Paul Gilding on The Great Disruption

ARTS, Books, Features, Interviews
The former global head of Greenpeace calls for less talk and more action in his new book tackling the twin threats of climate change and economic collapse.

After 35 years of activism and social entrepreneurship to address climate change and sustainability, including a stint as head of Greenpeace International, Paul Gilding has reached a stark conclusion: “We need to forget about ‘saving the planet.’”

In The Great Disruption: How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global Economy, Gilding argues that not only is it too late to avoid a global crisis, but that the crisis has already started. Since the financial meltdown of 2008 we’ve seen rising food and oil prices, new evidence of ecosystem collapse, extreme weather and wildfires, all in the face of an exponential increase in world population and energy consumption.

It’s now a simple matter of maths, physics, and system dynamics: our global economic footprint is past the limit where our planet can support it. “We didn’t change,” Gilding says. “So now change will be forced upon us by actual physical consequences”—including energy and food shortages, refugee migrations, and widespread geopolitical conflict.

It’s a hard pill to swallow, but Gilding has clearly been through this debate countless times and from countless different angles, and he’s gathered plenty of evidence to back him up. I had quite a few “Yes, but…!” moments as I read the book, only to have them persuasively addressed several pages later.

The real sticking point of The Great Disruption is whether we can follow Gilding through to the confident “Let’s get to work!” attitude he eventually reaches. After all, he says, after a few million years the planet will recover from the worst we can do to it. Our job is to muster up the courage, compassion and innovation that is necessary to revolutionise the economy and save our civilisation, and he believes that humanity is up to the challenge.

A few weeks into his international book tour, I called Paul Gilding in New York City to find out what makes him so sure.

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CHRISTINE LINNELL: There are a lot of scientists and environmental activists saying that time is running out and we have to act now to avoid a global crisis, but you’re one of the few people I’ve come across who’s saying that a “Great Disruption” is inevitable. Was there a specific discovery that convinced you of this or was it gradual?

PAUL GILDING: I guess it was a gradual process but I had a sort of big landing, if you like. In 2005 I took a three month sabbatical off my work consulting for large corporations and took the time to read the latest science, not specifically on climate change but bigger picture science around the broader global ecosystem services that we rely upon. Two things became clear. First was the world was collectively in very bad shape. It wasn’t just climate change or land or water, it was the whole system under severe pressure. Secondly, the pace of change was nowhere near what it needed to be in response and wasn’t about to shift. That was a very unpleasant realisation in a way. For fifteen to twenty years I’d been saying, “If we don’t act soon, it’ll be too late.” And at some point, that point comes.

CL: You argue that one of the reasons we’re in this position is that for decades environmental activists have focused on the ecological impacts instead of the human impacts.

PG: I think we—and when I say we I refer to people in the environmental movement collectively over a long time—have been very focused on the moral argument that this is the right thing to do. It clearly is correct that the science says we have a problem and that the consequences for not responding are ultimately negative for us. But people haven’t responded, and at some point you have to question the strategy and say that even if it’s right, even if there is a very strong moral and scientific case to protect the planet on the grounds that it’s just the right thing to do, if it’s not working it’s not working.

Where we’ve got to now is to understand that what people do respond to are financial and economic threats. The global financial crisis was a good example of that. We do it with incredibly large amounts of money and suddenly capacity that we thought was not available becomes available. That is why we need to recognise that climate change in particular but more broadly sustainability challenges are translating into economic impact.

Last year, for example, the droughts in Russia led to them banning exports, which led to a sudden spike in wheat prices. The fact that we keep on using oil as though it will last forever, even though there have been many warnings about peak oil—not that oil is about to run out but that our production capacity is not matching demand—those things mean that oil prices will go up. At the end of the day, despite the fact that we think we’re going to have this advanced civilisation, energy and food are what it comes down to. When we have energy and food being threatened by a lack of operating the economy sustainably, then we’re going to pay a lot more attention.

