I just finished reading a book called The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World by Paul Gilding (2011), and want to share my thoughts on it.
First of all, the title — seems a bit frivolous, right? Well, if you read the book, that feeling will stay with you.
Gilding has it right that we’re headed for the biggest crisis, on many fronts, ever to face humanity, driven by climate change, peak oil, etc. His optimism about our responding to it with some degree of success appears to be founded on nothing more than wishful thinking, however (“we’ll make it because we have to”). Gilding thinks our collective denial about the cliff we’re approaching will be dispelled all at once and once and for all by one or more global disasters (we won’t be the frog that gets cooked), and then we’ll all roll up our sleeves and use the very tools that got us into the soup in the first place – corporate capitalism, our supposed democracy, and our oh-so-powerful lifestyle choices – to makes things as right as we can by then.
I don’t think so. Some good things may happen that we didn’t think would – Gildings’ current favorite is electric cars stealing the transportation market while oil companies are crowing about shale oil – but, absent revolutionary changes in our views about politics, economics, society, and, yes, even spirituality, because that’s what underpins everything – we’re going over that cliff. Things could get really ugly really soon; in fact, they already are: we are the frog in the pot. (I know I’m mixing metaphors with pots and cliffs, but things are bad enough that we really are frogs boiling alive going over a cliff.)
I think the following facts say it all: Gilding is pals with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, someone I can’t read without ranting and raving in response; he believes we live in a democracy and can affect these kinds of outcomes by who we vote for; and he dismisses Marx in one sentence by bringing up the history of the Soviet Union. He does think we should do something about the growing economic inequality in our country and around the world, but he doesn’t explain exactly what or how (it seems to be voluntary), and he doesn’t think actual equality, or anything close to it, would be a good idea for the same old tiresome reason – that we need monetary rewards to do good things.
I’d only be in total despair about all this if I thought everyone was buying these simplistic ideas. I think a lot of us have read and are reading the writing on the wall correctly. We just need to get together and start making systemic changes (lifestyle doesn’t cut it) on whatever levels we can. The current system, which rewards those running it handsomely, will resist us, violently if necessary, but what’s the alternative? Just lying down and letting all the worst happen? There won’t be a good explanation for the grandchildren, if we and they survive to be asked what we “did in the war.” One of the first steps (to be done briefly) is pointing out the flaws in system optimism like Gilding’s.
One interesting quote from the book: “Food price rises in 2007 and 2008 drove countries concerned about security of supply to invest in agricultural land in other countries. While foreign investment in agriculture isn’t new, what’s different this time is an emphasis by some states on controlling land and growing food exclusively for export to the investing country. One study by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and international NGOs found that in the five African countries of Ethiopia, Ghana, Madagascar, Mali, and Sudan, 2.5 million hectares of agricultural land were acquired by foreign investors between 2004 and 2009. This staggering figure represents almost half the arable land in the United Kingdom – but only a fraction of the land involved internationally. One estimate by the International Food Policy Research Institute put the total figure at 30 million hectares in 2009. Another estimate by the Oakland Institute puts the total at 50 million hectares, an area equivalent to all the arable land in China. Prominent examples include an attempt by China to secure 3 million hectares for palm oil production in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a signed deal for a South Korean company to grow wheat on 690,000 hectares in Sudan, and a large Saudi fund focused on buying up or long-term leasing foreign agricultural land. When food runs low, the foreign power has control over the land and the rights to its produce – media reports already indicate that Pakistan plans to deploy 100,000 troops to defend foreign-owned farms.”
Of course, this is insane – Ethiopia and Sudan are well-known areas of recurrent widespread famine due to drought, which will only become worse with climate change. But it’s a logical outgrowth of our current insane system in which people starve to death every day not because there isn’t enough food, but because they don’t have the money to buy it. When our little children find out that this is the case, they’re incredulous, say it’s wrong, and want to change it. But somehow as we get older, most of us lose that inherent, “idealistic” sense of right and wrong. We become acculturated into the current insane-but-not-inevitable way of thinking and addicted to its material “rewards.”
I enjoy being able to watch TV shows and movies on my laptop computer, for example. But I’d much rather be sitting around a fire with my tribe. I do that once in a while by special arrangement with likeminded friends and family. But in another kind of society I could be doing it every day and night. The real versus the virtual…