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Monday, April 4, 2011

The Great Disruption: My Review of Paul Gilding's Book

This post is my column in WME Environmental Management News published on April 4th, 2011...

Most people engaged in sustainability know the name Paul Gilding: school dropout and Maoist trade union organiser at 17, environmental activist and head of Greenpeace International at 33, entrepreneur, business adviser to global corporations, and now author at 51. His book, The Great Disruption, is released around the world this month. It’s a must read and needs to reach an audience well beyond usual-suspect sustainability true believers. By Murray Hogarth.

Knowledge and timber, it’s said, shouldn’t be much used until they are seasoned. So Paul Gilding waited over half a century to write his first book. I’ve had a front row chance to see his profoundly challenging thesis on the future of our world evolve over the past decade or more, from pub chats, to self-published polemics, to wannabe international bestseller. From what I can tell, just about every significant thought and experience Paul’s ever had is in The Great Disruption. For lesser intellects, that might be a very short book - not for Paul!

Now embarked on a two-month, multi-continent book tour, Paul is confirming his growing status as a global sustainability thought leader. His story is pitched way beyond today’s public controversy and petty political skirmishing over the science of climate change and the cost of putting a price on carbon. It envisages a time, not far off, when argument about our planet’s interconnected environmental, social and economic mega-challenges will be over and the case for extraordinary action will be compelling.

With characteristic lack of modesty, Paul describes his book as ‘a bracing assessment of the planetary crisis that we can no longer avoid and the once-in-an-epoch chance it offers to build a better world’. To his mind the great disruption of his book’s title has already begun, we just don’t know it yet.

For the record, I’m clearly biased as a reviewer. I’ve known Paul for nearly 15 years, and for over a decade our lives and thinking have been very closely entwined as colleagues, friends and creative collaborators. I’ve shared some of his most powerful formative experiences, his highs and lows in life, and I’ve seen firsthand his intellectual evolution from fiery activist, to intuitive business sustainability adviser, to emerging visionary statesman for Gaia. Having emotionally buffered himself, and prepared his arguments with great precision, Paul is now setting out to engage a mass global audience with his thesis. I hope many will want to listen, not cover their ears, because this is an important and excellent book.

As it happens, Paul also has a great sense of timing, or is just plain lucky, because in 2011 few would argue that we’re living in times of other than great disruption. Ongoing post-GFC financial instability in Europe, regime change in the Middle East, extreme natural and then nuclear disaster in Japan, Tea Party anger in America, oil and food prices trending dangerously higher, and the limits to traditional economic growth appearing in many places as sustainability challenges mount. Oh, and then there’s climate change! For Paul Gilding, this is all highly relevant, yet only a taste of what is to come.

I’m not going to prĂ©cis Paul’s book in full. My hope is everyone will read every last work of it, because we all need to. What I want to focus on is the core of the core, his central thesis of a great disruption leading to great chaos, and out of it a great awakening setting humanity up for ultimately a great future.

As he recounts, Paul has already shed his tears and done his grieving for our world, as we know it, coming to terms personally with his evaluation that we now can’t avoid the traumatic end of economic growth, nor the loss of much of our planet’s current amazing biodiversity, nor massive human suffering. Never a man excessively attached to wealth, possessions or prestige as ends in themselves, I know he’s also downsized his own life very significantly. Getting rid of debt, putting experiences over shopping for stuff, and moving with his family to a rural lifestyle where self-sustaining subsistence is plausible – an element of survivalist preparation if worst comes to worst!

The great disruption of his book’s title has already begun, he writes, with 2008 the kick-off year. Humanity has overshot the carrying capacity of the planet, and a climate crisis enveloping us is only the blitzkrieg ahead of a much bigger, comprehensive sustainability crisis. With brutal pragmatism, based on hardheaded mathematics and immutable physics, Paul lays out why we now can’t avoid the consequences of the overshoot, however much we may wish it were otherwise. As Paul is fond of saying, ‘it is what it is’, and many of us who have immersed ourselves in sustainability over many years will find his logic, his factual base and his interpretations inescapable. Distressing, yet compelling.

So the question that becomes crucial, if like me you accept his ultra-bleak analysis and framing of the end of current-style economic growth as a foregone conclusion, is what happens next? The planet goes on, of course, changed but ever changing, magnificently resilient over evolutionary and geological timescales. What, however, about people, about us and our immediate descendants and the future generations we hope will follow? Will human civilisation collapse rapidly into barbarism with billions of lives lost and no hope of recovery in any meaningful timeframe, as some noteworthy commentators project? Or do we collectively suck up the pain, adapt at speed and rise again with a clean, sustainable, dramatically better economy and society?

Paul’s relentless ‘it’s too late to avoid terrible consequences’ message is balanced by surprising optimism; that we are ‘slow, but not stupid’, and when humanity’s response comes it will be awesome. His hope isn’t an almost afterthought, as I argue was the case with Al Gore’s original film and book An Inconvenient Truth, nor a glib add-on as we see from the likes of The Skeptical Environmentalist by Bjorn Lomborg. Paul deliberately reaches and flags the emotional low point of his book before the halfway mark, and then speaks at least as powerfully and passionately to the rise of a new, better world as he does to the demise of the old, very flawed one.

