Is Occupy Wall Street a Sign of “The Great Disruption”?

You may remember Paul Gilding, former executive director of Greenpeace International. Tom Friedman has been writing columns about him since his 2009 piece on how the global economy is a Ponzi scheme. I was quoted in that column, too, and as a result, have gotten to know him (see video, “Paul Gilding on The Great Disruption: “You can’t just have an adaptation strategy. There’s no chance of that working”).

Well, Friedman has a new column today, “Something’s Happening Here,” which asks:

When you see spontaneous social protests erupting from Tunisia to Tel Aviv to Wall Street, it’s clear that something is happening globally that needs defining. There are two unified theories out there that intrigue me. One says this is the start of “The Great Disruption.” The other says that this is all part of “The Big Shift.” You decide.

The Big Shift is “the merging of globalization and the Information Technology Revolution” to create a “huge global flow of ideas, innovations, new collaborative possibilities and new market opportunities.” It basically means anyone, anywhere can make a contribution, get noticed, and rise to the top.

The Great Disruption ain’t so pretty:

Paul Gilding, the Australian environmentalist and author of the book “The Great Disruption,” argues that these demonstrations are a sign that the current growth-obsessed capitalist system is reaching its financial and ecological limits. “I look at the world as an integrated system, so I don’t see these protests, or the debt crisis, or inequality, or the economy, or the climate going weird, in isolation — I see our system in the painful process of breaking down,” which is what he means by the Great Disruption, said Gilding. “Our system of economic growth, of ineffective democracy, of overloading planet earth — our system — is eating itself alive. Occupy Wall Street is like the kid in the fairy story saying what everyone knows but is afraid to say: the emperor has no clothes. The system is broken. Think about the promise of global market capitalism. If we let the system work, if we let the rich get richer, if we let corporations focus on profit, if we let pollution go unpriced and unchecked, then we will all be better off. It may not be equally distributed, but the poor will get less poor, those who work hard will get jobs, those who study hard will get better jobs and we’ll have enough wealth to fix the environment.

“What we now have — most extremely in the U.S. but pretty much everywhere — is the mother of all broken promises,” Gilding adds. “Yes, the rich are getting richer and the corporations are making profits — with their executives richly rewarded. But, meanwhile, the people are getting worse off — drowning in housing debt and/or tuition debt — many who worked hard are unemployed; many who studied hard are unable to get good work; the environment is getting more and more damaged; and people are realizing their kids will be even worse off than they are. This particular round of protests may build or may not, but what will not go away is the broad coalition of those to whom the system lied and who have now woken up. It’s not just the environmentalists, or the poor, or the unemployed. It’s most people, including the highly educated middle class, who are feeling the results of a system that saw all the growth of the last three decades go to the top 1 percent.”

The Big Shift is good news for those who can leverage “the flow” and for those people its offers the prospect of fame and wealth. Globally, it might mean faster innovation. But it does nothing by itself to stop the inexorable march towards catastrophic global warming. That requires a serious — and rising — carbon price (or very tough government standards that amount to the same thing).


Indeed, the Big Shift certainly means the rich get richer, since the top 1% can most easily access the flow (see “The Other 99% of Us Can’t Buy Our Way Out of the Impending Global Ponzi Scheme Collapse”).

So there you have it: Two master narratives — one threat-based, one opportunity-based, but both involving seismic changes. Gilding is actually an optimist at heart. He believes that while the Great Disruption is inevitable, humanity is best in a crisis, and, once it all hits, we will rise to the occasion and produce transformational economic and social change (using tools of the Big Shift). Hagel is also an optimist. He knows the Great Disruption may be barreling down on us, but he believes that the Big Shift has also created a world where more people than ever have the tools, talents and potential to head it off. My heart is with Hagel, but my head says that you ignore Gilding at your peril.

You decide.

Gilding is a “relative” optimist, as he explained to me (video here). Failure to remake the economy is just not an option. Fortunately, the solution, though not easy, is eminently doable, and that should be “reassuring”:

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.

Even if we take action, we will see serious consequences, but avoid collapse.

I actually have a third video interview of Gilding I hadn’t posted yet, in which he explains that “the feedbacks are happening faster than they were supposed to, they are worse than they were supposed to” be. Therefore he thinks this is the decade in which the shit hits the fan and that consumption patterns start to change — for the better: