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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 says it's time to stop worrying about climate change; global crisis is no longer avoidable. He believes the Great Disruption started in 2008, as spiking food and oil prices signaled the end of Economic Growth 1.0 based on consumption and waste. Coming decades will see loss, suffering and conflict, but he believes the crisis offers us both an unmatched business opportunity as old industries collapse to be replaced by new ones, and a chance to replace our addiction to growth with an ethic of sustainability.

Gilding has been involved with activist campaigns on a wide variety of issues and served as executive director of Greenpeace Australia and Greenpeace International. He founded Ecos Corporation in 1995, consulting to some of the world's largest corporations on issues of sustainability until its sale in 2008. Gilding's first book is The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.

Terrence McNally: Could you briefly talk about your path to the work you do today?

Paul Gilding: I started as an activist really very young. Age 14, 15, I got involved in a variety of issues and went on from there through 19 years of traditional activism, more on the human social side than the environmental side. Then through the late '70s to early '80s, I got involved in the anti-nuclear weapons and nuclear war movement. That led to a greater understanding of environmental issues, which then led to Greenpeace and very focused direct-action campaigns against corporate pollution. I ended up head of Greenpeace International.

I left there in the mid '90s, focused on the role of markets and companies. How could we mobilize the power of markets as a force for good in this area? For the next 15 years I focused on that question, working in the corporate sector, running two companies that I built. Really trying to see if you can drive change through business -- from the point of view of self-interest, recognizing that business is driven by making money. That's their core metric.

Then about four or five years ago, I came to the conclusion that we really had done our best in the environmental and social change movements, but the ecological and system pressures we'd brought to bear on the global ecosystem were now in full flight. Change is going to be unstoppable.

I guess the critical thing for me is being open to new ideas, looking at people from all walks of life, and not seeing myself as NGO or business or academic or whatever. Trying all the time not to get ideological or get caught up in my own beliefs too much -- being open to persuasion, discussion, debate and confrontation. Including with my own ideas -- to make sure I was doing the best I could do.

TM: You even spent some time in the military.

PG: While I was in the Australian Air Force, I became involved in anti-nuclear weapons activism. I had this very bizarre period, where I was serving in the Australian military Monday to Friday and spending my weekends in protests against visiting nuclear-armed warships from the US.

TM: So you've played many roles and looked at things from many points of view.

PG: I've tried really hard to do that. Always meeting new people, different people in different walks of life, and trying to understand where they were coming from, rather than taking a predetermined view. I see most people are good and bad, people behave well, people behave badly. I don't see any consistent pattern because someone's in the NGO community or in business or in government. No. I think people are people and we should try and be open to persuading people from all walks of life.

That doesn't mean all people are good. It doesn't mean we don't confront and get angry about bad behavior. But it does mean we're open to persuasion, and listening to different points of view. My life is about driving change. My life is about influencing the world, and I want to maximize that influence, not just feel good about my personal opinions.

TM: On opening day this year's TED conference scheduled two talks, one right after the other. Yours was the first, titled "The Earth Is Full." You asked questions like, have we used up all our resources? Have we filled up all the little space on earth? You suggested we have, with the possibility of devastating consequences.

You were followed by Peter Diamantes, head of the X-Prize Foundation and author of Abundance, the Future Is Better Than You Think. It seemed to me that TED was positioning you as opposing views or at least yin and yang. While I can see the differences between your perspectives, especially about the past or the diagnosis, it seems to me you are absolutely in agreement that now is the time for huge advances.

Your assessment of that day, the juxtaposition of your talks, and the audience and web response to what went on?

PG: It was quite an event because TED is techno-optimist heaven. The people who go are great believers in technology and dramatic change, which I am as well, I should point out. But there is also an undercurrent of skepticism about people who talk about the problems. I was brought in by the TED organizers to confront that point of view and I certainly did that. It led to a great debate that carried on all week at the conference.

I'm certainly a great advocate for technology. I'm very excited about the solar industry right now, which is rolling out an incredible rate of growth and dramatically reducing prices. But there's a sort of naiveté I think in some sectors of the technology community that actually believes therefore we won't have a problem.

The only place I disagree with Peter Diamandis is that I think there will be a crisis. I think there will be major economic dislocation, and then we will achieve extraordinary technological and social change -- but not until the crisis really starts to take hold. I think the techno-optimist's view of the world is that there is no problem that technology can't fix. That may be true over time, but there are consequences in the meantime.

If we have a major ecological economic crisis, people will suffer; there will be consequences; there will be refugees; there will be countries that it's very difficult to live in; there will be food crises, and so on. Technology will come to the rescue in a way as part of the solution, but behavior change, different economic models, different approaches to doing business -- these are equally important. I put technology into a basket of solutions, and think it's going to be a pretty rough ride as we move between these eras.

TM: Here's a quote from your TED talk: "Things will get ugly and it will happen soon, certainly in our lifetime, but we are more than capable of getting through everything that's coming." You say "we" are more than capable of getting through it, but aren't millions of us going to suffer and die early, on the way to "we" coming through that?

