Paul Gilding
Bloomsbury Press
175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010
www.bloomsburypress.com.
2012. 304 pages. $25.00 paperback.

Paul Gilding, former director of Greenpeace International and currently an environmental consultant based in his home country, Australia, has been at the forefront of global environmental activism for more than four decades. Gilding’s intel­lectual foundation rests largely on such seminal findings as those in the 1972 book Limits to Growth: A Report to the Club of Rome, which is generally heralded as the most scientifically rigorous environmental treatise of its era.

Limits to Growth proposed a recalibration of the status of the human and natural condition—and a dismal assessment at that. Countless books, articles, speeches, and conference proceedings, as well as much political agitation, have since taken place, leading to debate, discussion, and ultimately to a reshaping of popular thinking in response to the report’s ironic proposition: that in the context of the modern era, conquering nature can only lead to the defeat of nature and the human race.

proposed a recalibration of the status of the human and natural condition—and a dismal assessment at that. Countless books, articles, speeches, and conference proceedings, as well as much political agitation, have since taken place, leading to debate, discussion, and ultimately to a reshaping of popular thinking in response to the report’s ironic proposition: that in the context of the modern era, conquering nature can only lead to the defeat of nature the human race.

However, Limits avoided predicting just when runaway resource depletion, unchecked population expansion, and the addictive consumer machinations of modern economies would reach a cumulative breaking point. Here, Gilding makes that call and with all the conviction he can muster.

Gilding recounts the turbulent 1980s and 1990s as the “scream,” likening it to the horrific visage portrayed in Edvard Munch’s anguished painting of that name. This is when Gilding, environmental activist and author Bill McKibben, and so many other activists were labeled doomsday pariahs, hell-bent on destroying the progress and well-being of free-market economies. But their warnings are no less urgent today.

Gilding argues that the “breaking point” is already upon us, having been jump-started four years ago, earlier than anticipated. In his chapter “Global Foreshock—The Year that Growth Stopped,” Gilding outlines several worldwide cues ranging from “global markets lurching from crisis to crisis” to “melting of . . . icecaps, at rates way beyond their [scientists’] forecast models.” He warns in no uncertain terms, “This [the great disruption] is going to be what James Kunstler described in The Long Emergency—a generations-long crisis that will need to be managed with focus
and determination.”

Gilding’s central theme is one of hope, but the outcomes he desires for the survival of humankind will demand unparalleled global commitments at unprecedented levels. His profoundly radical, long-term plan to emerge from impending environmental and societal catastrophe hinges on the imperative that there be no more than a one-degree increase in global temperature in the next century. This level is consistent with McKibben and the global grass-roots movement he cofounded, 350.org, and is supported by noted scientific experts. In the pivotal chapter of his book, “The One-Degree War,” Gilding details a wide array of strategies and timelines comprising his proposal for such a campaign. There is no question such efforts, if attempted, will be fraught with unprecedented sacrifice. But for Gilding, mankind has no choice but to win.

The goal for the initial five years would be to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent. Fourteen worldwide metrics would have to be met, many of them audacious. The more radical include reducing deforestation by 50 percent; closing 1,000 dirty coal plants; rationing the use of electricity; erecting wind turbines or solar plants in every jurisdiction of 1,000 or more inhabitants; rationing the use of dirty cars to cut transportation emissions by 50 percent; and cutting emissions from the world’s aircraft in half. Although years five through 20 would move the world to net-zero climate emissions, Gilding says it would require another half century of effort to “create a stable global climate and sustainable global economy.”

All this leads to the final phase of Gilding’s grand plan. He sketches the principles of a world order that would emerge as the ripe fruit of triumph. “The Great Disruption,” he writes, “will take human society to a higher evolutionary state . . . that represents our highest capacities, with extreme poverty eliminated, great technology that works with rather than against nature . . . a closed-loop, [steady-state] economy with no waste” . . . with “happiness, satisfaction and service as the central organizing principles.” Quoting Adam Smith, John Maynard Keynes, and John Stuart Mill, Gilding argues that human happiness is ultimately achievable when life’s meaning and worth are no longer measured by consumer-driven indexes.

The Great Disruption should generate heated discussion in many quarters. Critics will inevitably characterize the author’s assessment and proposed solutions as outrageously simplistic and idealistic and trivialize his empirical data, despite wide concurrence in the scientific community. They will dismiss the ominous environmental warnings evident in the very air we breathe and the water we drink. They will label him naive and as having little or no comprehension of the motives that sustain civilizations.

should generate heated discussion in many quarters. Critics will inevitably characterize the author’s assessment and proposed solutions as outrageously simplistic and idealistic and trivialize his empirical data, despite wide concurrence in the scientific community. They will dismiss the ominous environmental warnings evident in the very air we breathe and the water we drink. They will label him naive and as having little or no comprehension of the motives that sustain civilizations.

Yet the Gilding revealed here is a thoughtful, exceptionally bright, and engaging communicator, despite distracting passages that read like corporate pep talks to the CEOs for which he typically consults. But the thrust of his message is as compelling as it is drastic. His is a call to immediate action on a scale never before conceived or undertaken. It is a call made not by choice, but of necessity.