Book Review: The Great Disruption

I finished reading The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding recently. I heard Paul speak to a small audience at the World Resources Institute (WRI) in DC and from the moment he started I was drawn in.

I found the premise compelling, albeit challenging from a societal and environmental perspective. The book though is an accessible read.  But will the book be a relic of another well meaning but misinformed theory, or does it represent one of the voices we are going to wish we had listened to?

Paul actually addresses that question from the get go. He accepts people are not going to listen. One of the main stays of his premise is that society is not going to act in advance, with forethought and with planning. Hence, the title .  Rather we are going to crash up against the wall of insufficient global resources a few times and kid ourselves we can breakthrough it to continue on a path of continual growth before we  see reality.  He anticipates the need for some redistribution of wealth and an end to the prevailing model of growth.  If he is right, it is hard not to agree that society will not be prepared to make an orderly transition.

Subtitled “Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World”,    Paul takes our independent understandings of what is going on with   economic, environmental and human behavior and weaves them together into a compelling and interrelated whole. It helped me to reconcile many things I have written about before, but did not know how to pull together holistically.

My grossly simplified summary of Paul’s premise is; our current economic model is premised on growth; the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the earth’s environment;  the earth is more than full; therefore we need a new economic model that is premised on steady state; because of human nature and because significant redistribution of wealth is required, we won’t act on this until we are forced to (The Great Disruption); but then we have the human capacity to respond; steady state economy = the end of shopping. QED.

BT’s Climate Stabilization Intensity target (I think one of the most sophisticated targets of any company) is premised on achieving economic growth and climate stabilization.   Many enlightened people and companies talk about de-linking economic growth from energy growth as the answer to our biggest problems. Paul doesn’t believe it will not be enough. We need to stop aspiring to economic growth and be happy with steady state.   If correct, in retrospect, Paul’s premise will make even our current ‘enlightened’ objectives appear naïve, or even delusional.

Paul tells it like he sees it.   Calling for a new economic model and redistribution of wealth are tough messages to share if you want readership and support from most  influencers and decision makers whose wellbeing is invested (as is mine) in the status quo. But to help overcome this massive barrier Paul also does something that I really appreciated, which is to draw out a positive model for a future society within the scenario he paints.

But Paul’s is only one of many possible scenarios.  I have to remind myself that as much as it fits many of my preconceptions of how things are likely progress (and in my mind it is probably one of the better possible outcomes) and as much as it is a compelling and self consistent narrative, that alone doesn’t “make it so”.

At Paul’s presentation at the WRI, “a friend of mine” who shall remain nameless (Chatham House rules applied) asked Paul what they, as the employee of a big company should do if they supported his scenario.  “If I go into work on Monday” this person said, “and tell my colleagues we have to stop growing, I will be out of a job before the end of the day.”  Not surprisingly Paul’s advice was not to do that, but rather to start to prepare the business to be one that would thrive in not just a low carbon economy, but in a steady state economy too.

I don’t know how to judge whether Paul’s predicted timescales are right. The five years or so he predicts is certainly very soon, and as the book refers, when we look out the window and when we walk the shopping mall, our senses tell us that things are pretty much fine.

My critiques: I wish there had been more opportunity in the book for Paul to articulate what a steady state economy would look like (he does provide references though). I disagree with Paul’s conclusion about the end of shopping.  I think we may see a drastic decline in the acquisition of goods manufactured from raw materials, but I can see that being replaced with a world of shopping based on better organized reuse and exchange.

None of this undermines the underlying premise of the book though.

Read The Great Disruption. I hope that in the near future we will see many more such scenarios emerge to allow society to judge which we want the most, and for us all to work towards it in an orderly fashion. I find the arguments Paul presents for his particular scenario to be very compelling.

 Postscript August 17 2011 – I just read an article from Saunday’s New York Times Magazine titled “A Darker Shade of Green”.   So many parallels to the Great Disruption it deserves a blog post of its own if I can get to it.   If I do, I will link it from here. you can read the NYT piece here

  1. Comments 5

  2. Michael Sadowski 10:03 am on June 15, 2011

    Nice review Kevin, and it didn't spoil the book too much for me (I'm about 1/4 way through). Certainly depressing thus far, and I must admit that I do have confidence that the human race will figure this out (perhaps I am naive, but why else would I do the work that I do). We of course are hampered by how economic well-being is measured, and this has been called out by too many people for too many decades. With our current constructs (e.g. GDP), we're not going to get to the type of economy we need - one that rewards actors for consuming less and better. May post again after I finish. Michael

  3. KevinMoss 10:54 am on June 15, 2011

    Thanks Michael, for the avoidance of doubt, Paul doesn't suggest the human race won't be able to fiugure this out, but that we will need some hefty kicks to the head (my words not his) before we are willing to make the changes neccesary. Please do post again when you have finished. I would love to know how your take on the book differes from mine. It has had an unsettling, but I hope ultimately constructive impact on my thinking.

  4. Jeff Erikson 1:52 pm on June 28, 2011

    Kevin, A great review/commentary on The Great Disruption. I was struck particularly by the choice you laid out in the second paragraph: "...will the book be a relic of another well meaning but misinformed theory, or does it represent one of the voices we are going to wish we had listened to." You imply, intentionally or not, that we won't change our behaviors or our economic model, as the book indicates we must. Sadly, I agree with the implication, and I agree with much of the book's conclusions. Yet if I really believed this will happen, and in the timeframe Paul indicates, I should be taking all of my money out of the stock market and stick it under a mattress. Yet I haven't done that, nor do I intend to. Is that optimism, or inertia? For those of us working in the field of sustainability, The Great Disruption provides both the motivation and the information to make us more effective at driving the change we all desire.

  5. KevinMoss 3:28 pm on June 28, 2011

    Jeff, I am in the same place. I wonder if it is safety in numbers. Better to be wrong with everyone else than risk being wrong alone. Thanks for adding your thoughts.

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