PG: I think the "we" really refers to we as a collective civilization of humanity. People will suffer, and not just in developing countries by the way. I think there is going to be a lot of dislocation in Western countries. If systems break down; if services aren't provided; if we have a global food crisis due to extreme weather -- where would you rather be, with the hill tribes of Thailand or in the streets of New Orleans?

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.

It's important to differentiate that from being not sustainable because it's "not nice" or "not fair" or because "it's bad for polar bears." It's not sustainable in the simple physical sense of supply of resources.

We're using up our capital. If, for example, land area of soil is not strong enough to sustain current food production, then the soil is being degraded. We're not running out of food yet but we're degrading aquifers. We're depleting water supply, we're depleting soil quality, and we're polluting the air with CO2 and other gases. The essence of the problem is that, whether it's the millennium ecosystem assessment; the Stockholm Resilience Center's work on planetary boundaries; the Nicholas Stern report on climate change; or the Global Footprint Network, everybody who looks at the whole global system comes to the same conclusion. We're not behaving sustainably. We're using our resources faster than the earth can provide them.

TM: You point out that it's not just that we have to figure out how to deal with using 150 percent of Earth's capacity, but also that -- between population growth and economic growth -- we're aiming to multiply that number by two, four or six times.

PG: Correct, this is where the math becomes unarguable in my view. The simple math of 3 percent growth per year -- which is forecast in the long term globally, remembering that China is growing at 8 or 9 percent -- means a global economy four times this size by 2050. So even allowing for improvements in efficiency and renewable energy and a whole range of ways to improve resource consumption, we'll need three or four Earths by 2050.

My point is not that that's unpleasant, not that it's bad for biodiversity, which it certainly is, my point is: It's not possible.

There won't be enough resources for the economy to grow that much, and, therefore, the economy won't grow that much. That is actually a very big social crisis because our economic system depends upon growth to sustain employment and social stability and so on. We have to recognize that we have not just an environmental problem but a fundamental human problem.

TM: Your subtitle reads "Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World." But more than a climate crisis, you're talking about an entire integrated system falling apart. I suspect there are people who might not react as much to climate change as to the whole system breaking down. Oil prices have shot through the roof, food prices have led to uprisings, the Eurozone is in grave danger, etc. Might more people be reached and motivated by the notion that the system is breaking down than by the threat of climate change?

PG: "It's the economy, stupid." People respond when their personal economic situation looks bad or at risk. When the economy goes bad, we throw out governments, we try new things.

I refer you to Lester Brown's excellent work at the Earth Policy Institute. The food supply and the water supply are under threat in many countries. The Chinese are buying up farm land in other countries. This sort of economic stress on the system will soon come home to roost. The crisis in Europe and the US debt crisis are all part of the same system problem. We are desperate for more growth, so desperate to get the economy moving in terms of consumption of resources that we borrow from the future to make it happen today.

Richard Heinberg wrote a very important book recently called The End of Growth, in which he points out that the economic growth we're getting today in most Western countries is not real growth. It's actually debt that governments have borrowed from our children and are spending today to keep economies going.

TM: You compare our response to climate change to our response to Hitler. That's highly provocative. I've mentioned it to friends who react rather strongly. Why do you think it's a fair comparison?

PG: I think there are very few examples in history where we have genuinely felt existentially threatened, and Hitler was one of those. From a social perspective, from the point of view of freedom, from the point of view of basic morality and ethics, everything that Hitler stood for confronted the very essence of our beliefs. Therefore, if you ask how much we were prepared to expend our energy, our finances, and our mental, physical and organizational capacities in response, the answer was "whatever it took."

Climate change and the broader issues of resource constraint are going to be the same. We are facing an absolutely existential threat to our civilization. Many forecasts show that if we don't address climate change very strongly, if we don't get the food supply system under control, if we don't stop consuming resources at this rate -- we are facing a genuine collapse of civilization. I don't mean the end of humanity as a species. I mean the end of civilization as we know it, and a breakdown of society, and a sustained period of what James Kunstler calls "The Long Emergency."

When else have we felt that everything we stood for was under threat? The answer is Hitler, the answer is WWII. The mobilization that we need in response is comparable. And unfortunately, same as with Hitler, we won't respond until the crisis is so in our face it's undeniable. The good news is that when we do respond, it will be on a comparable scale.

TM: You make the point that the evidence for climate change has been accumulating for years and is now irrefutable, yet there are still many in denial. Prior to Pearl Harbor, the evidence of Hitler's threat had likewise accumulated; yet there was denial. Acknowledgment meant a second world war, which the US and others wanted to avoid. In the current case, the choice of slowing down and turning back growth is seen as similarly negative by many.

PG: No one questions the ability of the United States to mobilize when it gets its act together. A quote from Winston Churchill is one of my favorites, "The US can always be relied upon to do the right thing, after it's exhausted all other possibilities." We're hoping that the technology revolution, the social revolution and the financial investment will be led by the US.

