A Must Read: The Great Disruption

I read sustainability articles voraciously, in part to stay current since I work in the field, and in part because survival of the planet and its many species is near and dear to my heart and I want to know what’s going on. Of late, articles on “sustainable consumption” are in vogue and obviously reflect where the sustainability conversation is headed. While I couldn’t agree more that we need a new economic model—one that is not dependent on continuous growth based on selling more stuff to more consumers and one that changes the corporate sector focus from quarterly earnings to some longer time frame—I can’t help wondering if the pace at which we are moving is really fast enough. Are we headed for more than a climate change crises and towards a global economic or capitalism crisis?

Some thought leaders (although clearly not all) who spend far more time than I do thinking about these things are predicting the latter scenario, as Paul Gilding explains in his 2011 book, The Great Disruption. Subtitled, “Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World,” Gilding’s analysis and predictions are hard to argue with. As he demonstrates with rigorous analysis, we are already living as though we had 1.4 planet’s worth of resources. In other words, we have already surpassed the earth’s natural carrying capacity.

Short of a mid-course (or one might argue late-course) correction that is dramatic enough to reverse the consequences of where we are today, let alone where we are headed at the pace of change we’re currently making, we will be forced to make extraordinarily difficult changes abruptly. While he paints a picture that is anything but pretty, he also makes a logical, well-considered argument that when a critical number of us recognize we are in crisis, governments, corporations, NGOs, and even individuals will take action and mobilize fast. In other words, we will have no choice but to deal with the unintended consequences of a global economy based entirely on continuous growth. When push really comes to shove, we will unite as the intelligent species we actually are and implement aggressive solutions with resolve and precision.

To drive his point home, Gilding also references Joseph Schumpeter’s work. As many of you know, Schumpeter is the highly respected Austrian-Hungarian-American economist who popularized the concept of creative destruction, a theory upon which many successful companies have based their innovation strategies. I quote from the book:  “Schumpeter’s creative destruction means that many of our current companies simply won’t make it, though many will. It also means that a good proportion of the world’s top one hundred companies in twenty years’ time are names you haven’t heard of yet but exist today and are champing at the bit for the race to start and the opportunity to knock over some of the old players.  This is exactly what markets are good at. What the final shape of all this will be, with what technologies, what companies and which countries end up winners and losers, is full of uncertainty, but the outcome is not. When we act, we will eliminate net CO2e emissions from the economy in an amazingly fast transformation and then move on to the rest of sustainability.” And, he closes that passage with a refrain he uses throughout the book, to describe mankind and our response to the environmental warning signs: “Slow but not stupid.”

Although I read it on vacation and actually got excited and energized by it, most of you will probably not consider it great leisure time reading. But, I suggest it is a must read for serious sustainability practitioners.


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