Storm at Yellowstone

Paul Gilding’s The Great Disruption

Reviewed by Craig Reinbold

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The world is in for a storm—rising temperatures and sea-levels, desertification, famine, all-out war for water and fuel, amassing refugees, economic meltdown, political instability, and from there, potentially, total global collapse—but activist-writer Paul Gilding doesn’t believe it will come to that. Among the climate-change doomsaying crowd, this author is the determined optimist in the room.

The end of the world as we know it, for Gilding, is less a disaster than an opportunity for a step in human evolution, “one driven consciously rather than biologically.” The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring On the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World is his long-titled manifesto on how this might be accomplished.

Gilding, the former head of Greenpeace International, focuses on the link between climate change and the global economy, arguing that it is the impulse towards unchecked growth that’s driving Earth’s climate out of control, and that subsequently this is where we will first feel the effects of climate change. Put plainly, “Let there be no doubt that if the environment crashes, the economy will go with it.” Gilding offers the global financial meltdown of 2008 as evidence of the current system’s failings and its inability to adapt and grow beyond itself: a foreshadowing of greater distress ahead.

“The problem we face is that we’ve conveniently ignored both the desirability and the inevitability of the end of growth, and as a result we haven’t planned for it. We have entwined our lives, our culture, our political systems, and our economic structures in such a complex web with the growth monster that separation, when it comes, is going to be complex and traumatic. The system is going to resist change and do so fiercely. It will take a serious crisis to force the issue,” Gilding tells us, “and that’s why that crisis is inevitably coming.” This point of global emergency—dubbed The Great Disruption—will be our last stop before global collapse, our last chance to curb consumption and adapt to a sustainable steady-state economy, which Gilding, ever the optimist, believes we will.

It seems Gilding is trying to round out a genre best known for its gloom. The work of James Kunstler (The Long Emergency), Steward Brand (The Eco-Pragmatist Manifesto), and James Lovelock (The Revenge of Gaia) is profoundly informative, and more depressing for it: the surfeit of data and the accompanying woeful prognosis for civilization as we know it breeds a tough-to-beat cynicism. Simply put, the truth hurts. The Great Disruption mostly avoids this mire by focusing not on the history and analysis of the problem, but rather on cheerleading a potential solution.  

Gilding’s solution—put forth in a section charismatically dubbed The One-Degree War—is provoking, if not exactly new. The One-Degree War Plan, co-written with professor of climate strategy Jorgen Randers, was originally made public on Gilding’s personal website in 2009. With this book, Gilding seems determined to reach a vaster audience, a laudable goal, though one wonders if the message could have been conveyed with a hundred fewer pages padding the crux chapter.

In summary, the first five years of the crisis will need a level of mobilization comparable to the U.S. entering WWII and a 50% reduction of net CO2 emissions; the next fifteen will require a reworking of global infrastructure to eliminate CO2 emissions completely; and the eighty years after that will mark a recovery period, a “long-haul effort to create a stable global climate and a sustainable global economy.” How exactly we might achieve this is laid out nicely (essentially, cutting CO2 = less capital consumption = local, simple lifestyles = no more shopping) and the numbers seem to hold up under scrutiny, which is to say, Gilding’s plan is a fine plan, if no more realistic than any other.

This is the best part: Gilding gives us an actual timeframe—The Great Disruption is projected to begin before 2020. This is a risky move maybe, but he remains undaunted. The world as we know it will end, he emphasizes, if not exactly then, then eventually.

Gilding’s singular zeal does suggest a certain green-hearted fanaticism, which is to say he’s easily caricatured as that guy on the campus lawn with the microphone calling for the end of the world while daring us not to listen. It’s a troubling paradox that sometimes it’s easiest to ignore those who are shouting the loudest, and Gilding, like other Cassandras of the genre, recognizes this—he just sees no alternative. There is no time left to coddle. We need to take this impending crisis seriously: the clock is ticking down.

Current science tells us we’ve passed the tipping point on climate change, the markets are haywire, not just banks but countries are going bust, and it’s becoming ever more clear that growth may not merely slow down, but stop altogether if our global resources are not better managed. And yet, despite the evidence, with our supermarkets still full and gas prices more or less steady, Gilding’s assertion of impending doom is easily disregarded as hysterical. Only posterity can know. It’s possible history will come to view the meltdown of 2008 as a cultural tipping point, not as the beginning of the end of humankind, but the end of our beginning as we adapt and evolve beyond materialism, towards a higher human consciousness. Gilding would have us believe this is not only possible, but likely, that it’s only a matter of time. We cannot escape the coming crisis. We can only stop shopping, and push ourselves beyond it. “This is a crisis we can no longer avoid. The sooner we accept this and the better we prepare, the less suffering there will be and the faster we will come out the other side.”

There isn’t much new here—Gilding is reiterating a common refrain. Still, his enthusiasm is catching. And this may be his finest contribution to a genre that tends to inspire more despair than action.


Craig Reinbold’s work appears in recent issues of The Iowa Review, Guernica / A Magazine of Art & Politics, Copper Nickel, Swink Magazine and a number of other more or less literary places. He resides in Tucson with his wife and their dog, Olive, and can be reached at

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