Paul Gilding is an avowed optimist, and that optimism was on full display in the first piece of his that I encountered, “Victory at hand for the climate movement?” That was five weeks ago, and I liked the article enough to post it to my Facebook wall. Four weeks ago, at an Earth Day event, I was handed a flyer advertising two meetings to discuss the ideas in Gilding’s book, The Great Disruption, and I decided almost immediately to read the book and go to the meetings. I had no idea what was about to happen to my mind.
In a nutshell, the thesis of The Great Disruption is that (1) humanity will not make the drastic changes needed to save ourselves until global catastrophe forces our hand, but (2) when it does, we will still somehow have enough time, resources, and inventiveness to save the climate and transition to a truly sustainable civilization. Gilding’s case for part 1 made perfect sense to me and has had a massive impact on my thinking, despite the fact that I’ve spent the past several years involved in activism aimed explicitly at motivating an earlier course correction, on the assumption that if we wait until our hand is forced, it will be too late to stop the slide into chaos and collapse.
Part 2 of Gilding’s thesis directly contradicts that assumption, and I simply can’t believe in it. Gilding incessantly cites World War II as an example of how we can turn things around at the last minute, completely ignoring the fact that America’s miraculous mobilization took place under conditions of almost total insulation from the catastrophes engulfing Europe and eastern Asia. By contrast, killer droughts, floods, wildfires, and superstorms are already starting to wreak havoc everywhere, America included, and it is that very havoc that Gilding expects to trigger our shift in consciousness. In any case, Gilding himself points out that the time lags in Earth’s systems mean that the climate and other ecological crises will continue to worsen long after we’ve stopped doing damage and started applying effort toward solutions commensurate with the global scale of the problems. So even if we start doing what’s necessary well before we’re crippled by the unfolding cataclysm, our decades-long efforts will almost certainly be swamped by the ever-growing chaos around us, ranging from mass migrations to pandemics to large-scale wars. Plus, to turn these trends around quickly enough when they’re already into the red zone will require using geoengineering, i.e. applying massive force on a planet-wide scale with techniques that are barely understood, whose side effects could easily prove even worse than the problems they’re intended to solve.
And all this doesn’t even touch the other part of the catastrophe that Gilding sees as inevitable: the end of economic growth. As long as the current economic system is in force, it will be necessary for governments to raise massive sums in order to cope with the scale of the climate problems, but Gilding says the global economy is already running up against the wall of planetary resource limits. He sees the 2008 financial crisis as partly caused by the preceding spikes in food prices, which indicate the arrival of a phenomenon far worse than Peak Oil: the edge of our agricultural capacity being reached, due to the combination of rising demand and loss of cropland to desertification. And while we have plenty of fossil fuels left with which to power the needed transitions (including scaling up green power production to replace those fuels), we’ll need to severely curtail our use of those fuels in order to prevent civilization-destroying climate impacts, placing an artificial limit on growth to add to the natural ones. And enforcing such harsh limits on energy use, particularly in the midst of the global chaos described above, will doubtless require an authoritarian crackdown on civil liberties on an almost Stalinist scale, a possibility that Gilding points out when discussing the rise of China.
So why have I suddenly embraced this vision of certain doom, despite having worked for years with the SolSeed Movement to paint a fundamentally hopeful and optimistic vision of the future and work toward making it real? I’ve been thinking a lot about that question, but those thoughts will have to wait for a future blog post. I don’t expect it to be more than a week or two away (trust me or not as you see fit), and in the interim I plan to publish a set of movie reviews that relate to Gilding’s predictions, which I’m already mostly finished writing. I also need to update my original review of Bill McKibben’s book Eaarth, which offers more realistic-sounding solutions to the problem of inevitable climate catastrophe.