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The great disruption

The great disruption

By Paul Gilding
Published by Bloomsbury
Website: www.bloomsbury.com
2011, 292pp, ISBN 978 1 4088 1209 9 (Hb) £18.99

Readers of New Agriculturist will be well aware of the causes and consequences of both climate change and the economic crisis but may not appreciate how intimately the two are linked. Paul Gilding examines these two major threats to society and civilisation and predicts that, if unresolved, together they will inevitably result in a great disruption. Society will be changed fundamentally and may even be destroyed. However, Gilding is optimistic that, at the last, governments, industry leaders and consumers will initiate the radical changes to production, markets and consumer attitudes needed and that mankind's inherent inventiveness and capacity to cooperate will permit an orderly, if stressful, change to a post-consumerist world.

Economic growth is the mantra by which politicians and economists strive to overcome financial malaise but, Gilding points out, more growth merely exacerbates the drivers of climate change and all that that entails, including prejudicing agricultural production. "The global economy is almost five times the size it was half a century ago. If it continues to grow at the same rate the economy will be 80 times that size by 2100," he quotes Professor Tim Jackson in the UK government sponsored study Prosperity without growth.

Clearly such growth cannot be sustained on a planet with finite resources: for China to achieve car ownership at the level of the US or Europe would demand materials and fuel several times greater than present global usage. Similarly, in agriculture, "We see food as a natural healthy industry. In reality, the nitrogen fixation on which it relies is highly carbon intensive, and industrial agriculture is a non-renewable industry. This makes it unstable in the coming world."

Anticipated consequences are dire: "We can expect major issues in India and China because, already struggling under the impacts of environmental degradation, the water supplies that feed their agriculture are being threatened by over use, magnified by climate-related shifts." In a region of two billion people, food shortages could soon lead to widespread geopolitical, economic and social consequences.

The author's optimism comes from his own personal experience as an environmental campaigner and consultant to multi-nationals such as Ford and Dupont, where he found encouraging willingness to listen, discuss and implement new strategies. But he does not believe that meaningful action will be taken until some major crisis galvanises governments worldwide to adopt 'war footing' strategies to halt deleterious activities: carbon emitting power stations, limitless air travel, near-universal car ownership, manufacture of less essential carbon-intensive products, and deforestation.

If that sounds draconian, Gilding cites how, within weeks of the US entering WW 2, the government had halted all domestic car production and switched factories to military vehicles; similarly, subsequent to a future crisis, industrial production in many sectors would not cease but switch to means of sustainable energy production. Agriculture would also have to change dramatically, implementing carbon-capture soil management, greatly reducing production of animal protein, and striving to meet demand for essential foods with less water, chemical inputs and fuel. The author describes possible scenarios in some detail and admits that the greatest challenge will be persuading the public "that there is life after shopping."

The great disruption is the latest in a growing number of books that warn of impending catastrophe and stress the need for urgent action. The challenge is to convey urgency to a public and leaders when life appears to be progressing predictably and with only 'a few local difficulties'. The author likens Churchill's warnings that events in the 1930s would lead inevitably to war being denied by a majority of politicians and public. He imagines two friends meeting in 1938 Amsterdam, one believing that invasion by Germany is imminent and that this will lead to the occupation of all Europe with dire consequences. The other feels his friend's concern but, conscious that his career is on track, family is settled and the streets of the city are calm, decides to wait and see what, if anything, will happen.

The author's point is that when people sense concern they must be prepared to act, not wait for others to lead the way. The great disruption is a must read for anyone with a sense of concern; it is not about some possible future event but one that has arguably started.

See also reviewed in New Agriculturist: World on the edge, The coming famine and Empires of food

Date published: September 2011


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