NPR has Paul Gilding on The Great Disruption, Romm on The Great Ponzi Scheme

[For those who have the time, I’d certainly be interested in feedback on my remarks.]

The folks at the NPR show “On Point,” read Friedman’s column in which he quoted Gilding and me (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme, are we all Bernie Madoffs, and what comes next? Part 1“).

So if you click here, you can listen to an hour interview starting with

Paul Gilding, former executive director of Greenpeace International and founder of the environmental consulting firm ECOS. He’s now an independent writer, advisor and advocate for issues of sustainability and climate change. He first wrote about the idea of a “Great Disruption” in 2005.

I come on about halfway through, but this is really the first time I have ever elaborated on the Ponzi scheme notion in a talk or interview — so I’d be interested in any feedback.

But Gilding has been explaining his perspective for a number of years, so he is well worth listening to, I think.

20 Responses to NPR has Paul Gilding on The Great Disruption, Romm on The Great Ponzi Scheme

  1. Oxnardprof says:

    I applaud your analysis relative to the Ponzi Scheme. I have felt for some time that the response to climate change will not be easy, and will require a rethinking of our world economy, etc. I will take the time later to listen to your on-point interview, but for now, just comment on the ‘ponzi’ concept.

    We have developed great wealth in the US, borrowing from future generations, for the most part unknowingly. We have made progress in balancing growth and environment (include worker health in this concept) but have allowed this progress to let ourselves slide.

    The current approach to combatting climate change is suspect, to me. The on-air advertisements ask us to switch to CFL’s or buy efficient washers and dryers – but this does not represent a change in lifestyle that will reduce CO2 emissions long-term.

    We need a discussion of what variables should be used to measure wealth beyond dollars earned? What variables define success beyond material posessions? How can we understand the cost of a product beyond the dollars to purchase?

    From this, I think you can see my thread; we need new definitions of success, wealth, value, etc that will be ultamitely supportable. We need real targets for water use, carbon footprint, etc that will support future generations.

    I do not believe the climate change riddle will be solved without sacrifice. It is not adequate to purchase offsets to allow travel, for example.

  2. Gail says:

    It’s terrific that Friedman wrote that column, and that it is getting radio coverage on NPR. You were excellent, Joe! Did you and Paul deliberately side-step the human population question? hmmmm? just askin’….

  3. James Newberry says:

    Hi Joe,

    Have not heard the program yet so just two quick comments.

    1) The field of ecological economics is decades old. Our country has been running instead on the fuels of war and a fraudulent economic paradigm that supports this agenda which is based on plutocratic, corporatized, transnational decision making. This is not representative democracy or a republic of the people.

    2) A new eco-nomics could be developed when we realize the difference between Matter and Energy, the two phenomena on Earth. For example, coal is matter, it is not truly an energy resource at all.

  4. Will Greene says:

    Great job Joe. I loved your point that in the grand scheme, saving the climate will be cheap relative to what we and future generations stand to lose. Opponents of cap and trade are saying energy bills will go through the roof. So we pay $150 to go to a football game with a friend (I love sports btw), or $300 for a video game counsel, but we aren’t willing to pay somewhat larger monthly electric bills for clean energy? Something is wrong with our priorities if that is the case. The answer to this problem is education. Al Gore has done a tremendous job, but his “bully pulpit” has been about used up. Obama needs to schedule a nationally televised address in which he will sit with someone like James Hansen, who will lay out the plain facts to the masses. Obama can’t say the stark truths, because he has to worry about being re-elected. But he can put someone else in front of the camera who will. I guess the latter is mostly fantasy, but that was a great show, you did an excellent job, and Gilding was very interesting as well.

  5. Gail says:

    of course, I don’t think these predictions take into account the looming famine, pestilence and disease.

  6. Joe, you take to the audio medium very well.

    Maybe you should record some audio or video of some interviews for this site.

  7. Alex 77 says:

    Joe –

    Minor correction – the NPR show is called “On Point (with Tom Ashbrook)”…you have it listed as “To the Point.”

  8. I was impressed how consistent your message was with Paul’s. Tom Ashbrook continues to tickle my ire by never straying far from conventional wisdom and the journalistic shrine to moderation and centrism.