Over the past few weeks I’ve been zeroing in on the key question of when the great disruption gets really bad, does humanity plunge into the abyss or fight its way back to a better place? I’ve also been exchanging story references with Paul, because his book is tapping into a wider conversation already bubbling up around our troubled world. We’ve been very taken by two pieces, both published by the online US newspaper The Huffington Post, which canvass how badly humanity may react to unfolding disaster, and also how inspiringly good the collective may turn out to be in the face of calamity, even climate change and sustainability calamity lasting for many decades before real improvement can be hoped for.

From Paul’s perspective, the two writers Keith Harrington and Johann Hari reflect a serendipitous outbreak of universal consciousness, meshing very closely with his own contemplations of what may lie ahead. I believe their views also reflect a reality we’re seeing in Australia right now, in how the vexed politics of getting to real climate action is playing out, yet also in how Australians have recently responded to major natural disaster in the shape of the early 2011 floods, especially in the Brisbane region, and also Cyclone Yasi in far north Queensland. On a bigger stage, the heroic so-called ‘nuclear samurai’ at the stricken Fukushima reactor complex in Japan, and the post-tsunami stoicism of the Japanese people, speak to humanity’s better angels.

Keith Harrington: ‘ … when people start rioting about climate-induced food shortages - the first thing on their mind won't be "I demand the government do something about climate change," but, "I demand the government figure out a way to provide us with food security again." Of course, policies to facilitate a rapid switch away from fossil fuels and reduce other climate-change drivers will be part of the government response, but they'll hardly be the main focus.

When people are starving they won't be placated by legislation to cap or tax carbon emissions. Such measures might even take a back seat to more immediate solutions. … In short, when things fall apart, what the public will demand first and foremost are answers from leaders and experts about how to create an economy that will solve the problems that the old one brought on. If left-wing political leaders don't have clear answers for how to build a new economy that provides for human needs, people will do what they've always done: Put their faith in right-wing demagogues ¬- men who will prey on public fears and misery, and channel them into persecution of the Other - i.e. of some imagined internal or external scapegoat. Without a credible systemic alternative we'll revert to fascism, tribalism and violence.’

Johann Hari: ‘The evidence gathered over centuries of disasters, natural and man-made, is overwhelming. The vast majority of people, when a disaster hits, behave in the aftermath as altruists. They organize spontaneously to save their fellow human beings, to share what they have, and to show kindness. They reveal themselves to be better people than they ever expected. When the social scientist Enrico Quarantelli tried to write a thesis how people descend into chaos and panic after disasters, he concluded: "My God! I can't find any instances of it."

On the contrary, he wrote, in disasters "the social order does not break down ... Co-operative rather than selfish behavior predominates." The Blitz Spirit wasn't unique to London: it is universal. … This is likely to be a century of escalating ecological disasters, since each year we destabilize our climate more, in the face of plain scientific warnings. It's hard to extract any hope from the picture this fact presents us with. But there is some. Alongside this impulse to denial and self-destruction, there is something fundamentally good in us. We are humans. We care about each other. We will - at the most crucial and final moment - sacrifice for each other, like the technicians who are trying to prevent the nuclear plant melting down, knowing this is probably personal suicide. That's something to hold onto.’

I like a lot about our planet, and have four children, Paul has five, so at one level I still cling to hope that he’s overstating the great disruption part, and underestimating the great awakening. Yet I can’t find any gaping holes in his analysis of the problem, supported as it is by logic, science and real unfolding evidence. I am heartened, though far from totally reassured, by his well-argued solutions and ultimately uplifting conclusion. One thing I am sure of, however, is the whole world and every constituency in it needs to be having the conversation that Paul Gilding is setting up in The Great Disruption.

If a great awakening is to be expedited, and the worst consequences of our human mistakes are to be somehow reduced, if not avoided, the sooner we get started the better. We are being slow, as Paul contends, and now we’ll have to prove we’re not stupid!

Vantage Point columnist: Murray Hogarth is an independent sustainability strategy and communications consultant through his firm the 3rd degree, a senior adviser to the Green Capital corporate sustainability program and director of energy saving technology group Wattwatchers. The views expressed here are personal ones.

The Great Disruption was released by Bloomsbury in Australia on March 29.


  1. Murray ... thorough and disturbing review ... still waiting for the book to show up here in the Auvergne, or 'La France Profonde' as the French call this area ...

    Loved the "characteristic lack of modesty" comment ... for those of us who love Paul dearly ... this will produce a smile ... hey, he hasn't got time for that stuff right now and as you know he has gone deeper than most into grief and self-knowledge ... the world needs him and this book it seems!

    Best to you, Lynette.


  2. For anyone in New York, Paul is doing a New York City launch of The Great Disruption on Wednesday April 27th at Demos. Check out the details here:

  3. Thanks Dan ... Paul's whole US, NZ and further Australian itinerary up to and including the Sydney Writer's Festival is on his website