“The Great Disruption” by Paul Gilding

Gilding_Great_DisruptionISBN 978-1-60819-353-0. “The Great Distruption – Why the climate crisis will bring on the end of shopping and the birth of a new world” by Paul Gilding was published by Bloomsbury Press in 2011 (this paperback edition 2012 with new Foreword). Gilding is a new name for us – probably because he has a background of heading up Greenpeace. However, he is clearly no “ordinary green” as you quickly learn. He served in the military and after his stint in Greenpeace he went on to create & build two companies that advised everyone from Fortune 500 corporations down to community NGOs. He has given his book a rather eye-catching subtitle – “the end of shopping“. Does the book live up to this enticement?

In some respects this is a wonderful book for me. I could literally turn page on page and read a vast array of words that I could so nearly have written myself. Born ten years apart and on opposite sides of the planet we do think uncannily alike. We practically have nothing in common apart from the fact that we are both businessmen – and this is the intriguing thing. Just a few words from the bottom of page 97 in this edition could be taken word-for-word from the Post-Carbon Living playbook:

“…we need to forget about “saving the planet”. The planet will be just fine…”

The book traces Paul’s own life story from which he has carved a philosophy that just exudes common-sense. For him infinite economic growth on finite planet is impossible. Not just unlikely; physically impossible. He doesn’t mince words. He believe that the end of days forecast by Donella Meadows, Dennis Meadows and Jorgen Randers in their ground-breaking “The Limits to Growth” is happening all around us – the evidence is plain to see.

“The alternative is no longer an option. […] ..the choice we need to make is not a philosophical one.”

But is he unhappy? No. He has been through that pain barrier and come out the other-side sunny-side up. So, what will deliver the end of shopping? Well, this is the sticky-bit. His “great disruption” will just kind-of happen. Kinda happen? Yeah. He reckons that we will all eventually get sick of the mess and decide to do something about it. He believes this will happen quite quickly in a highly disruptive period of about 20 years. He calls it the “one degree war” and is modelled closely on the US mobilisation after Pearl Harbour. Of course there is more to it than that but this is the book in a nutshell.

So, the big question – do we buy it? Well, as indicated earlier we found much here that we agreed with quite violently. I think we would probably differ maybe in time frames. We think of a slower evolution over a 100 year period and would align this view more closely to that of John Michael Greer (see “The Long Descent”). This, of course, is not quite fair on Gilding as he does map a timeline out to 100 years. However his obsession with the military history of World War Two suggest he thinks that dramatic change is the most likely outcome. In fact his time in the military does give Gilding a uniquely un-Greenpeace-like perspective. When discussing salary inequality he compares the wages of top CEOs not with those of Nurses or Teachers, but with Army Generals. Curious. Hardly an approach aimed to garner much sympathy. Maybe a long period of martial law is required under the great disruption? God help us.

We would also maybe part company with Gilding in his use of the term “crisis”. It is so over-used particularly in environmentalist circles. It so reminds me of the manner in which cults (such as Scientology) invoke the passions of the gullible membership – keep telling them world will come to an end unless they do something. “Crisis” is NOT a useful concept because there is no crisis. There might be one day – and that is what Gilding is counting upon to kick off the one degree war, but, by definition, if that is something that happens [at some point in the future] then you can’t have your cake and eat it. We can’t be in a perpetual state of crisis.

But crisis may well come and we’ll probably only recognise it as such in the rear view mirror. When we do there is no guarantee that war will be declared. In reality people react in all kinds of fashions – lashing out at the perceived attacker with whatever weapons they have to hand. Look at the pointless Doolittle raid over Japan. Look at the banking bailouts in 2008. We will not always act in an appropriate way. Therein lies the danger.

But…. anyway… Gilding remains the environmentalist it is OK to like. He talks our language. take this example:

“We began to realise the environment was not just a wild place we visited for spiritual nourishment and recreation, but the place we lived in, the source of our food and our physical health, and the foundation of our economy and prosperity.”