    I think it would have been more fun if some callers had challenged you. As it was, all I could hear was the conservatives and deniers-out-of-fear shrieking “Chicken Little!” and scratching their heads over how these lefties want to spend billions on renewable energy when we’re moulting jobs.

    Although the argument about happiness not being about stuff is a fantastic rebuttal to the “lower standard of living” complaint, stating hard truths like the necessity of a reduced material standard of living, without softening the blow at all, I think is more likely to make Americans recoil than “stand up”. A more effective strategy might be to present climate activism as coolly normal, while reminding that without appropriate policy there will be such a reduction in standard of living. That prods people to action while still acknowledging the trending toward monumental change for the worse.

    While your Ponzi scheme metaphor/reality might leave some incredulous (sounds a little Kunstler-like), I think it’s fantastic. Keep up the good work.

  9. Jamie says:

    Joe, I just heard the On Point interview, and I am glad that this topic is getting the attention of mass media.
    As a young farmer, I somewhat lament the comments made about not returning to an agrarian society. While the world’s urban population now equals the world’s rural population and continues to grow, I agree that we are not likely to return to a primarily rural-based society. However, I argue that, no matter how urban we become, we are an agricultural-based society, as long as we eat. While I understand where you are coming from with the statement that we will not return to an agrarian society, I think that this statement perpetuates negative connotations with agrarianism, farming, and agriculture in general — the very thing upon which our survival is based.
    Secondly, and on a somewhat related note, I am continually frustrated by the absence of any mention of agriculture in discussions on climate change. While in the long run we must certainly end our reliance on fossil fuels, increase energy efficiency and curb our consumption, we can, in the short term, have a drastic impact on atmospheric carbon levels, and thus global climate change, by adjusting our agricultural practices to support carbon sequestration (rather than stripping the soils of carbon and contributing to rising atmospheric carbon levels, as is the more common practice). Yes, in the long run, we need to reduce our overall carbon emissions, but in the meantime — to tide us over until we can reach those goals of reduction — we can simply increase the removal of carbon from the atmosphere and deposit it in our soils (by way of the plants which are our crops), quickly halting climate change and increasing our soil fertility to boot!
    Carbon Farmers of America ( is an organization based in Vermont that focuses on carbon sequestration, and they have a good deal of information regarding the role of agriculture in halting climate change. There are a number of articles, including some on Keyline Design (a method of land design that enables us to rapidly build topsoil, increasing soil carbon, and thus decreasing atmospheric carbon).
    Another relevant organization is Holistic Management International (see Some of the comments from On Point like “determining what we really value” and “readjusting our standards of living” rather than “lowering” it were reminiscent of Holistic Management. HM is basically a method of making decisions that is most often applied to land management, but is equally relevant to people who are less land-linked (because when it comes down to it, we are all land-linked). The HMI website has a page on “Solving Global Climate Change” as well.
    Thanks for all your good work. Keep it up!

  10. paulm says:

    Confusion sets in…where do we spend our energy:) & resources (bailout money err, credit)?

    If we can’t stop change, we must adapt
    Today’s meeting of climate change scientists in Copenhagen shows that mitigation alone is not the answer

    Given the evidence from Copenhagen, it makes many wonder why so many green groups and activists have a habit of focusing on mitigation first and foremost and then deride those who call for a more balanced or holistic approach. After all, their limited view is potentially perilous, as it’s sucking away resources and political attention from two other fundamental areas – how we adapt to climate change and how we clean up and restore the habitats we’ve already destroyed.

  11. Gail says:

    Jamie, it is the sustainable growers of food that will help us find the path to survival, such as it exists. In all the discussion about climate change – dislocation, habitat, wildlife loss – the growing of food is the most critical.

    I am but a lowly backyard dilettante but you as a professional farmer have the authority, and I encourage you to share your knowledge far and wide, we will need it.

  12. hapa says:

    i thought the interview was clear, informative, and fresh. considering the magnitude — *IF* talking about an earth-sized ponzi scheme has a weakness as an argument — is an earth-sized confidence game as hard to picture as things like “a trillion” or “the ocean” or “death”? is the phrase meaningful at that scale?

    i always like hearing people talk about the future in terms of real numbers of years. the sense that it will happen, how one imagines a kid growing up or a loan being paid off (or forgiven!) or some other venture coming to fruition. if we do the good stuff, the time ahead will be like so; if we do not do the good stuff, it will still be real time, with hours and days, and it will be like so.

