‘Take care! Hot noontide sleeps upon the fields. Do not sing! Soft! The world is perfect’.
~Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra
It may be the gloomiest TED talk ever. In 2012, the Australian environmentalist Paul Gilding stood before a packed house at Long Beach, California, and explained how a catastrophic economic crisis is inevitable. Gilding calls it The Great Disruption. Gilding’s choice of title reflects his optimistic view that our societies can navigate this crisis and emerge renewed on the other side. If this optimism is misplaced, we’re facing The Great Collapse. The crisis, Gilding explains, is being ‘triggered by humanity passing the limits of the earth’s capacity to provide cheap resources, especially soil, climate and water’. Gilding cites the research of the Global Footprint Network, which calculates that we need 1.5 planet Earths to sustain the global economy at its current levels. With a business as usual mindset in Washington DC, and astounding economic growth in China, India, and other parts of the developing world, a full-scale ecosystemic meltdown is unavoidable. Gilding is frank about the consequences: ‘[W]hat happens when you operate a [finite] system past its limits … is that the system stops working and breaks down. This is what will happen to us’.
Gilding’s argument, while persuasive, is neither original nor new. The argument was first articulated by the Club of Rome in its paper on the limits to growth in the 1970s. Recently, Annie Leonard reiterated the thesis in The Story of Stuff: ‘[W]e live on a finite planet and you can not run a linear system on a finite planet indefinitely’. In 2013, with record heatwaves about the world and weather-related disasters shocking climate deniers out of their complacency, the implications of this idea seem to be sinking in. The GFC reminded us what happens when we live beyond our means. The Great Disruption will remind us that our economies and societies have been drawing down on planetary ecosystems for one hundred and fifty years and giving nothing back. We’ve been stacking up an ecosystemic overdraft. Sooner or later, we’ll have to pay the debt. [Read more…]