Radio, June 26, 2011
Climate Catastrophe, But With Optimism
host: Civilization is on a collision course: that's the message
Paul Gilding, the former head of Greenpeace International, is
sounding in his new book. It's called "The Great Disruption."
The facts, as he spells them out, are frightening. Humans are
using 140 percent of the earth's resources. The United Nations
predicts the world's population will reach 9.3 billion by the
time 2050 rolls around. Fisheries are collapsing. Deforestation
is on the rise, and food prices have spiked again. But Paul Gilding
looks at all of this gloom and doom and sees opportunity.
is with us from Melbourne, Australia. Welcome to the program.
Thanks for being here, Paul.
Great. Good to be here.
that statistic I just rattled off from your book that humans are
using 140 percent of earth's resources, explain that.
they are calculating is how much area of land and water we would
need to sustain this economy as it's currently operating. And
to do that on a sustained basis would take 140 percent as much
land and sea as there is on the earth today. I mean, of course,
like living on your credit card, that can't be maintained, and
the bill is coming due.
we've been hearing these warnings for decades. We're using too
many resources too quickly, doing lots of serious damage in the
process. And then you look at all the natural disasters just in
the past year - hurricanes and tornadoes, massive floods and droughts.
What kinds of connections should we be making about all of this?
very direct. I mean, obviously, weather, you know, is always the
challenging one. That's why there's such debate on the area because
it does very naturally. But you look at what's happening lately
in the U.S. clearly, but also around the world. In my own country
in Australia, we just had floods that covered an area the size
of France and Germany combined. I mean, just massive in style.
And what that
says is we've now reached a tipping point in this degradation
of the environment where, if you like, Mother Nature fights back.
I don't mean in kind of some spiritual sense, but in terms of
some basic physics, chemistry balancing. This is a system, and
you do certain things with this system, and it has a response.
And the response of more, say or two in the atmosphere, the response
of degrading fisheries, the response of now cutting down too many
trees and so on, is that the system changes.
changes, they're OK for nature for a while, because nature adapts
to the new situation, but it's not OK for us. This is now a human
economic issue that we now have sort of gotten past the point
of protecting nature for its own sake and moving into a very different
what do you suppose or reaction as a collective society should
be? I mean, early on in your book, you quote Winston Churchill
about the way earlier generations were sleepwalking into disaster.
I take it you think that we're currently sleepwalking today.
we are, but we're waking up. Historically, looking at World War
II, I think, as the prime example. Now, we don't act until the
crisis hits. We don't act until the evidence is so overwhelming,
we have no choice left. But then we do amazing things. And that's
sort of the exciting part of this is that we can no longer avoid
the crisis, but we can avoid collapse. And by the way, we normally
do act when the crisis comes, and we're pretty incredible as a
species once we get going.
World War II, if I told you, you know, in 1938, 1939, that, you
know, we were going to do the things that we did in World War
II in terms of social change, in terms of technology change, in
terms of how much money we spent, I mean, by the end of World
War II, the U.S. was spending 37 percent of GDP on the war effort,
up from one and a half percent before it started. So just phenomenal
changes and inconvenient and difficult and challenging, but still,
nevertheless, achieved, and that's what we're capable of as a
species. And we will do that when the crisis hits.
you think about what the crisis would look like that would spur
us into action to make these dramatic changes, what kind of scale
are we talking about? What does that crisis look like?
doesn't look very nice, I must say. It does look like food prices
spiking to the point where we have food shortages. Obviously,
extreme weather and we're seeing that a lot. And we can't say
the extreme weather is a bit inconvenient. We're not yet seeing
it as an economic issue at large scale. But if insurance companies
become affected, if we get economic risk being put in the whole
system as a result, that becomes a very serious impact. So I think
we are going to see economic impacts of human limits to growth.
When I say
the earth is full, what that means is we can't grow the economy
much more than it is today because it simply won't fit on the
planet. That's a question of physics.
you're not - you don't seem concerned about this. You seem pretty
confident that when this happens, everyone will kind of collectively
recognize what has to be done?
but not smoothly. I don't want to make it sound like it's all
going to happen, we'll all be holding hands, you know, walking
towards the future. You know, it's going to be pretty ugly at
times, as it was in World War II, as it always is in a crisis.
There will be arguments and debates and conflicts between countries,
and we will think we won't make it at various times. Remembering
again World War II, I think, is such a good example of what's
coming is that people weren't sure they were going to win. It
was absolutely a doubt. They sort of talked a good game. But they
were nervous, they were scared that that wouldn't make it true.
We will be too.
But what I'm
saying is from history, the evidence is that we will make this
and we'll work it out. The only thing that has to change is for
us to end the denial that it's happening and get to work on fixing
Gilding. He's the author of "The Great Disruption."
He joined us from Melbourne, Australia. Paul, thanks very much.
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