CL: During your career you’ve been both the global head of Greenpeace and a consultant working with Fortune 500 corporations, which gives you an unique perspective on all of this. There’s an interesting line in the book where you say, “I often grimace in hindsight at the delight I took in confronting corporate leaders on national television and humiliating them with the evidence of their ‘corporate vandalism.’” Why is that a mistake?

PG: It’s the motivation behind it. There’s certainly some appalling examples of corporate behaviour in this area which have led to some dreadful consequences, and people should have known better. I think there’s a difference between calling to account people for their behaviour and questioning their motives or intentions. I think in many ways as a young activist I was taking delight in demonising “the bad guys” for its own sake, making them look bad to support my cause as opposed to attacking the behaviour.

It’s a lot like kids, really. With children you have to criticise the behaviour, not the person. I’m not sure the environmental movement, certainly in my early days and certainly not me personally, was always that clear about that approach.  There’s a certain questionable ethical behaviour there in terms of my personal behaviour at that time. I’m not sure my motivations were as pure or as clear as I’d like them to be.

CL: Do you see the same thing happening with, for example, BP and the oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico?

PG: I think there is, as [ founder] Bill McKibben says in the book, a role for anger. We should be outraged and angry at the behaviour of certain companies for what they’ve done. The difference is that we can be outraged and angry and very strong in our condemnation of that behaviour without making it into a moral outrage about the individuals.

I sort of argue both ways. I’m arguing for a more considered and ethical framework for responding. We should be clear that these are people and we need to be able to change their behaviour and therefore connect with them. The other side of that, which might seem contradictory to some people, is that we have to be very firm, very hard-line and very clear that if people are making money from destroying the stability of civilisation they need to be called to account for that. It’s not okay to just argue for incremental change, and BP’s a very good example of that. BP has tricked us all by doing significant things in solar and elsewhere, but all those things pale by comparison to all their work in moving into dirtier oil. That’s what has to be held to account.

CL: Comparing your work with Greenpeace with your work with corporations, at one point you say that “in a well-funded non-profit organisation you can have the wrong idea for years, [but] the market is far more ruthless with mistaken views of what the world needs.” What did you mean by that?

PG: When you’ve got a good funding base and good support from the community, you can get off track by relying on old ideas about what people expect of you and what you’re working on. When I was at Greenpeace, which is many years ago now but many years after nukes and whaling had been major issues for Greenpeace, people still thought that was what Greenpeace was working on. In fact Greenpeace was working on climate change and coal and other issues at that point.

Whereas when you’re in business, especially small business, you get a lot more focused on what works now and there is an accountability of your performance.  When I went into business advising large corporations I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t having waffley ideas or big picture long term conversations which weren’t having an impact. The fact that we were engaged in commercial relationships which meant they had to pay us for what we were saying ensured that we were pretty sharp in our focus on the things that made sense for that business right now. And when we weren’t, it meant we lost their business.

CL: As someone who has read a lot of liberal economic ideas, I found that when I read your arguments about relying on the market I had this instinctive reaction of digging my heels in. I wondered if some people in your audience might worry that the capitalist market is misleading or that it’s an evil thing. What’s your response to that?

PG: Really, really important point—because when I say the market I don’t mean Wall Street financial markets and giant corporations. I mean the whole range of all of us as consumers: environmental groups, cooperatives, pressure groups and Naomi Klein’s ideas about brands being very exposed to public opinion and how fast that can change. In that sense the market we have today is not the market we need, but we shouldn’t be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.  We should recognise that for thousands of years humans have traded, exchanged goods, used money as a mechanism for that trading and so on, and have found that to be a very effective way of driving change, generating new ideas, making a living, and doing so as efficiently as possible. When I say markets are a good mechanism, I mean versus a planned socialist economy which I think has proven to be very ineffective at distributing capital and making change happen as we saw in the Soviet Union.

CL: The book reads like the process you went through when you came to these conclusions, and things get really bleak as you describe what the Great Disruption might look like. You even talk about how you started crying in the middle of a presentation at a conference. The knee-jerk reaction is to decide “It’s too late to do anything about it so there’s no point in struggling—let’s just enjoy ourselves while we can and wait for the crisis to hit.” How do you get past that point?

