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Our Insights 19 Apr 2011

The Great Disruption – Are you ready?

By Paul Gilding

It’s time for all those focusing on sustainability to change gears and review strategy. With the ecological system groaning under the strain of an economy simply too big for the planet, we have to face the uncomfortable truth. The time to act just preventatively has past. It is time to brace for impact as we enter The Great Disruption.

The coming years won’t be pleasant, as our society and economy hits the wall and realigns around what was always an obvious reality: You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Not ‘should not’, or ‘better not’, but cannot.

We can, however, get through what’s ahead – if we prepare. I wrote my book, The Great Disruption, to help us do that. My conclusion is that not only can we make it through, we can come out in better shape.

First, though, back to the present. There are countless analyses and metrics that clearly describe what is happening – our children will look back at what we can see now and ask, “What were you thinking?” One is oil prices, again on the way up. Peak oil, long considered a fringe theory, is now widely acknowledged as inevitable, if not underway.

An even more obvious concern is food. More than anything else, food will come to define our entry into this period because it integrates the full range of sustainability impacts. Food prices, after hovering around long-term highs for several years, are now passing the extreme peaks of 2008 as climate chaos takes hold.

With our population growing and our diets changing, supply was already tight. So, when record heat waves and drought hit Russia, crashing their wheat harvest and leading to an export ban, the global price response was rapid.

Next was Brazil. Soon after the 2005 ‘one in one hundred-year’ drought in the Amazon, came another in 2010, but this time worse. It appears the Amazon, last year, was a dramatic net emitter of greenhouse gases rather than an absorber. Strange days indeed.

But actually not that strange, and certainly not surprising – you increase the thickness of the earth’s blanket and it gets warmer – as we see with an unprecedented 19 countries breaking temperature records in 2010.

Experts from a variety of fields are waking up. Commenting on rising food prices, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times recently: “The evidence does, in fact, suggest that what we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.”

But don’t panic. We will wake up soon, but not because the ecosystem is showing signs of major breakdown. Something much more important to us is now threatened. When you try to create infinite growth on a finite planet, only two things can change: Either the planet gets bigger or the economy stops growing. It’s the end of economic growth that will really get our attention.

There is surprisingly good news in all of this. Humans have long been very good in a crisis. We respond to problems late, but dramatically – and, crucially, effectively. Slow, but not stupid.

This is a good attribute, given what’s coming. We’re going to have to transform our economy very rapidly, including our energy, transport and agricultural systems. This transition – to a zero net CO2 economy – will soon be underway and the business and economic opportunities for those who are ready (and risks to those who aren’t) are hard to overstate.

There’s much more to this than technology, though, with some exciting cultural and political challenges ahead as well. In a growth-constrained world, our current central economic policy of ‘keep calm and carry on shopping’ is looking increasingly wrongheaded. It’s certainly insufficient for continued human development.

So as the crisis hits, change is going to come thick and fast. Change in our economy, in our politics, and in our lives. Change that will be challenging, but that will ultimately lead us to a better place.

So get ready for the ride. The Great Disruption is now underway.

Paul Gilding is an independent writer, advisor and advocate for action on climate change and sustainability, and author of The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.

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