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, New York:  2011

$25.00     Available through Mid-York Library System

If the “progress” of the modern industrial “consumer society” is a fast moving train, it is about to be derailed.  The train is rapidly approaching a brick wall of environmental, resource, ecological, and economic constraints.

The engineer and crew of the train are corporate capitalism, epitomized by big energy companies, along with most political leaders.  Most of the passengers are “consumers,” along for the ride but with little perceived control over the train’s destination. The engineers are urging “full speed ahead,” tacitly supported by most of the passengers.   A few (environmentalists and serious social thinkers) are urging that we “put on the brakes.”  Whichever course is taken, the collision is imminent, just around the bend.  This collision is what Paul Gilding calls the “great disruption.”


In a book more optimistic than many current “gloom and doom” books, Paul Gilding discusses the economic and scientific realities of fast approaching economic limits to growth and ecological limits of a finite world.

An Australian from Tasmania, Gilding had a long history with Greenpeace International, several years as CEO.  Then he founded Ecos Corporation and Easy Being Green.  These companies were consulting firms on the business strategy aspects of sustainability issues with many corporations, including Ford, BHP, and DuPont.  These companies advised clients that supporting environmental issues  was good for business.  He is a member of the Core Faculty at Cambridge University's Program for Sustainability Leadership. 

Forget about “saving the planet,” Gilding argues. The big question is “do we want to ‘save’ civilization and allow it to keep evolving and developing from the base we have built over the past ten thousand years?  Or do we want to go back a few hundred million people or fewer and start again?” He argues that hope is much better than despair in facing these crucial issues.

Whether one calls it rapid climate change, or global warming, the implications of the earth’s average temperature rising over 1 degree Celsius are tremendous. The voices of the skeptics are increasingly shrill, largely funded by energy companies that have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, emphasizing profits for a few at tremendous future cost to the economy and society at large.  Huge economic and social disruptions are imminent

If we look at the planet as a pie, it is impossible to guarentee everyone a bigger piece of the pie with rapidly increasing human populations.  Current global economic systems are based largely on theories that no longer hold true. Expanding demands are fast approaching very real    constraints of finite and limited resources.  Many resources are used in inefficient ways to manufacture more (often frivolous) “stuff.”  Two centuries of a system based on the premise of unlimited growth is rapidly approaching the reality of imminent negative growth and near ecological collapse.

Gilding attributes to Kenneth Boulding the following:

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a mad man or an economist.

The end of economic growth is near, argues Gilding.  Economic and political conventional wisdom is built upon the pillar of continued economic growth in an increasingly globalized and interconnected world economy.

However, the end of growth and transition to a stable-state economy was alluded to in the writings of John Maynard Keynes in the mid-20th century, and John Stuart Mill, in the mid 19th century. Even Adam Smith, in his seminal 1776 book The Wealth of Nations, understood that any economy has constraints of its base of natural resources of “soil and climate.”  Many of these ideas from important economic thinkers of the past have been largely forgotten or ignored.

Today, the idea of no growth is seen as radical and new. Though heresy to those with vested interests in the status quo of continued economic growth, as previously noted, this idea is neither radical nor new. The rub is how to adapt to this economic reality with the least amount of social disruption.

Since the economic “meltdown” of late 2008 started the worst economic depression since the 1930s, there are many signs that growth is slowing.  No growth will grab the attention of policy makers and the public much more than the expected 50% decline in global biodiversity. 


Global warming or rapid climate change will increase average temperatures with profound environmental consequences.  Many clues are already obvious. The rapid loss of biodiversity, the near collapse of many international fisheries, shrinking glaciers world wide, rising sea levels, and the increase of “extreme” weather events all threaten world food production.  With human population now past seven billion and still growing rapidly, the implications are clear. 

To Gilding, two major crash indicators reveal that addiction to economic growth is about to end.  The first is resource constraints, perhaps most evident in the energy sector of fossil fuels (coal, oil, and natural gas), leading inevitably to higher energy prices, and higher resource prices generally.  Recent trends reveal rising prices for food worldwide.  The second is rapidly changing ecosystems and rapid climate change, suggesting that we are close to reaching “tipping points” of even more rapid change that will be difficult if not impossible to control.

Gilding believes that collectively, we will make these changes, difficult as they might be, because we have no choice.  He sees a massive World War II-style mobilization as essential, and that the political will to act will quickly evolve in the very near future.

The most essential choice we have to make, individually and collectively, is just how to react to these new realities. Normal reactions include denial, anger, and despair.  We must move beyond these negative reactions, and accept reality. Hope for the future is based on many small positive changes that are occurring around the world.  As more people become engaged, humanity is on the verge of a collective paradigm shift in thinking on economic issues, sustainable agriculture, dependence on non-renewable fossil fuels, and continued consumption of often frivolous “stuff” and “gadgets.”

Humans have a long history of procrastination.  However, the hour is late.  The sooner the realities of economic and environmental constraints are recognized and acted upon,   the less disruptive these changes will be.

There is little doubt that the “great disruption,” (called the “long emergency” by writer James Kuntsler) is upon us.  Whether we act boldly to limit and mitigate these environmental / economic / ecological changes, or insist on holding fast to various unsustainable practices will make all the difference in how this inevitable transition plays out. Fear and despair will feed upon itself to make the transition more disruptive.

Gilding believes the most important choice we have to make is between hope and despair. The sooner we become hopeful and pro-active on these issues, the easier this transition will be.  I hope that Gilding’s optimism plays out and does not fall on deaf ears.


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