"“The Earth Is Full”: Tom Friedman on “The Great Disruption”"
First, here’s the opening of Friedman’s op-ed, “The Earth Is Full,” currently the most e-mailed piece on the NY Times website:
You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?
“The only answer can be denial,” argues Paul Gilding, the veteran Australian environmentalist-entrepreneur, who described this moment in a new book called “The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World.” “When you are surrounded by something so big that requires you to change everything about the way you think and see the world, then denial is the natural response. But the longer we wait, the bigger the response required.”
Long-time readers remember Paul Gilding, former executive director of Greenpeace International, from Tom Friedman’s 2009 column on how the global economy is a Ponzi scheme. I was quoted in that column, too, and as a result, I have gotten to know him. I interviewed him earlier in the year and will post a couple of clips below.
The entire Friedman piece is worth reading, though. Here’s more:
Gilding cites the work of the Global Footprint Network, an alliance of scientists, which calculates how many “planet Earths” we need to sustain our current growth rates. G.F.N. measures how much land and water area we need to produce the resources we consume and absorb our waste, using prevailing technology. On the whole, says G.F.N., we are currently growing at a rate that is using up the Earth’s resources far faster than they can be sustainably replenished, so we are eating into the future. Right now, global growth is using about 1.5 Earths. “Having only one planet makes this a rather significant problem,” says Gilding.
This is not science fiction. This is what happens when our system of growth and the system of nature hit the wall at once. While in Yemen last year, I saw a tanker truck delivering water in the capital, Sana. Why? Because Sana could be the first big city in the world to run out of water, within a decade. That is what happens when one generation in one country lives at 150 percent of sustainable capacity.
“If you cut down more trees than you grow, you run out of trees,” writes Gilding. “If you put additional nitrogen into a water system, you change the type and quantity of life that water can support. If you thicken the Earth’s CO2 blanket, the Earth gets warmer. If you do all these and many more things at once, you change the way the whole system of planet Earth behaves, with social, economic, and life support impacts. This is not speculation; this is high school science.”
It is also current affairs. “In China’s thousands of years of civilization, the conflict between humankind and nature has never been as serious as it is today,” China’s environment minister, Zhou Shengxian, said recently. “The depletion, deterioration and exhaustion of resources and the worsening ecological environment have become bottlenecks and grave impediments to the nation’s economic and social development.” What China’s minister is telling us, says Gilding, is that “the Earth is full. We are now using so many resources and putting out so much waste into the Earth that we have reached some kind of limit, given current technologies. The economy is going to have to get smaller in terms of physical impact.”
We will not change systems, though, without a crisis. But don’t worry, we’re getting there.
On a visit from down-under, Gilding came by my house a while back for a chat. I taped some “Lip camera” video interviews of him about his new book. As you can see from the sub-title, Gilding is an optimist, though a certain kind of optimist.
He doesn’t think averting catastrophic global warming will be easy, and he expects there to be many disasters along the way, but he believes we can — and will — avoid the complete collapse of civilization through a World-War-II-scale effort, since the alternative is almost beyond imagining and certainly beyond what people euphemistically call “adaptation.” He told me, “You can’t just have an adaptation strategy. There’s no chance of that working.”
In this first video, he talks about the unbelievable drought and then equally unbelievable flooding that hit his home country of Australia, and why he remains optimistic in spite of that:
Failure to remake the economy is just not an option. Fortunately, the solution, though not easy, is eminently doable, and that should be “reassuring,” he says:
When I say reassuring, this is against the scale of the collapse of civilization. Not reassuring as in “all will be okay” but reassuring as in if we get this wrong, we are talking about global economic collapse and the potential for breakdown in a very serious way of civilization. That’s what I think we can still prevent.
In Part 2 he gives some of his personal background, explaining how his work with Greenpeace and corporations gave him confidence that the problem is solvable and affordable, and why it’s the end of shopping:
We know how to fix it. We know what technologies. They’re all available now. They’re all affordable.