What is interesting is that he claims environmentalists woke up to this reality back in the 1970’s. That may be his perspective but I don’t see this as a universal truth. Many grass roots environmentalists are still championing the countryside as a nice place to visit. This is certainly the normal accepted paradigm amongst political elites. It is quite normal to address the countryside areas as if they were (as Prince Charles once wrote) “an adjunct to the leisure industry”.

So Gilding may have had his epiphany but there is a long way to go for many. As we have pointed out often before; we are waiting for the great Transition, the great disruption – a period of “the reckoning” [as WE term it]. But this will only come about when the “people who matter” are hurting. Who these people are rather depends upon your mind-frame and your culture. If you are in the impoverished south then it is the rich 1 billion people in the north. If you are already in that top 1 billion then you may well see that elite as being bankers, politicians, CEO’s, whoever. It is always somebody else. Gilding writes that the great disruption will happen when everyone demands action – dramatic action:

“This demand will be sufficient to overcome the vested interests’ fight for protection of their economic wealth.”

Really? That is about all Gilding has to say on the topic. It doesn’t quite hit the spot. As for banking and money creation he says little to nothing about the dynamics of debt manufacture. The economy cannot stop growing because the money supply would collapse. Monetary reform must happen top of the list of things to do in the great disruption. On this Gilding writes nothing. The assumption is that we’ll just find a way. What of political objections?

“Our political leaders, with rare exceptions, respond at best to what they think the politics allows them to do rather that what they feel they should do.”

Gilding is convinced that politicians do wish to act but are held back by the weight of what is possible. He doesn’t quite go into detail as to what that dead weight is but we can call it “the establishment” if we wish to. Polling demonstrates that it is not public opinion directly – there are far more powerful sponsors at work. Gilding is convinced that everyone is an environmentalist. I am not so convinced, so much so that I would argue that real change happens when the label disappears and the needs of the future outweigh the needs of the present, ie, it becomes internalised.

The reader will notice that the author never dwells for a second upon what might be perceived as the failures of environmentalism. Not for him the arguments of what constitutes “new green” versus “old green” – the book is duller for it because it lacks that contemporary feel. There is much navel-gazing but little introspection or critical analysis. Gilding has much to say about what we should do but offers little advice to his former colleagues in Greenpeace. It just is what it is.

We admire the fact that Gilding has rubbed shoulders with the great and the good in his business work. He, like us, is pro-free-market and is comfortable quoting Austrian Economics (Schumpterian “creative destruction”) alongside quotes from (“Small is Beautiful”) Schumaker. His model of how regulation makes free-markets operate is super-modern and enlightened. Tight environmental regulation is a key source of competitive advantage for any nation. Not that this way of thinking is very much en vogue in the UK in 2014.

“Government needs to apply some tough love to such irresponsible adolescents and put in place boundaries that will make them better grown-ups.”

Yes! Exactly. But who will make Government grow up? What is likeable is that Gilding does “get it”:

I no longer argued that this was about the destruction of ecological systems or the arrogance of humanity’s disrespect for nature; rather, I warned my listeners that the global economy was at risk of collapse and with it their pension funds, their personal wealth…”

Well done him. Welcome to the new green. I fear he may not have noticed that he has left so many of his colleagues behind. He does recognise that that he and his colleagues from Greenpeace had attempted simply to argue the point from some self-imposed moral high ground. Too late did he notice that this was not a discussion about ethics or righteousness. This form of communication does not engage people. You have to find new language. Gilding found his… but the rest?

He writes at length about the mistake made in framing the argument about being one of protecting the “environment” as if this was somehow different from the world in which people live day-to-day. This way of describing it is too abstract and fails to press the right buttons. In reality our economy is a giant Ponzi scheme using capital up to pay investors’ income. It will come to an end. Not “must” – just “will”:

“…a planet now running at 140 percent of capacity that will subsequently run at somewhere between 500 and 700 percent of capacity…”

Given the combined weight of population growth and economic growth there is no way these sums stack up.

“Not because it’s economically, environmentally, and politically challenging. Not because we don’t want it to happen. Not because doing so would damage the environment. It’s not going to happen because achieving it would defy the laws of physics, biology, and chemistry or of mathematics. These laws are firmly established and are not negotiable.”

