Prophets have fallen out of fashion of late (unless you count the stock market analysis on breakfast television or politicians predicting the Sunday roast will coast $100 post carbon tax), but Paul Gilding’s changing all that.
He’s ditched the sandals and robe for business casual. He promises not salvation, but hope. But Gilding has the key attribute of a prophet in any century: he speaks the truth, and that’s as powerful and dangerous a currency now as it’s ever been.
Even more so now, because as Gilding told the audience at a lecture organised by the Alternative Technology Association in Launceston recently, the Earth we live on today is in crisis. As he says in his book The Great Disruption,
‘Our human society and economy is now so large we have passed the limits of our planet’s capacity to support us and it is overflowing. Our current model of economic growth is driving this system, the one we rely upon for our present and future prosperity, over the cliff. If we don’t transform our society and economy, we risk social and economic collapse and the descent into chaos.’
Environmentalists have been telling us the Earth is in crisis for decades, but what’s different about Gilding’s message is he focuses on something that holds a far greater importance to most people than the state of the Amazon rainforest or the fate of polar bears. He engages people by talking about something they really care about, something immediate and personal: he talks about the economy.
You see, despite the impression we have been given over the years by industrialists, bankers, and politicians, what we humans call the economy is completely dependent on the natural resources of planet Earth. In the words of the 1960’s US Senator Gaylord Nelson, ‘the economy is a wholly owned subsidiary of the environment, not the other way around.’ And what Gilding and a weight of scientists, ecologists and economists are telling us is that the Earth is full. Humanity is hitting up against the limits to growth, and we are about to experience the reality of a basic truth:that infinite growth cannot occur on a finite planet. As Gilding says,
‘the passing of the limits is not philosophical but physical and rooted in the rules of physics, chemistry and biology.’
All those ‘resources’ we’ve been feeding into our economy to produce the spectacular growth of the last decades – forests, fish, minerals, water, soil – are running out. Many of these gifts from the planet could be renewable if we used them in a sustainable way, but we don’t. And so every year that our species pursues the folly of untrammelled economic growth, every year we consume more and more material goods and burn more and more fossil fuels, the natural capital of our irreplaceable Earth is being depleted.
The work of the Global Footprint Network tells us we are currently using the resources of 1.5 planet Earths. If we continue to grow the economy towards the levels predicted by 2050 our global footprint will be equivalent to 3-5 Earths. Clearly this doesn’t add up. There is only one planet we know of that is habitable for humans, and that is the one we live on. Like the t-shirt says, there is no Planet B.
Prophets often get a bad rap for being cranky, ranting types who predict the end of the world with spittle flying. In contrast, Gilding comes across as happy, grounded, and sane, a self-described optimist. In a world where humans have already passed the ‘safe’ limit for carbon emissions, with consequences of possible catastrophic climate change heading straight for us, a modern day prophet could be forgiven for rolling out some end-game scenarios. But the end-game scenarios for Gilding are for things that are long overdue for an end: an economic system that pillages the planet with no thought for the future, and social attitudes that place self-interestand greed above the wellbeing of communities.
‘In all this though, there is a surprising case for optimism. As a species, we are good in a crisis, and passing the limits will certainly be the biggest crisis our species has ever faced. We will change at a scale and speed we can barely imagine today, completely transforming our economy in just a few short decades.’
Do I share Gilding’s optimism? Yes, I believe that our collective denial will end, and that we will act swiftly and decisively to try and halt the damage we are wreaking on our only home the Earth. I’m inspired by his vision of a global community working together to solve age-old problems around the environment, poverty, and war. I’m hopeful because I can see his message, which appeals to people’s self-interest via talk of economic collapse, will grab people’s attention in a way that images of the melting Arctic and razed Amazon don’t.
But in truth, I also feel a little sad. That the average human being is more concerned about their future share profits than the future viability of life on Earth. That we will finally act, but only after having destroyed species and ecosystems at a rate not seen since the last great extinction. That what really gets our attention, what really keeps us up at night, is not whether our children and grandchildren will live in a world where polar bears and tigers still walk the Earth, but whether the economy will tank. Are we really that selfish? Are we really that stupid? Do we think our bank balances and our possessions have any meaning if the Earth is dying?
I’m going to make a prophecy of my own: within ten years the world will be beating a path to Paul Gilding’s door, to hear his message of the coming economic and environmental crisis tempered with his particular brand of hope and optimism. And then much later, if we are still here, our species will move beyond its insane obsession with economic growth and materialism to nothing less than a new global consciousness, where we truly understand that we are intimately, irretrievably connected to and part of the planet we live on.
Hold on. As Gilding says, it’s going to be a hell of a ride.
Paul Gilding’s book ‘The Great Disruption’ is available from bookstores or as an e-book from Amazon.com
His TEDx talk ‘The Earth Is Full’ can be found at this link: http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/en/paul_gilding_the_earth_is_full.html