PG: It’s really hard. [laughs] It’s quite challenging because you have to accept the reality of where we are. Expecting that we are going to change in time to prevent the crisis is denial, basically. There’s no evidence that says we’re going to change fast enough. The change is happening now and the crisis is upon us.  Food prices are spiking, oil prices are spiking, and I think the system is clearly creaking under the pressure of civilisation as we speak today. We’re not going to prevent the crisis. It’s just not going to happen.

Having said that, when the crisis is accepted and when we respond to it, what we do between now and then and what we’ve done for the last fifty years is incredibly important. When the crisis hits it’s not like right then we have a conversation. We respond rapidly and with a sense of panic as well as a sense of crisis. The more we’re prepared, the more we know what we need to do and the more we understand what was coming and don’t freak out, which is really important. So I say to people that everything we’re doing now is the right thing to be doing. We just need to be doing it with an understanding that things are going to change rapidly when they do change, and therefore let’s get away from the idea of incremental change or steady-as-she-goes transformation. Let’s recognise it’s going to be dramatic when it comes, and therefore not restrict ourselves in our thinking as to what’s possible.

The danger of what happens now is that people get browbeaten into asking for less and less because they have to be realistic or recognise what’s possible.  I love quoting Winston Churchill: “We mustn’t ask what is our best; we must ask what is necessary.” What we’re doing now is thinking “Can we achieve two degrees? Can we achieve 450ppm? Is it reasonable to have a global agreement or not?” All those things are wrong because they are based on the idea that we’ve got time to do it. After 30 years of talking about it we haven’t got time to do it. Therefore the only thing between us and the collapse of civilisation is the sort of crisis response I’m talking about. The good news is, therefore we will do that; but the work we do now to get ready for that moment is actually incredibly important to make sure that we minimise the suffering and maximise the transition speed.

CL: You say that climate change deniers should be ignored, that they don’t matter because they’re going to be proved wrong anyway. Is it a waste of time to have public debates about climate change?

PG: That’s a complicated one. It is certainly true that many people are influenced by the sceptics in that debate and there has been a big reduction in the number of people who believe that we need to act on climate change. I guess my point on that is we have not convinced them through logic and science and data, and we’re not going to convince them through logic and science and data.  I use the comparison in the book of the addict. If you’ve got a friend who’s an alcoholic or a drug addict and you have a conversation with them about their health, giving them the evidence that they’re on a slippery slope to a very bad place, it is going to have absolutely zero impact because they know that and they’re in denial about it.

I think it’s important for scientists to keep debating and scepticism in science is a healthy thing, but the idea that we should collectively have a debate at a public level about the science as opposed to what to do about it is a waste of time and probably a distraction in many ways. We should be spending our time planning for what the new economy looks like and starting up the new businesses that will thrive in that context, getting our personal lives in order and ready for a very disruptive time, and building the resilience of our communities. Those actions are a lot stronger, a lot more significant and will have a lot more impact than having fights about the science.

CL: Recently we had an Australian scientist, Professor Cory Bradshaw from Adelaide University, tell us that the kakapo in New Zealand isn’t worth saving and we need to focus our efforts on other things. Do you think we’re going to have to do this kind of conservation triage and abandon a lot of our favourite causes?

PG: We had that argument in Australia around biodiversity protection when Peter Garrett was Environment Minister. We have to recognise that there are systemic threats to biodiversity and that saving this or that particular physical area, which has been the focus of the environmental movement for a very long time, sometimes distracts us from the bigger issues. We are going to have to protect the system as a whole and that’s a different conversation. We have to get to the point where we recognise that we can’t do it all. How much we can do is a lot more than we do today, but I think the system is really profoundly shaking at the moment. We are going to face a climate-driven biodiversity loss on a very large scale and that is going to be our reality, so we have to be careful we allocate resources to the right things.

CL: What implications does this have for groups like Greenpeace?

