“The earth is full.” So begins this book about the coming Great Disruption to our economy, our way of life and our planet. Gilding’s message is that we, human beings, are living above our means – our resource use and pollution emissions are (as of 2011) 140% of what the earth can provide and absorb. Increasing population and economic growth cause that number to continually increase. We cannot grow our economy infinitely on a finite planet. The only solution is to change our economy and the principles on which it is based. This will not be a matter of choice. There are 2 alternatives – begin changing our economy now to a sustainable, steady-state economy or face the inevitable catastrophic consequences of not changing – economic, societal and ecological collapse.
The steady-state economy is not just what we have now but without growth, which would come at huge social cost, but a completely redesigned economy that does not require growth. To get there, we need to reduce consumption, poverty and inequity. Rich individuals and countries will have to be satisfied with less, which will make us all happier, so that those now living in desperate poverty can achieve a materially adequate standard of living. The pie will not get bigger so we have to distribute what we have more equitably.
Gilding paints a bleak picture of where we are now and why change is imperative. However, he is confident the change will come because there will be no choice when multiple crises hit and because, historically, humans do not react until our backs are against the wall. He draws many parallels between the current situation and the response we achieved to the critical challenges of World War II. Our backs will again be against the wall. The next 40 years will be a rough ride but Gilding believes we will come out on the other side of the disruption with a happier, healthier and sustainable society and a more fully evolved humanity.
This book was published in 2011 – after the 2008 financial crisis (which he describes as the beginning of the Great Disruption) but before ISIS, the growth in fracking and the 2015 Paris COP21 talks. Despite the 5-year time lapse, the message is still valid, only even more urgent. Gilding has overall confidence in the markets (which I find a little naïve) but insists there must be much more government control and intervention.
The book is well written and quite easy to read; the arguments are compelling. It is an excellent introduction to the many facets of climate change, resource depletion and sustainable economics. I came away both depressed and optimistic. Depressed because we have had 40 years to address these issues and have done absolutely nothing so the situation is now dire; optimistic because of the argument that now that our backs are against the wall, change will happen; and depressed again that if it takes the predicted 4 decades, the new world will arrive too late for me. Already a senior citizen, I will endure the pain of that 4 decades of disruption and upheaval without enjoying the ensuing benefits. Particularly annoying because I have been preaching this message for 30 or 40 years, to no avail.