Here’s how Friedman ends his piece:
Gilding is actually an eco-optimist. As the impact of the imminent Great Disruption hits us, he says, “our response will be proportionally dramatic, mobilizing as we do in war. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy, including our energy and transport industries, in just a few short decades.”We will realize, he predicts, that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less. “How many people,” Gilding asks, “lie on their death bed and say, ‘I wish I had worked harder or built more shareholder value,’ and how many say, ‘I wish I had gone to more ballgames, read more books to my kids, taken more walks?’ To do that, you need a growth model based on giving people more time to enjoy life, but with less stuff.”
Sounds utopian? Gilding insists he is a realist.
“We are heading for a crisis-driven choice,” he says. “We either allow collapse to overtake us or develop a new sustainable economic model. We will choose the latter. We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”
Hmm. The ecological jury is out on that last sentence.
Technically, we are the subspecies Homo sapiens sapiens, as I’ve said before (see “Is the global economy a Ponzi scheme?“). Such are the privileges of being the only species that gets to name all the species, so we can call ourselves “wise” twice! But given how we have been destroying the planet’s livability, I think at the very least we should drop one of the “sapiens.” And, perhaps provisionally, we should put the other one in quotes, so we are Homo “sapiens” sapiens at least until we see whether we are smart enough to save ourselves from ourselves.
- “The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”
Below are the earlier comments from the Facebook commenting system:
“The Earth Is Full”: Tom Friedman on “The Great Disruption”.
I have a question. I have read Gilding’s book, but don’t have it at hand. I recall his saying that once we emit less, the earth will quit warming pretty quickly. This is contrary to what I have heard and believed before. Is he right? What is the evidence one way or the other. I have been under the impression that at any time there’s maybe twenty more years of warming in the pipeline from what we have already emitted. It would be nice to be told that that’s wrong and Gilding is right.
Planting many billions of trees and using biochar technologies and other carbon sequestration techniques can remove great quantities of CO2 from the atmosphere. Stop burning fossil fuels and then sequester C02.
· June 8 at 9:49pm
Hi Doug. NOAA and Susan Solomon (among others) have been very clear about this. It takes up to 1000 years to naturally process CO2 out of the atmosphere. When and wherever we stop, we will be stuck on that level for up to a millennium. The elevator is always going up and we can choose to hop off on any floor and live there, with those level of problems. This bottleneck at the other end of the CO2 pipe is known as the “clogged bathtub effect”.
Here is the NOAA press release for the very important 2009 published paper:
And here is the paper itself:
· June 8 at 10:26pm
We’re far beyond emitting less as a solution, especially given trends in BRIC countries.
90% of our oxygen comes from green algae in the ocean. If we can genetically engineer a tomatoe to be the size of a pumpkin, why can’t we genetically engineer green algae that sucks in 5x the carbon and expells 5x the oxygen?
Something like that isn’t without its own plethora of problems, but engineering some method to reverse the changes in the atmosphere that we are causing today would seem to be more prudent than trying to get a global consensus on halting emissions, especially since our current capitalist model is based on the race to the bottom.
· June 9 at 9:57am
Yes, that’s why we have to start putting carbon back underground:
Wikipedia: BECCS (Bioenergy with carbon capture and strorage)
<blockquote> Bio-energy with carbon capture and storage (BECCS) is a greenhouse gas mitigation technology which produces negative carbon emissions by combining biomass use with geologic carbon capture and storage. It was pointed out in the IPCC Fourth Assessment Report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as a key technology for reaching low carbon dioxide atmospheric concentration targets. The negative emissions that can be produced by BECCS has been estimated by the Royal Society to be equivalent to a 50 to 150 ppm decrease in global atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations and according to the International Energy Agency, the BLUE map climate change mitigation scenario calls for more than 2 gigatonnes of negative CO2 emissions per year with BECCS in 2050.</blockquote>
· June 9 at 10:00am
I have the same question as Doug. That is, if we were to stop emitting CO2 tomorrow how much more warming would we get from what we have right now?
· June 9 at 12:16pm
Uuummm. Well. I applaud what Paul is doing, and I “enjoyed” the Friedman piece, although that’s probably not quite the right word when reading stuff like this. But I wonder if Paul’s optimism is justified. It doesn’t seem to me like he’s read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”. It doesn’t seem to me that he’s watched “Dr. Strangelove”.