If it doesn't happen, I think that means the decline of the US as a world power. The future is now so clear and China and others are moving ahead so fast. I think we are at the sort of very special moment in history when big decisions are being made that will have an impact for a good century to come.

TM: You're from Australia. From your outsider perspective, why is the US slower to move to clean energy in the kind of forceful way that Germany or China have?

PG: We have a bit of this behavior in Australia as well. The US is so addicted to oil, so addicted to coal and fossil fuels and cheap energy, that denial becomes stronger. Per capita CO2 emissions on a numerical basis are higher than almost anywhere in the world -- apart from Australia it should be pointed out -- and therefore the change must be bigger. When the change is bigger, when the impact is greater, the denial gets stronger.

You see with alcoholics and other forms of addiction, when people change, they change dramatically, but not until the consequences are getting very severe. That's what I think is happening in America today. The denial has become so extreme, so ridiculous and so anti-science, that I think we are going to see a change happen very quickly when it does happen.

TM: Let me ask again about your outsider perspective on the US. Many, myself included, believe that the US system of politics and government has changed over the past few decades. Nixon, a Republican, for instance, signed the bill creating the EPA. That kind of thing would seem impossible today. What does it look like has happened and how much tougher does that make our challenge?

PG: A central issue in the US is inequality, in terms of political power, in terms of financial benefit and so on. There has been this very great concentration of wealth and power in a small number of people. That's not inherently structurally imposed by democracy; it's just the way the development of this society has turned out. There used to be a greater sense of responsibility to the greater good, I guess. We had many great Republicans in history in the US who did things because they were the right thing to do without regard for political consequences. Now that sort of behavior is rare. I've many Republican friends who lament that change. It's not a Republican versus Democrat issue. A cultural issue inside the society and inside the Republican party has driven that process.

But it is eminently changeable. Politics is, as Al Gore says, a renewable resource. We can see politics change very fast. As we saw with the Occupy Wall Street movement -- one of the most interesting things to happen in the US in a very long time -- we do see the attitudes of the public change very rapidly.

As a bunch of leaders in the Middle East learned recently, toppled from office by social movements that arose apparently from nowhere. We saw it with the fall of the Berlin Wall. We do see political change happen rapidly in many parts of the world, and I think we'll see a change here in the US as well. The US still has an opportunity to lead in this area and do so quite dramatically.

Even though we don't see those signals today, this is a country that went from George Bush to Barack Obama -- the capacity for change is quite extraordinary. And yes, many have been disappointed with how much Barack Obama has achieved, compared to the hope, but the capacity of the people to demand change I think is as strong as it ever was. You have to have the right constellation of forces happening at the right time, and I think that will occur.

TM: You wrote: "Occupy Wall Street is simply the kid in the fairy tale saying what everyone knows but has until now been afraid to say, the emperor has no clothes, we have system failure." You describe how society will move through denial and anger, finally to acceptance. Turnabout will happen after acceptance of reality. Do you want to speak about that?

PG: We tend to get caught up, as we have in this conversation, in the fascination with the size of the crisis and the complexity of the problem and the fact that we have system failure. But that can be paralyzing if we don't immediately move on, as we are right now, to the fact that humans are very good in a crisis. As we discussed earlier, when things go bad, we do well. When we get focused, we achieve extraordinary things very quickly.

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.

TM: The book The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett makes that case.

PG: If we're extremely unequal, then we all suffer. Not only that, but research on consumerism has found that once you get to a certain point, more stuff doesn't make you happier. Social scientists say that once you get your basic needs met, you may work harder, you may get more money, you may buy more stuff, but your average quality of life does not improve. So the system isn't working for us anyway.

We need to make our societies more equal; we need to have greater opportunity for the poor; and the rich need to realize that more money doesn't actually improve their lives. We need to recognize that less consumption, spending more time helping each other, more time learning, more time involved in community, these are the behaviors that actually bring a better quality of life. That's why I argue that the crisis that's coming will lead to a better world than the one we have today.

TM: You mention Schumpeter's idea of creative destruction. It is usually thought as economic destruction where a corporation or an industry fails and is replaced by a new one. But implicit in what you're saying is that creative destruction applies to society as well. The model that we have lived under will be destroyed and there will be pain, but the shift will be movement forward for the species.

PG: I would add to that, let's think in terms of the evolution of higher consciousness as well. Let's recognize that we continue -- as we have had since we were monkeys -- to evolve to a better, more civilized place. This is the path we're still on. That's why I think we should recognize this is not about defending something old. In this process, we are actually building something new.

Interviewer Terrence McNally hosts Free Forum on KPFK 90.7FM, Los Angeles and WBA I99.5FM, New York (streaming at kpfk.org and wbai.org). He also advises non-profits and foundations on communications. Visit terrencemcnally.net for podcasts of all interviews and more.

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