PG: I’m not one to comment on their strategy now. I actually had a session in Amsterdam with some Greenpeace people to discuss exactly this issue. Without actually going into detail, because it’s not my role to do that, I do think there is a broader issue that applies to all of us including environmental groups. We have to get ready for a pace and a scale of change that is nothing like what we’ve been planning for. Greenpeace, to its credit, has not become so caught up in the day-to-day compromises around climate policy, for example, and has said, “This is about coal, this is about gas, this is about oil; this is about the elimination of certain industries.” They’re prepared to have that conversation and have been attacked strongly for it.

The challenge for environment groups in the coming years is that this is going to become a mainstream economic issue. Therefore the economic and business literacy required in that debate is different. There is going to be a lot of urgency needed around understanding what the economic implications of this issue is now, because that is what’s going to drive the change. Look at the global financial crisis. I’m having this conversation from New York which is the centre of the stupidity of the investment banks. Before that happened if you had said that the US Republican president was going to buy General Motors, nationalise certain banks, invest trillions of dollars in buying dodgy assets and let investment banks pay themselves bonuses… All those things were incomprehensible beforehand and yet became normal immediately after. It is really important to recognise that when the threat is to the economy our response is very different and very fast.

CL: One of the central concepts of the book is something you call the One Degree War, which is a worldwide effort to bring global warming below one degree over the next century. You compare this effort to World War II, saying that we took action and succeeded without any consensus or agreement beforehand. But it seems that the One Degree War is a bigger task than any we’ve faced before, and that’s on top of all the literal wars and catastrophes that we’re dealing with now. What makes you so confident that our human ingenuity will get us through this?

PG: Because of what’s at stake. What was at stake in World War II was actually not a threat to civilisation as such. It was a threat to Western civilisation and our views about freedom and democracy, which are enormously significant and absolutely worth fighting for. The stakes in this one are much larger and the complexity is much greater, but our capacity is also much greater. The way that we are connected through the Internet means that we can change the way we think a lot more quickly than we could have before. The fact that we live in a globalised economy means that a threat to Chinese stability, for example, is a threat to the global economy. We’re interdependent in a way that we weren’t before. Therefore the idea that we can look after ourselves or just withdraw into an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty is a delusion. All the reasons it’s so difficult, all the reasons it’s so complicated, all the reasons that people can’t imagine us doing it increase the motivation to do it.

I’m not being blasé about the crisis. We’re not going to go through this smoothly. We are going to face significant military conflict, global-level famine affecting billions of people, and some pretty unpleasant situations including nationalism and military conflicts and refugees. But if I was talking to you before World War II and painted the picture of 60 million dead, 6 million people wiped out because of their religious beliefs, and a level of conflict, death and devastation across such a large area of the world and involving so many countries in a global conflict fought on numerous fronts—I mean, you’d face that and go, “That’s the end; we’ll never survive that.” I’m not downplaying how bad it’s going to be, but it’s very important that we recognise that if we believe we can get through these sorts of crises, then we’re much more likely to get through these sorts of crises. This is a deliberate strategic move that says we have to actually get ourselves into the mental state where we believe it’s possible. Because if we don’t, we’re in danger of that becoming a self-fulfilling sense of doom.

CL: It seems that the key to survival is for people to realise how much danger we’re in and take action at the last minute. My worry is that people in the developing world will feel the effects of a global crisis long before people in Western countries do. You could even argue that if you look at the turmoil in the Middle East right now, it seems that a lot of people already are. Do we just have to accept the fact that poor nations are going to bear the worst of the crisis?

PG: I think it’s actually a lot more complex than we think. If you’re facing a severely destabilising society driven by physical impacts of hurricanes and climate disasters, would you rather be in a city like New Orleans or with the hill tribes of the people of Thailand who are used to looking after themselves and producing their own food and are not expecting that the government is going to service them with everything they need? Yes, on the one hand, we in the rich world are rich and we get all the food that we want. But in the case of one study I saw in the UK, if you take away the oil supply from the UK transport system, there’s no food on the supermarket shelves within four days; and if you take away food, you see collapse very rapidly. Supposing oil suddenly went to two, three, four hundred dollars a barrel, which is completely believable with the political crisis in the Middle East. Then our world looks very shaky, and we’re not used to that lack of resilience.

