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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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It's not just hopeful or wishful thinking, I think it's rooted in historical evidence of how humans behave and how societies behave. That's why I am fundamentally very optimistic that once we recognize we face an existential threat to our civilization, we will achieve extraordinary things.

We'll solve the problems and we'll address the causes, and we'll do that with amazing capacity and incredible creativity. We'll look back and wonder, of course, why we didn't do it earlier. But we will come out of this in better shape as a society.

TM: You have written, "Hope is a stance, it's a belief system I choose to work within because it's more effective, it makes me feel better, and, most importantly, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela did not win by advocating despair." You've said the most important issue we face is when the denial breaks, do we respond with despair or with hope? Hope for what?

PG: Hope for the capacity of humans to respond as much as we need to to achieve the objective. If, when we face a crisis, we revert to fear, that will lead to nationalism, to breakdown, to a dog-eat-dog response. Many people fear that, but I think there's evidence in history that the dominant response is one of self-protection, but on a large scale and acting for the greater good.

With Nelson Mandela, the ANC slogan was "freedom in our lifetime," a very tangible direct goal. The whole process of the civil rights movement was about "I have a dream" not "I have a nightmare." If we believe that humans are capable of acting together for the greater good, if we believe that we're capable of the technological transformation we need to eliminate fossil fuels relatively quickly, then we'll do it. Belief is actually a very important part of the process.

TM: You advocate the "One Percent War Plan" as the technological and behavioral shift needed. Very briefly, what does it look like?

PG: Climate scientists tell us that 2 percent warming causes catastrophic system breakdown, and that 1 percent warming above pre-industrial averages is the level we can cope with. It still has bad consequences, but we're not at risk of system breakdown. I put together the One Percent War Plan with Jurgen Randers from Norway, one of the authors of The Limits to Growth in 1972. Working with the MIT system models we asked, "What does 1 percent of warming look like and what would it take to achieve it?"

We were amazed how fast and how cheaply we could achieve that level of change. We could cut climate emissions 50 percent in the first five years and eliminate them on a net basis within 20. It does require sacrifice, it does require rationing and price controls and so on, but that, as we saw in WWII, can be managed -- if we do it the right way with the right level of political support. You can read the details, but in summary, we can transform our economy with proven technology at an affordable cost and with existing political structures. The only thing we need to change is how we think and feel.

TM: You lay out the practical steps in The Great Disruption. Let's turn to the second part of the subtitle -- "A Better World." Can you speak a bit about the positive sides of this?

PG: Important research in recent years has shown that societies with greater inequality are actually unhappier societies and have worse social outcomes even for the richest people in those societies. That's very important.

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