So very true but we live in an unreality where our political economy pretends that EVERYTHING is negotiable. There is no ultimate truth outside of religion. Science is treated as if it is malleable and inconvenient if it delivers bad news as well as good. Newsrooms are packed out with social science graduates with little experience of the immutable laws of physics. To them everything is shades of grey – you just have to spin it the right way to get the result you want. THAT is what we are up against. The establishment. It is everywhere and all of us. We just like the way things are thank-you-very-much so don’t bother us with this inconvenient truth. When you do we will deny your reality because it conflicts with what we wish. We will denounce your science of immutable laws and describe them as the “beliefs” of a leftist church who has an agenda to remove our freedoms. Gildings skirts around the edges of these fundamentals. He does not takes his eyes of the prize and that is the one degree war that he just knows is going to happen.

And that is his trap isn’t it? You simply cannot flit between the laws of thermodynamics and wishful thinking without some adequate trail of scientific breadcrumbs: the evidence. This is the great disruption’s weak point. There is plenty of evidence that we cannot grow infinitely on a finite planet – but we really have no clue as to how the end game plays out. So what if the sceptics, the deniers?

“…we can’t help them.. […] ..they don’t matter…”

I had to read that through a few times. Hard to swallow. I wish it were that simple. Yes I believe that events will silence them but we must wait several generations for the denial to drift into history. Denial is a religion – an opiate; it won’t go down easy. There will always be someone else to blame.

Gilding does wax lyrical about what politicians and big business will do but he does spare a few thoughts for what grass-root community initiatives:

“..people are instead focussing on building stronger communities with greater resilience and one enhancing our quality of life rather than quantity of stuff.”

Transition yes? Err.. No. Transition is mentioned nowhere in the entire book. Although written around 2010 it is mildly surprising that he should chose that turn of phrase without at least one nod to Rob Hopkins. Maybe great minds think alike? Disappointingly there is very little of the “Transition-type” talk in the book. Some of the initiatives Gilding describes as example are rather minor and relatively trivial by comparison. Transition now offers a far stronger narrative than the one offered here.

However, this books remains likeable for all its small faults. Who can argue with Gilding’s passionate and well structured essay in chapter 17 about inequality? Top form.

“The American Dream is dead. The only way to lift the bottom is to drop the top. Ouch.”

Ouch indeed. As I write the World Economic Forum has just finished its 2014 shindig in Davos. Inequality was near top of their agenda. There is a genuine fear, not that this is immoral, but simply that the gutting of the middle classes will remove society’s consumers upon which wealth is based. This may not be quite what Gilding intended. Reality has a long way to catch up doesn’t it?

Finally, in chapter 19 Gilding reminds us that the future is already here. He regales us with numerous examples of hope for the future. Here we learnt about such examples as Generation Investment Management, Triodos, Sodra, Ocado, 1 Million Women and “Men’s Sheds”. Some sublime, some slightly ridiculous, if well intended. By the end Gilding is asking us ‘who is in charge?’. Well, us of course, we hold this future in our hands. We shape it. It is our choice. We must get on with the job.

“Most of all, we need to stop waiting for someone else to fix it.”

And amen to that.

It may well be that we haven’t scratched the surface of this book. There is a lot of groundwork here but Gilding never really gets quite under the skin of the issues at stake. If you want a more thorough workout then check Andrew Simms’ “Cancel the Apocalypse” for one. However, as testimony of one former Greenpeace guys journey on the road to Damascus this is enlightening. It might have worked better if we had seen a little more of this introspection about how the green movement could move this agenda forward. But it was not to be. Not a big deal but there seemed to be so much left unsaid.

There is a lot of great vision here but little in the way of a roadmap. A lot of clutching at straws, a lot of hope for things to come, but too little shape on the bones. We loved Gilding’s “The Great Disruption”. He thinks the way we think. But his reliance upon high drama to make the future maybe misses the awful reality. High drama plays out well in the rear-view-mirror of history books but such matters are seldom so dramatic at the time. We yearn for the Transition, the reckoning, a roadmap… but all Gilding offers is gestures.

Guess we’ll have to wait and see what happens…. and do what we can in the meantime.

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