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System Failure: We Are Approaching the End of Society As We Know It -- And That May Be a Good Thing

Paul Gilding talks about his new book, "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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People in developing countries who are very poor -- I don't mean extreme poverty on the brink of starvation, but the billions who live in very poor conditions but are relatively self sufficient -- they're used to not having any support. In many ways they're in a more resilient position than those of us in the West who depend upon the supermarket shelves being full; who depend upon having a job; who depend upon the government being there to maintain security. It's more complex than the rich will be okay and the poor will suffer.

TM: We have people in developed countries talking about wanting to get off the grid. There are still millions in the world, billions perhaps, who have never been on the grid.

I recommend a book, A Paradise Built in Hell by Rebecca Solnit. She looked at what happened in New Orleans after Katrina, and saw that, rather than people turning ugly, they came together. Then she looked at the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and found the same thing. She examined six different cases where places have been hit by enormous disasters. Despite what we see on the news, pushed to the wall, people respond with compassion and cooperation.

PG: To simplify things: with humans, when things are going well, we behave badly; when things are going badly, we behave well. We look around at this selfish consumer society we see today and think that humans are somehow the lesser for it. The reality is that when crises hit, we come together very effectively and very quickly. During war, during natural disasters. The tsunami and the nuclear disaster brought out the best in the Japanese people. That's not just good luck; it's an evolutionary tendency. Without it, disasters would have brought us down as a civilization. We have survived and flourished because when things get tough, we look after each other.

In a funny kind of way, my pessimistic view about the coming crisis is an optimistic view about the future of humanity. The bigger the crisis, the better we'll behave. Not universally of course. There is always some looting and people behaving very badly for a variety of reasons, but on average we come together and we help each other to succeed and to survive and to flourish. As I said at the end of the TED talk, this could be our finest hour for our generation, because the opportunity is going to be so great to turn things around.

TM: To establish that we have reached our limits, you refer to the findings of the Global Footprint Network that it takes about 1.5 Earths to sustain the current global economy. What does that mean? And how did they arrive at that figure?

PG: This is a really very exciting bit of work done by some very eminent scientists organized around an NGO called the Global Footprint Network. Their Web site shows their scientific advisory board and their methodology in great detail. To summarize, they worked out how much land area would we need to sustain this economy. How much forest would we need to grow to absorb the CO2? How much ocean do we need to support global fisheries? How much land do we need to filter the water that we use? How much land do we need for growing the food? ... and so on.

They translated all of our economic system needs into land area, and their conclusion was that we're running about 50 percent past capacity. That's one methodology. Everybody who looks at it from any methodology comes to the same conclusion, which is that our current economic model is not sustainable in a physical sense.

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