He’s correct, of course, that on average, average people are “in denial”. But I’m not sure that the right way to characterize what Rupert Murdoch, the Kochs, and Rex Tillerson are doing is to see it as a result of “denial”. One of Diamond’s points, if I remember it right, is that sometimes, different echelons of society (from a power-economic standpoint) get very self-focused and try to defend and maximize their own interests, even as they see the harms taking place and society-at-large falling apart around them. “Each man for himself!” So it’s not at all clear that, as a society, we will ultimately act smartly (rather than foolishly), even as the signs are clear and we’re knee deep in “the muck”, so to speak. The notion that, when crisis strikes, we’ll wake up and become smart is pretty simplistic, and given the nature of the crises we’ll likely face (if we can’t find the will to address them before-hand), I think (unfortunately) that our responses may not be as smart as they’ll need to be.
It strikes me as interesting that Rupert Murdoch is Australian, isn’t he? Despite what is happening TO Australia, Murdoch doesn’t seem much interested in doing what he could (and should) be doing to loudly raise awareness about climate change. So how does Paul’s optimism account for the fact that there are, apparently, many Rupert Murdoch types at the controls of the media, influencing the government, and so forth? Is Rupert Murdoch in “denial”, or is the real problem that he simply thinks that narrow self-interest wins and that his family and friends will do fine (they’ll move North and to higher ground)? Besides (I’ve heard many people say or imply this), the world will be “better” if the natural crises can winnow-down human population to around a half-billion. (The people who say this casually usually do so under the condition that they and theirs will be among the surviving few.) Again, watch the end of Dr. Strangelove to “appreciate” how some people think. The same powerful men that destroy society rather like the idea that they’ll be the ones who can continue living: indeed, they see themselves as the ones who will “save” the human race by taking it upon themselves to reproduce with as many young fertile women as possible, after the calamity (which they caused) strikes.
Funny considering Friedman made his name peddling the crazy Flat Earth b.s. that’s accelerating the crisis.
Thankyou for saying that. I don’t understand how the guy who made a giant career out of telling us the inevitability of globalization & and the magic beauty of the ‘free markets’ is now a leading voice in climate change activism? He spent a great deal of his time advocating the infinite growth GDP model…the same model that is tearing our world to pieces and destroying our Eco-systems. Did I miss something? Did he come into the light? Repent and realize globalization was a terrible idea, and now understands the future is all about small scale local economies? I would think he has very low credibility on the subject of sustainability.
Mr. Gilding made a lot of vague optimistic statements involving the future and how it’s supposed to play out. All the while with a kind of goofy smile on his face. Compared to the Clathrate Gun and the Arctic Tundra’s releases, as well as the guardians piece on 2010 GHG output, many of his voiced opinions just didn’t seem to be based in the science we receive here. I hope this isn’t a trend (although I’m sure it will be) where we gravitate toward the most ‘feel good’ solutions, as opposed to the one’s science states has the best chance in mitigation.
· June 9 at 1:37pm
PS: though not related to this topic/Friedman also supported the invasion of Iraq/ so the guy who supported economic policies that devastate our Eco-systems is now a climate activist, then I guess next he’ll be a spokesman for world peace.
· June 9 at 2:29pm
Lemmon, your comment that Paul Gilding’s “vague optimistic statements involving the future and how it’s supposed to play out.” are more than vague; they are naïve. Is there anyone among us who does not cling to the hope we can figure this out and respond in time? And, there is his weakest part of his approach: he does not have a time line….except to say there will be a collective ‘awakening’ to how bad things have become and how rapidly we ‘collectively’ turn things around.
I have read his book and find it provides some helpful information but not too helpful messaging.
Paul mentions negative feedbacks superficially and ignores completely the global economic condition that is ‘collectively’ robbing we from our wealth….those of us who have some wealth. And, he dismisses the global warming in the pipeline.
Timeline: less than a decade b before Arctic amplification kicks tundra and permafrost into GHG emissions overdrive….Hansen, et.al.
