Look on the Bright Side

The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World
by Paul Gilding
Bloomsbury Press, 2011, 304 pages

In Review

book cover jacket showing a road with clear sky cracking clouds

“The great disruption” is an odd notion. It suggests that big trouble is on the horizon, but also that it’s not really going to be that bad. A “great disruption” is not anything like, say, a “long emergency” (James Howard Kunstler), or a “collapse” (Jared Diamond), and it’s certainly nothing like “the revenge of Gaia” (James Lovelock). All three are acknowledged here, but Paul Gilding’s opinion is that, after a rough transition, maybe a few tough decades, we’ll nevertheless come out right.

Given the depressing state of global climate negotiations (to say nothing of paralysis in the US), even this measured sort of optimism comes across as a bit jarring. If I wanted to be snarky, I’d note that, these days, optimism is a clever marketing strategy. For one thing, it moves book reviewers to immediately give you the adult nod. The Great Disruption, you see, is not just another apocalyptic screed, but rather, as Kirkus Reviews explained, “a remarkably optimistic view of the brave new world in our future.” Gilding even got a high-five from Tom “the world is flat” Friedman, right there in the august pages of The New York Times. He has friends in high places. Sales are brisk.

So it’s no surprise that activist types tend to grumble when Gilding’s name comes up. The problem isn’t just his optimistic view. It’s also that he’s long been trading off the years, back in the early 1990s, when he was head of Greenpeace International. The relationship didn’t stick, but Gilding used the association to launch himself as a high-level green-business consultant. Not a good way to win love among the grassroots folks. I’m willing to bet that few among them will ever read The Great Disruption.

But ignoring Gilding’s optimism would be a mistake. While there’s something wrong with it, there’s also something right. With the green movement in a long-overdue rethink, it’s hard to imagine a better book to argue with. Gilding has been working closely with Jorgen Randers, one of the authors of the original Limits to Growth, and, science-wise, he knows what he’s talking about. Moreover, he has set out to sketch out a positive transition story that he himself actually believes. If his story isn’t good enough (and it’s not), it’s nevertheless useful. Take it as a goad to write a better one yourself. We’ll all be better off when someone finally gets this right.

The real problem is Gilding’s imagining of the global emergency mobilization, the one we so badly need. Such a mobilization might be hard to conceive of right now – what with the elites dithering within a virulent wave of asinine ideological bullshit – but Gilding thinks that, soon, we’re going to wake in a sweat, shrug off the denial, and get to work. He repeats several times that “We’re slow but not stupid.” He thinks that we’re going to get it together.

“Our backs will be against the wall,” Gilding writes, “and in that situation we have proved 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.”

Do you like Churchill quotes? The Great Disruption is a veritable compendium. Which makes sense because Gilding, along with Randers, is the author of 2009’s The One-degree War Plan, which argues that in less than ten years we’ll be on a planetary war footing. A war to save civilization. Quoting Churchill, and particularly his comment on the “era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays,” is thus inevitable. The question is if Gilding is right to quote it. Is the “era of procrastination” indeed “coming to its close”?

With unintended irony (he doesn’t seem aware of the phrase’s established religious connotations), Gilding speaks of a coming “great awakening.” Something like a great awakening would indeed be welcome. Because you don’t have to rely on the details of his techno-economic analysis to know that we can still escape from this odd, tragic, civilizational dead-end. The energy transition studies, the agro-ecological research, the financial analyses – they’re all stacking up. We have options, lots of them. The question is if we’re going to take them.

Gilding believes we will, and he tries to make a believable case. He tells a tale in which fossil-energy stocks crash – which is probably a pretty good call, if we set out to not commit civilizational suicide. He speaks matter-of-factly of the end of the international climate deadlock. He goes on at length about the challenges beyond climate stabilization – the limits to growth and all the rest of it – and argues that we’ll happily face them down.

How can he get away with this, and not be laughed off the stage? Because he has a powerful ally, one that even today can protect his honor. That ally is reality. Gilding believes that change will come because it must. Because we’re already burning through the net primary production of 1.4 planets a year. Because the crisis of food production is real. Because slack and inadequate carbon-stabilization targets (like the ones now being pursued) represent only “planning to fail.” Because the crisis is real and “we are slow but not stupid.”

Gilding thinks that, inevitably, the “dam will burst,” and that when it does this world of ours, in which even mild reforms are treated as anathema, will be swept away. It’s the old optimism of “necessity,” of revolution as a sudden reversal of perspective. “When the alternative is catastrophic, the inconceivable rapidly becomes normal,” Gilding writes.

Is this a thin reed? Yup. Which is why The Great Disruption, while refreshing, is ultimately disappointing. What’s wrong with Gilding’s analysis? Simply his belief that since this great disruption must happen, it will happen. The truth is that it could – or it could not. The future isn’t over yet. This may not be particularly encouraging, but it’s what we have.

You Make Our Work Possible

You Make Our Work Possible

We don’t have a paywall because, as a nonprofit publication, our mission is to inform, educate and inspire action to protect our living world. Which is why we rely on readers like you for support. If you believe in the work we do, please consider making a tax-deductible year-end donation to our Green Journalism Fund.

Get the Journal in your inbox.
Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

Subscribe Now

Get four issues of the magazine at the discounted rate of $20.