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The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding
Australian-born Paul Gilding is a long-time environmental activist, former serving member of the Royal Australian Air Force, and former CEO of Greenpeace International.
Rather than continue to confront corporate and government environmental abuse from outside the ‘system’, Gilding left Greenpeace (1995) with the deliberate aim of building a consultancy to work within it. Even though it was clearly early for a consultancy specialising in sustainability, Gilding’s Ecos Corporation (which later established Easy Being Green as a subsidiary) grew into a highly successful lbusiness. Gilding had intuitively understood that corporate people would hear his message more clearly if he was a businessman who had to feed a family (as opposed to an employee of a not-for-profit foundation). He has advised corporate captains, political leaders and activists alike. The crux of Gilding’s message is simple: “any industry or social system unable to move to an ecologically sustainable model will not survive in the economy of the 21st century.”
In Gilding’s view, the 2009 GFC was triggered by spiking food and oil prices of 2008, and was a sneak-preview of an imminent economic and social collapse (his analogy is a category six hurricane) resulting from the irreversible depletion of global ecological assets (read enough fresh water and arable land). ‘The Great Disruption’ is the term Gilding uses to describe the point when the demands and impacts of expanding human economies finally hit the planet’s inalterable ecological limits.
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...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.
In Gilding’s view our single-minded focus on economic growth has been nearly as costly for us as it has for the planet. Fuelled by government policies geared at driving growth, our economies are now so large, complex, and interconnected that they have become highly vulnerable. In fact, having grown beyond the planet’s resource base which feeds it, the economy is now impossible. In 2009 the global economy was running at 140 per cent capacity, meaning it requires 1.4 planets to operate.[ii]
To demonstrate that moving our economy away from a growth-dependency cycle was always going to be an inevitable transition, Gilding quotes classical economists including Adam Smith (1723 – 1790), John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873), and John Maynard Keynes (1883 – 1946). These founding economists all assumed that at some point the economywould mature into a stationary-state of capital and wealth.
It is scarcely necessary to remark that a stationary condition of capital and population implies no stationary state of human improvement. There would be as much scope as ever for all kinds of mental culture, and moral and social progress; as much room for improving the Art of Living and much more likelihood of its being improved, when minds cease to be engrossed by the art of getting on.
John Stuart Mill
The aim of expanding global economies was to alleviate extreme poverty. However, because markets are not good at distributing wealth fairly, wealth from the increasing pie has onlytrickled down to the poorest people. By confusing material wealth with prosperity, we have realised an economic system that by its very nature entrenches inequality in our communities. The fact that some CEOs of major corporations pay themselves 500 times what their lowest paid workers suggests that the global capitalist economic system is perverse.
Gilding notes that, in terms of the effects of inequity, according to every major study into social progress, the degree of inequity (difference between income levels) presents as the leading indicator of social ills in any given community, affecting an incredible range of phenomena. Regardless of the relative wealth of the community as a whole, once basic needs are met, degrees of inequity have been found to affect life expectancy, obesity, rates of imprisonment, teenage pregnancy, mental health, educational performance, the status of women, the levels of trust in the community and so on. [iv] In Gilding’s words:
So economic growth is dead. It’s dead because the planet will not support it. But it’s also dead because it’s economically and socially irrational — it isn’t delivering improvements to the quality of life for the billion or so of us at the top of the global economic tree; in fact, even worse, it’s actually now degrading it because of all the social problems inequality is causing…the barriers to a better life for people who aren’t in poverty are now social and psychological, not material. To address this, we need to create, consciously and deliberately, a more equalsociety.
Imagining the inevitable collisions when soaring consumption levels of rapidly expanding global populations begin hitting the limits of a finite planet is not for the faint-hearted. Gilding warns us of the immense, imminent challenges that human civilisation now faces, including mass famines and resource wars as nations struggle to respond to collapsing economic and social systems. Still, Gilding remains optimistic that fundamental to our nature is the capacity to pull together and overcome even the most hopeless seeming challenges. Like David Spratt and Philip Sutton in their 2008 book Climate Code Red (http://www.scribepublications.com.au/book/climatecodered), Gilding points to World War II as an example of our capacity for determined resilience. Like David Spratt and Philip Sutton in their 2008 book Climate Code Red, Gilding points to World War II as an example of our capacity for determined resilience. After seven years of procrastination — let’s call this the ‘deny and delay’ period — when Hitler invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Allied forces responded to the threat with remarkable speed, force and unity.
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 amissive global scale, come strongly to the fore.
For this belief, Gilding has an unflappable vision of a kinder world emerging from the rubble; one based on a truly sustainable global economy. This is a book for anyone concerned about life on earth.
[i] The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding, Bloomsbury Publishing Plc, London, 2011
[ii] Ibid, originally sourced from WWF and Global Footprint Network, Living Planet Report 2008, and the National Fooprint Accounts 2009 data tables, available at www.footprintnework.org
[iii] Herman Daly is an American ecological economist and professor at the School of Public Policy of University of Maryland. He was Senior Economist in the Environment Department of the World Bank, where he helped to develop policy guidelines related to sustainable development. Daly advocates a move to steady state economies.
[iv] Ibid, originally sourced from The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, Bloomsbury Press, 2010