Book Review: Paul Gilding's "The Great Disruption"

Why the climate crisis will bring on the end of shopping and the birth of a new world

Paul Gilding, Bloomsbury Press, 2011

See the Earth Island Journal for another version of this review.


“The great disruption” is a bit of 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, and points duly granted, but Gilding’s opinion is that, after a rough transition, maybe a few tough decades, we’ll nevertheless come out right.

It’s a clever strategy, and it fits Gilding’s argument, and it certainly has its advantages.  For one thing, it moves the reviewers to immediately give you the adult nod.  This book, you see, is not just another apocalyptic screed, but rather (Kirkus) “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.  Nor is the problem 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 affiliation didn’t stick, and Gilding then used it to launch himself as a high-level (big corporations) 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.  It’s not the usual variety, and while there’s something wrong with it, there’s also something right.  And with the green movement now 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 welcome, and even useful.  Take it as a goad to write a better one yourself.   We’ll all be better off if someone finally gets this right.

The real problem here is the global emergency mobilization, the one we so badly need.  But while such a mobilization is hard to imagine right now – what with the elites dithering and thrashing as a virulent wave of asinine ideological bullshit passes through their boardrooms and salons – Gilding thinks that, soon, we’re going to wake in a sweat, shrug off the denial, and get to work.  He several times repeats that “We’re slow but not stupid.”  He thinks that we’re going to get it together:

“Our backs will be against the wall, 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… it is precisely the severity of the problem that will drive a response that is overwhelming in scale and speed and will go right to the core of our societies.”

Do you like Churchill quotes?  Haven’t gotten enough of them from Al Gore?  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, that is, to save civilization.  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.  If, that is, the “era of procrastination” is indeed “coming to its close.”

The great awakening

Gilding, with unintended irony (he doesn’t seem aware of the phrase’s established religious connotations),  speaks confidently of a coming “great awakening.”  In this he has made a bold move, though not one, I think, that he will regret.  Something like a great awakening would indeed be welcome.  Because you don’t have to rely on the details of his techno-economic analysis (there are lots of good studies at this point) to know that we can still escape from this odd, tragic, civilizational dead-end.  If we try.  The energy transition studies, the agro-ecological research, the financial analyses – they’re all stacking up.  We have options, lots of them.  The question, as always, is if we’re going to take them.

Gilding believes we will, and he actually tries to make the 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 (see From peak oil to unburnable carbon).  He speaks matter of factly of the end of the international climate deadlock (“this will certainly require funding from rich countries initially, but this is widely accepted in the international politics of climate change.”)  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 all this, and not be laughed off the stage?  Because he has a great and powerful ally, one that even today can protect his back and 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 the problem is nothing as simple as population.  Because 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.”

The nub of it: 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 rudely swept away.  It’s the old optimism of “necessity,” of revolution as a sudden reversal of perspective.  We’ll save ourselves because, soon, the need to do so will have become unavoidable, and thus established common sense.  “When the alternative is catastrophic, the inconceivable rapidly becomes normal.”

Is this a thin reed?  Yup.  Which is why The Great Disruption, while refreshing, is ultimately disappointing.

The weakest part of The Great Disruption is weak the way the weakest part of Bill McKibben’s Eaarth is weak, or the weakest part of Juliet Schor’s Plenitude.  There is serious talk of inequality, but little sustained, nuts and bolts talk of economic justice.  Too many of Gilding’s alternatives seem more likely to suit the middle classes more than the poor – sometimes, indeed, they seem carriers of an odd middle-class utopianism.  There is too little talk of the denialists and the dead-enders, and of the cult of stupidity that has taken hold on the right.

What, finally, is wrong with Gilding’s analysis?  Simply his belief that since the great disruption must happen, it will.  The truth is rather that, since it must happen, it could.  That that future isn’t over yet.

It isn’t much, but it’s what we have.

Tom Athanasiou

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