fascinating, however, is Gilding’s argument that the growth economy is not making us any happier. There are a lot of people working in this area of research to be sure, but Gilding makes a really convincing argument. Basically, once our material wants are satisfied, we’re pretty content. Extra money and material goods beyond this don’t add much satisfaction to our lives. We’re all on a treadmill, working longer and longer for stuff we don’t need. This lifestyle with over consumption as its basic tenet is making us sick (look at obesity rates). Furthermore, research also shows that a society with ever widening gaps between rich and poor makes both groups unhappy.

Overall, The Great Disruption makes a cogent and reasoned argument. It’s clear from the text that Gilding has given everything he writes about much personal thought. That over consumption is bad for us makes clear sense. Perhaps more surprising to a lot of people is the argument that reducing consumption (hence also reducing our standard of living) may actually improve our lifestyle. What remains in great doubt is how countries will respond to the collective threat of global warming in the years to come. Will the world lean towards Gwynne Dyer’s predictions, or Gilding’s sunnier outlook? Perhaps a bit of both.

What is certain is that the science on climate change remains unassailed. It’s just a matter of when we decide to face the facts of the matter. Now that President Obama is talking about it, perhaps a shift is on the way. Green energy, if it was scalable, would surely relieve America of one of its greatest headaches, reliance on Middle Eastern oil.

The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding. Published by Bloomsbury. ISBN: 9781408822180  RRP: $19.99