I don’t want to downplay the truth that food is a much more important issue if you’re poor and that places like Bangladesh are going to face severe physical challenges in terms of stability in their society. But I think it’s a little more complex than the rich will be okay and the poor won’t. It’s going to be a very different world that we come into. Europe thinks it’s isolated from these issues, but if you start putting in three or four hundred million refugees trying to get into Europe, then the political and military consequences of that will be very severe.

CL: You say that you’ve often been the only one in the room who believes what you’re saying. Is there any sign, particularly now that you’ve started your book tour, that people are becoming more receptive to the idea?

PG: I’m stunned by this, actually. When I first had the idea in 2005, even my colleagues in the Cambridge programme and old colleagues in activism thought this was too much, too far. Then when I wrote my first paper on the Great Disruption in 2008 the response was a bit more open but still “No no, not quite, too early, not happening. We can’t have a conversation about economic growth finishing, that’s just too incomprehensible.”

Now I’m getting almost no pushback to the basic idea. I get a lot of pushback on whether we’ll respond adequately, but I don’t get the pushback on the idea that we are now facing a fundamental and profound threat to our economic model. People in the financial markets are talking openly about how they think growth is going to stagnate in the developed world for the foreseeable and indefinite future. We’ve got the Chinese leadership now saying quite openly—and this is very significant—that we need to slow down economic growth in order not to have economic growth destroy itself. That’s a very different idea from what they said previously, which was if we grow too fast the environment will be damaged and therefore our quality of life will be affected. They’re now saying this is a direct causal relationship between growing too fast and not being able to grow.

I don’t think I could have had that conversation two years ago and now I’m having it everywhere I go—and not just talking to environmental audiences. I had a room full of fifty accountants and investment managers the other day in London, and they were saying, “I’m not sure about the timing of this, but the fundamentals of what you’re saying have got a lot of substance.”

CL:  In the end, despite the difficulty of the topic, your book is actually quite optimistic, which I thought was interesting and perhaps difficult for people to accept. What gives you the greatest hope for the future?

PG: Basically, what’s happening now. People everywhere are doing the most extraordinary things. As part of this tour I make a point of meeting with young entrepreneurial companies that are carving out the future. I do it for two reasons—one, I want to support them and encourage what they’re doing, but secondly it makes me feel good. I really get a buzz out of seeing what humans can achieve. Every day my inbox is full of examples of people forming new companies and new business models, social entrepreneurs who are forming non-profit companies and delivering new services, people who are straight-out old-fashioned business entrepreneurs who are doing very disruptive business models that are going to change the shape of a whole range of industries.

What’s possible now is so far ahead of what was possible two or three years ago. Even though we haven’t seen political action at a top-down level, we are seeing a very strong bottom-up movement, like or the One Million Women campaign in Australia. There are lots of examples where people are thinking very differently and taking ownership of the problem. I get a lot of feedback for the book from people saying, “This is what I’m going to do in my life as a result.” They’re thinking about different investment strategies, they’re reducing their debt, they’re thinking about buying less stuff.

That’s what humans do. We respond well in a crisis, personally as well as collectively, and we are capable of shifting. This is basically not a technology problem; this is a thinking problem. We can do what we need to do, we’ve just got to decide to do it and think differently about how to improve our quality of life. That thinking shift as a result of the connectedness of society can happen incredibly quickly, and that’s where I get great hope. This is actually about a leap forward in consciousness and evolution to a new way of thinking and to a new level of civilisation. That’s the sort of opportunity that I think we have before us.

The Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, one of The Lumière Reader’s favourite annual non-film events, runs from May 11-15. Highlights include topical Fatima Bhutto (critic/niece of Zardari, the current Pakistani President), David Mitchell, a session on Antarctica, and Paul Gilding, interviewed here.