Fiscal resources to expense the turnaround: No help from the US Congress there…..federal debt is $62 TRILLION when we consider all the unfunded mandates for which the fed is liable. Increasing cost of energy and food throughout the world makes it more difficult for consumers to line up for new ultra-efficient and EV autos, buildings, appliances and homes.
I am not saying we pack it in and await the apocalypse. Rather, I am critical of Paul’s un-engineered optimism that WE (who are the WE he keeps referring to) will have the time, capital, political will and the smarts to save our bacon.
Yes, we are slow (probably not stupid..unless you think real hard about how some of our political leadership acts, from time to time, and we are really, really slow and very stubborn. And then WE, in this instance, are the collective population of the GHG-emitting countries.
Paul sells his ideas to corporations and they are not looking for the inevitable…they want expanded markets. If Paul addressed the Society of Mechanical Engineers and challenged them to get us to the place he envisions…after the awakening….the engineers would have a hard time drawing up the plans to save our sinking ship.
Less effusive optimism. More reality. That’s what we need more of.
· June 9 at 3:36pm
And at what point exactly does Mr Gilding think “the powers that be” will decide that there is a crisis and decide to respond meaningfully? By now would have been encouraging…
Paul Gilding has hope. There is a cure for that: read Desdemona Despair (http://www.desdemonadespair.net/). Also too, this article about presidential candidate, anti-science, anti-evolution Rick Santorum, “the true conservative”: http://www.politicususa.com/en/rick-santorum-climate-change.
and then tell me we’re not stupid!
Doug Burke, amplifying feedbacks have already begun and are unstoppable (melting ice and permafrost, the dying carbon sink of forests, and the acidification of the ocean). Plus, if we stop emitting CO2 by burning fuel (which we should) don’t forget that the aerosols will also go away, allowing for much faster heating.
See the documentary about Global Dimming, with an interview with Peter Cox of the UK Met office here: http://witsendnj.blogspot.com/2010/12/insidious-soup.html.
Just added “The Great Disruption” by Paul Gilding to my summer reading list. You just might want to also.I suspect that it won’t be a comfortable read but a very necessary one all the same.
Fascinating confluence of events. I decide to take a break from my morning reading and discover that Friedman and Dr. Romm are writing about the very book I’m reading.
I recommend it, especially for those of you who, like me, are on the verge of losing hope. Although I’m not completely convinced Gilding is correct and that “collapse” can be averted, it’s nice to know that not only is he hopeful, he outlines the reasons for his hopefullness and the path he believes we will follow. Gilding has a much higher opinion of basic human nature than I do.
I take some issue with his assessment in his use of WWII as a metaphor, as he notes how the United States responded in dramatic and unheard of ways to threats posed by the Axis Powers in the ’40s. The problem, I think, is that the United States was able to respond as it did precisely because it was not being pummeled in the way Europe and China were during the war and we were able to create a war-fighting economy relatively isolated from the destruction going on around the world. The sustainability and climate crises will not provide us that luxury; we will be (are) in the midst of the same destructive forces as everyone else. (Gilding admits that we will have to create a new social/economic order in the midst of unprecedented catastrophes, much like building an aircraft carrier from scratch… at sea… in a hurricane, and his optimism supports his view.)
Thanks. as always, to Joe and Tom Friedman for spreading the word about this important book. When I finish it, I’ll let you know if I’m more optimistic than I am now.
I read his book too. It seems to me that Mr. Gilding’s hope represents a leap of faith in the ultimate inherent wisdom of our species/culture to do the right thing. Perhaps he is right that there will be some sudden shift in consciousness but I I see no evidence at present of such a shift. If anything I see the paradoxical situation where the denial of the reality of climate change increases as the the very impacts of it become ever more apparent to climatologists and other scientists.
· June 9 at 9:01am
Although I tend more towards the pessimism side myself, Paul Hawken’s book Blessed Unrest makes a pretty compelling case that there is a change in consciousnesses well underway. He argues that there is a distributed global network of activists working on mostly local issues that, taken as a whole, represent what he calls “the largest movement in the world.” Well worth the read if you need a hope recharge.
June 9 at 11:16am
Each ton of fossil fuel burned will add one hundred thousand times its heat of combustion to the biosphere as greenhouse heating. If we destabilize the methane hydrates, this greenhouse multiplier effect could end up being millions of times the useful heat of combustion.
That’s the main problem. The earth can deal with the rest.
We are perfectly capable of constructing a technology which does not kill the biosphere, and living quite wealthy and happy lives, for all of the population of the earth, and it’s projected population growth.
But we can’t do that and keep burning fossil fuels.
The problem with reading synthesizers like Friedman is that sometimes you get the wrong synthesis. You get the “earth is finite” synthesis which lumps fossil fuel combustion, with its tremendous multiplier effects, in with problems which have only linear effects.
The truth is, the earth could support several times the population we have now- if we do it right. A perfectly functional and rich society based on solar and wind energy, and recycled materials, could be constructed.
The ecological footprint calculations are misleading, I think. That assumption “using current technology” ignores what could easily and scientifically be done to solve our current problems.
I have a few issues which your comment but perhaps the biggest one is that you seem to be equating technology with energy. While I have no doubt that green technologies will help us in the long term to get to where we need to be in terms of reducing CO2 emissions I think we need to change our economic system to truly decarbonize. The challenge it seems is that the window of opportunity for us to avoid major tipping points in the global climate (assuming we have not already done so) is to start rapidly reducing carbon emissions today not 20 or 30 years out when by themselves they may make little difference in climate outcomes.
Secondly your questioning of the validity of the “earth is finite” hypothesis seems to be based on the idea that the issue of fossil fuels and their impact can be isolated from other economic activities. In fact the two are deeply intertwined and activities in one area impact the activities in other areas.
Ultimately, I think what you are arguing is that we punt the issue and solution to some ever distant future. Unfortunately that approach is part of what has gotten us into the problem we have today.
June 9 at 9:55am
Oh, no, not at all. We need very drastic action now, I think, a rapid phase out of fossil fuels, and a massive WWII style effort to switch to renewables. We also need to transform the coal fired power plants to use Biomass Energy with Carbon Capture and Storage to put carbon back underground, to stabilize the system, I think.
The main point of my comments is that fossil fuels and climate change itself are the main problems. We can deal with all the rest, I think. But the tremendous greenhouse multiplier effects of fossil fuels make them unique.
I do question the validity of the “earth is finite” talking point, mainly because it is much more finite in some ways than in others. And climate change is not about depletion of resources so much as it is about multiplier effects.
June 12 at 12:17pm
‘Kill a camel’ to cut pollution concept in Australia.
I do not know if I can add very much to the great comments already posted other than a personal view but try I must. I have spent many a day pondering the fact that this generation may well be the last to see an “infinite” horizon on which to sail. Clearly there are rocks ahead and sailing safely out is no longer an option. Winds and tides preclude that option as surely as night follows day. It is too early to take to the life boats as providence may yet yield a passage, thou clearly many folks are already abandoning ship. The error in their thinking is that those still depend on lifelines of support even as they forsake the ship. Should the ship founder the waters will be foul from horizon to horizon. In the course of my 70 years I have been in many a close call, some even of my own construct, but here I stand. I refuse to give up on the ship just because. Thou I am clearly not captain, I have been on smaller forays, and as all captains know, you do not give up the ship until all are off. (Not an option for space ship earth.) This ship will be battered, masts will crumble, bulkheads will need to be sealed, some even with innocent folks on the other side. Have we unwittingly built a double bottom in our vessel? Will our “fail safe” flotation fail us like the Titanic? Only time will tell. Our radars, sounders and eyes can only see so far and not around corners but we are foolish not to slow our approach. To jettison unnecessary cargo to lighten draft. To bring our best and trusted minds to the bridge. Sharpest eyes to the bow. Surest hand to the helm. Our clearest thoughts to our respective tasks. For even the largest ship can be scuttled by the single incompetence at a crucial moment.
So yes, I share Paul’s optimism as I have helped in my fashion to construct the ship. I know her timbers sound, even as I question the decisions from the bridge. I have taught my children to think for themselves and care for others. I have added extra fastenings where it was my option. I am proud of my companions. I respect all who respect others. Those that help not hinder our passage.
I fight to win… Knowing full well that the ship may founder.
Just as generation upon generation from the dawn of time have done.
Two Palms Up,
Must all comments agree with the article in question? I’ve posted a short comment 2 hours ago that has not appeared here yet.
Quitting shopping and changing our CO2 output isn’t going to prevent more destructive and more numerous tornadoes and hurricanes, reduce the number of acres lost to wildfires every year, end the massive dust bowls and droughts around the world, prevent devastating floods, reduce the high levels and acidity of the oceans nor replace lost water supplies. It won’t stop the melting of the tundra nor the methane hydrates of the shallow seas which will more than make up for our reductions. These things can’t be “fixed” using any technique known to mankind. How can we place a bet on the future for things that we do not even know can ever be fixed by an invention made by our hands?
Its a total and utter pipe dream. No matter how much you think we can deal with these types of situations individually it is almost beyond comprehension how we can respond to them all at once.
Your comment makes no sense. Humans are causing the problem and we can avert the worst impacts but cutting emissions.
June 9 at 1:18pm
We have locked in a certain amount of warming that cannot be stopped, even if we ended all CO2 output today and we are very far away from even slightly reducing our emissions. This amount is already beyond what scientists have been saying is a “safe” level of warming. We will see these types of impacts and they don’t have a fix.
IEA Chief Economist Fatih Birol said:
“I am very worried. This is the worst news on emissions…It is becoming extremely challenging to remain below 2 degrees. The prospect is getting bleaker. That is what the numbers say.”
Its nice to have hope but I for one believe that it is very hard for economies and societies to respond to a relentless assault from climate disasters like we have seen recently. Just ask the Mayans.
June 9 at 1:45pm
Besides I thought the point of this article is that we can respond once disaster is here not how we can prevent future disaster by cutting our emissions. This makes my point even more valid. Waiting until the climate is so bad that it forces us to change makes an assumption that the disasters are solvable problems. As I lay out how do you “solve” a higher frequency and intensity of tornadoes? Their impacts to our economies and societies are a constant not a variable.
June 9 at 1:53pm
It sounds good. Paul Gilding even makes it sound possible. But without a plan we risk getting ourselves into another situation where our demand for resources, the resources necessary for this new system that will “…completely [transform] our economy, including our energy and transport industries”, overwhelms Earth’s reserves. It sounds big. A complete transformation will require a lot of resources. But, since Mr Gilding is so optimistic he must have done the research and is completely convinced we have all the resources we need to accomplish this massive, never-been-done before effort.
Myth: our climate will quickly recover after we end fossil fuel use. I don’t believe it! That’s why I call it a myth.
Several studies definitely say this is not the case and one study I’m familiar with says that we will enjoy 1000 more years of sea level rise and climate disruption. But I understand why an author might want to sell the idea that ending GHG emissions will quickly result in a restored climate.
I have always been suspicious of this call for a WWII style effort to end GHG emissions and construct this new ‘system’.
We know how to fight wars. Heck we are in two right now and they are a massive burden on the economy and contribute considerably to our national debt but we never before tried to completely change the world economy and revolutionize how we generate electricity. So I sure hope someone has a plan and this plan had better not include a WWII style effort do deal with “population surge.”.
By the end of WWII the US had accrued a massive debt. Currently, right now, our debt is a larger percent of our GDP than it was at the end of WWII. The war ended in a few years…how long will the WWII type effort need to go on for? How much debt can we tolerate?
Oh, we are still paying for the original WWII. Making those bombs left a nightmare of pollution that we are still cleaning up and that clean-up is very expensive.
Dr.A.Jagadeesh Nellore(AP), India.
People are truly in denial, in illusion and blinded by chase of material world – endless needs to shop for something latest – items which they thought can bring happiness. The real thing is they fail to plan for their future – trusting someone else will do the planning for them such as their Goverment or World leaders will take care of the problems with environment and food shortage – while they the ordinary people are lost in chasing for more money, more fun and more wealth – where nothing seems to be enough.
Awesome, can’t wait to read the book! Hopefully this will open peoples eyes to reality, if not nature will do the trick!