The Great Disruption

The new book by Paul Gilding, “The Great Disruption,” was a welcome addition to my library. He’s thought our current state of affairs through a bit more realistically than most, and he explains in detail why what we face in the next few decades is likely to be a good thing. An excellent thing, in fact.

Here’s the problem, in a nutshell: the earth is full. Our current economic system is running the earth at about 140% of its carrying capacity, and we’re planning to not only add more people, but also grow the global economy even more than the population growth. In addition, our increasing carbon footprint is changing the global climate in ways that will completely destroy the economy we have.

There are two key features to his analysis that are different from those of typical doomsayers.

The first is his analysis of the human “panic response.” Everyone who studies global warming says we have to do things right now to stave off future disaster, and their science is sound. But we aren’t doing things right now, and there’s no current indication we will ever do anything to deal with the problem, until it’s too late to avoid disaster.

Paul is one of the few who has looked this in the face and asked how it will really play out, human nature being what it is. He thinks it will probably work out, the reason being that as soon as global warming starts to seriously tip the economy over, people will panic, and then engage in a large-scale venture — a “War On Climate” — comparable to the US scale-up for WWII. His analysis says this will likely be enough to reverse carbon-footprint warming.

This panic response will be far more aggressive than anything anyone has had the temerity to even suggest, to date. What is politically unthinkable today will simply get done.

The outcome of this panic response has some very attractive features, since it will put a premium on “clean” living. Our current practice of trashing the planet for economic gain will end, not because it’s good or moral, but because it is necessary for survival. That necessity will cause governments to “level the playing field” for commerce differently than they do now, and clean practices will also become good business.

The second and (IMO) more important feature of his analysis has to do with the growth economy itself. Our global economic model is clearly wrong, demanding as it does unlimited exponential growth, which cannot be met by any physical reality. Paul doesn’t wring his hands over this: it’s simply over. The earth is full. We’ve reached a point where no one can gain wealth without taking it from someone else.

So what happens next?

Ultimately, we shift to an economy of human satisfaction. What’s interesting is that this is the end-state predicted by the founders of capitalist economics: Adam Smith, John Stuart Mill, John Maynard Keynes. Modern economists have apparently just gotten themselves enamored with the “complexity” of the giant Ponzi scam our economy has become, and forgotten the basic concept that an economy serves people, not vice versa.

Here’s what’s interesting about human satisfaction and happiness. Poverty is universally bad for human happiness. However, once a person rises out of poverty, additional increases in wealth bring virtually no additional happiness: this is the consistent finding of research from all parts of the world. What does provide a temporary increase in happiness is an increase in relative income, compared to others within our circle of family and friends — the “keeping up with the Joneses” competition. This is why getting a raise at work is an incentive, and why people get such a rush from buying a new car. Anyone who has received a raise or bought a new car, however, realizes how fleeting the pleasure is. It actually breeds anxiety in its wake as the Joneses then try to get ahead of us. It results in an addictive cycle that overall produces more anxiety than happiness.

In an economic system in which “economic growth” is no longer possible, and any increase in relative wealth is widely recognized as taking away from someone else, we will have no choice but to back off from the anxiety-producing cycle of production and consumption.

This has already been happening for quite some time in Europe, and is now becoming a feature of the United States: permanent unemployment and underemployment. The growth of the global economy is grinding to a halt, which means that all of us are simply going to work less.

What I found particularly comforting about this book was its sense of inevitability. People don’t have to become better, or smarter, or “greener” to survive the tumult and make a better world. They just have to continue being the reactive, selfish slobs they’ve proven themselves to be for thousands of years.

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