  13. tidal says:

    ACCKKK!!!! Don’t know where to post this, but I am listening to Lord Stern’s address to the Climate Conference in Copenhagen today. He references Bill Nordhaus’ DICE model. He asks what the model predicts for economic damage – i.e. reduction in GDP – for a global increase in temperature of 19C? He repeats “Nineteen. One-nine degrees C.”

    The DICE answer? A ludicrous 50% decline in GDP.

    God help us. The oceans would have evaporated away, we would all be dead, but global GDP would decline by a mere 50%.

    Stern does a good job, though. Although he does say that part of the failing of the economists is that the scientists have not impressed upon them strongly enough about the risks.

  14. tidal says:

    One Stern turn of phrase I liked, talking about BAU and 4-5C change: “This is not a Black Swan. This is not a small probability of a rather unattractive outcome. This a big probability of a devastating outcome. We have to get this across much more clearly than we have done.”

  15. ids says:

    You say Obama is off to a “good start.” Better to tell the truth and characterize it as a “weak start” on curbing climate change. Essentially, O is business as usual to date.

    You say people wait for heart attacks to change, and we’re still waiting. We’ve had Katrina with masssive population displacement, severe droughts, floods, wildfires, tornado outbreaks, etc. We’ve had the “heart attacks.” We are the lung cancer patients who continue to smoke.

  16. Greg Robie says:

    Hello BRIGHT GREEN (BG) Joe! As a dark green (DG) I’ve put back on my shades, or is it hearing protectors, to muffle the economic optimism you and Paul espoused in your interview. It may be possible to market oneself as a consultant when holding such a view and make a living (and/or speak three times in one week), but to grow a sustainable economy from within the debt-based, fiat currency enabled, central bank manipulated (ah, poorly, BTW), externalizing, extracting, and exploiting economic paradigm of global capitalism that has destroyed and cannibalized the value of the credit it is based on, you’ve got to show me the math to avoid being labeled, at lest in my mind’s eye, as being duped by BG motivated reasoning.

    Has the math that the eco-nomic “good news” you guys espoused is based on been updated to incorporate the observed economic conditions we are now in? Just as the International Scientific Congress on Climate Change this week is updating the IPCC data, is there a need for a International Economic Congress on Climate Change? In terms of wealth distribution, I believe it is only the wealthy that can, by example, break the paradigm we are locked in; marching lockstep into climaticide together through. With you guys saying there is a way forward with little or no pain, all I can wonder is what you are selling. Remember, the poor will do what they need to do to survive . . . including blowing themselves up to deliver an unheard message. The classism that I heard in the interview saddened me deeply (and in all fairness, it is not just in this interview). It frames most of the reporting of western MSM.

    The original vision of the cap and trade model was intended to be an economic dynamic that would cause a transfer of technology and wealth from the developed to the undeveloped world so, and for the sake of us all and a sustainable climate, the global poor could be part of the global economy as humans with dignity and respect (and this is in the eyes, hearts, minds, language, and actions of the developed world) . If you intened to communicate the central-ness of environmental, social and economic justice for the poor I did not hear it. If you have not thought about it, I think you should. Our children and grandchildren, which I did hear you name, will also be our poor children and grandchildren in the impoverished would we have bequeathed them.*

    And speaking of thinking, Paul, in particular, used “thinking” a lot when I think was speaking of feelings. Anyway, good luck with your presentation, and message, tonight. Being BG may fill up your dance card in a way being DG never will, but as scientists, the facts are the facts, the math is the math, and to be right may mean you go home alone.

    PS: If it is any consolation, we are likely just following in our parents’ “good” example as the cartoon “The Reading of the Will,” by Tom Toles, then of the “Buffalo News,” captured as being us Boomer’s conundrum back in 1987. To a group sitting before him expectantly, a lawyer is reading a will. It says:

    Dear kids,

We, the generation in power since World War II, seem to have used up pretty much everything ourselves. We kind of drained all the resources out of our manufacturing industries, so there’s not much left there. The beautiful old buildings that were built to last for centuries, we tore down and replaced with characterless but inexpensive structures, and you can have them. Except everything we built has a lifespan about the same as ours, so, like the interstate highway system we built, they’re all falling apart now and you’ll have to deal with that. We used up as much of our natural resources as we could, without providing for renewable ones, so you’re probably only good until about a week from Thursday. We did build a generous Social Security and pension system, but that was just for us. In fact, the only really durable thing we built was toxic dumps. You can have those. So think of your inheritance as a challenge. The challenge of starting from scratch. You can begin as soon as–oh, one last thing–as soon as you pay off the two trillion dollar debt we left you.

  17. paulm says:

    What kind of ponzi scheme is this…print your own money to pay interest with it?

    Time to buy gold. Quick look on the markets – lots of others are thinking that too. Ouch.

    China ‘Worried’ Over Safety of U.S. Debt, Wen Says

    “We have lent a huge amount of money to the United States,” Wen said at a press briefing in Beijing today after the annual meeting of the legislature. “Of course we are concerned about the safety of our assets. To be honest, I am a little bit worried. I request the U.S. to maintain its good credit, to honor its promises and to guarantee the safety of China’s assets.”

  18. jon wott says:

    Joe, thks for this – I’ll catch it in a little while..

    I’d no idea you’d have an interest in the madoff..

    from memory didn’t you work in the Clinton administation.? If so and the interest and/or opportunity is there folks would be interested I think in the mid-90s on when a good deal of bad blood existed between bankers and the administration. Twas a time of BT all stoked up in NY and angry at not making retail because their derivs profits had become enormous.. and others were pushing for the Glass Steagall repeal.. it occurs to me that Madoff’s ponzi billions would have been well-started at around that time and financial’s temperament all set to push them ..

  19. Greg Robie says:

    I woke up this morning thinking about what the Boomer generation’s version of the Tole cartoon would be. How does this read? Any corrections and/or additions?


Dear kids,


We, the generation, called Boomers, have followed in our parents’ footsteps. We, too, seem to have used up pretty much everything ourselves. We’ve continued to drain all the resources out of our manufacturing industries, so there’s even less left there. We’ve given ourselves unsound credit to fund our unsustainable lifestyles based on “Stuff,” and destroyed the financial sector to do so, so good luck rebuilding it. The beautiful old buildings that were built to last for centuries, like our parents, we tore down more to make room for more characterless but inexpensive structures (that we extended lots of credit on). You can have them (and the consequences of the bad credit). We’ve paved over open land to build strip malls to shop for “Stuff” in and office parks to oversee our over consumption. You can have those emptying buildings as well. Except everything we built has a lifespan about the same as ours, so, like the interstate highway system our parents built, everything is falling apart now, and you’ll have to deal with that. While our parents used up as much of our natural resources as they could, and while we did too, figuring out how to get more out of what they didn’t use up, we sort of crashed the climate in the process. So you can mine our “stuff” for what you will need . . . until the unfolding climate change drives human society into chaos. That generous Social Security and pension system our parents built, that was just for them, we’ve busted them with our credit ponzi scheme (and did this even before we would have done so demographically). In fact, the only really durable thing we inherated was our parents’ toxic dumps. We’re passing them on to you (along with global mean surface temperature rises, sea-level rise, ocean ice and ice sheet destabilization, ocean acidification, and extreme climatic events). So think of your inheritance as a challenge. The challenge of starting from scratch. You can begin as soon as–oh, one last thing–as soon as you convince the Chinese that the $52.7 trillion debt and unfunded obligations (as of 2007!) we left you means that your credit is good for more.

    The Boomers’ response to the 1987 version of this cartoon was “Gee thanks,” the aside was “P.S. We’re not dead. We’re enjoying our pensions and Social Security.” The response to this Boomer will is likely an expletive needing deletion. What, though, would be the post script? We’re, also, not dead, but given our legacy, we might as well be. We’ve created this mess. Can we seriously take, and become, responsible for it? Here is a haiku that is my attempt to capture our challenge:


    deadly serious
    truly, how can it become
    lived-ly serious

    © 3/12/09 greg robie

  20. Greg Robie says:

    PS: The link to “The Story of Stuff” is corrupted in the link for the 1st “Stuff” of above post. That link is: