Economy: interrupted

Paul Gilding was the global CEO for Greenpeace when he was just 33. A lifetime ago for the fast-talking activist who now consults to corporations on climate change and their business.

He has grandkids now, as well as young children and he laughs readily about the heady activist days of the 80s and 90s. But his ‘thing’ is the disruption to our economy that he says has already started because of climate change. Samantha Morris caught up with Paul at Splendour in the Grass of all places, where he was headlining speaker at The Forum.

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Talk to any busted arse greenie and they’ll most likely roll their eyes about Paul Gilding’s views on climate change and the economy. They think he’s an optimist. But the weird thing is, anyone not deeply ingrained in the climate change ‘movement’ will feel just the opposite – that he’s the harbinger of doom.

Gilding believes that billions of people will die as a result of climate change. That we’ll experience massive disruptions to our global food system – including conflict over both food and water and that our economic system as we know it will collapse.

But he also believes we will see massive levels of mobilisation.

“You can’t imagine it until it’s done,” he says, quoting Mandela. “In the banking crisis of 2007/08 – can you imagine George Bush, the raving free market lunatic suddenly nationalising insurance companies and banks?” Gilding asks.

“No, but he did it. We can change rules overnight if we want to.”

“If you look at Germany … phasing out nuclear power has had a catastrophic impact on the value of nuclear power companies in Germany. But no one’s doing anything about it because the public supports it.”

“We’re kind of hoodwinked into this idea that the economy is king – that it must trump all else but that’s not true. It’s our choice. We decide how that works.”

Gilding says our economies will stop growing because they won’t be able to grow. We’re effectively going to run out of stuff. And population has very little to do with it.

“Let’s get this one numerically sorted out,” he said.

“Population is not the issue. Any more. If we could have stayed at 3 billion, that would have been very helpful. 4 or 5, very helfpful. We’re now at seven. Some argue 8, some argue 9.”

“Let’s assume the worst case, that we increase the population by 30% by 2050, which is at the high end of the forecast. In that timeframe, with a growth economy, we have an increase of per capita consumption by 300%.”

“So, consumption is going to multiply by 3 versus 0.3 for the population so it’s just not a comparison.”

Consumption, Gilding told Blank, has a far greater impact than population.

“So an African, for example, consumes one twenty-fifth of what an American consumes. Having an extra African born has a negative impact on consumption, where as having an extra American born?”

In his book The Great Disruption, he talks about our response to climate change being a war-like scenario. That when we have our backs against the wall in that situation we will prove ourselves to be extraordinary – that our response will be proportionally dramatic.

“We need to eliminate the coal, oil and gas industries from the economy in 20 years,” he explains. “That’s what you need to do. It’s impossible to imagine that level of economic change. That can only happen in a war-like mobilisation. It’s not only likely, it’s inevitable.”

“Otherwise you have to imagine if we do nothing. So you have to imagine the global food supply falling part, weather crises developing everywhere, countries going to war over water and we’ll sit back and say ‘oh, that’s a shame’?”

“That’s just not how we do things, we tend to wait, then we tend to respond,” he said. And this is where the optimism comes in.

“When the shit hits the fan, which it’s doing already, if we’re ready for it, then we can respond quickly. The later you leave the response the faster and more dramatic the economic transformation must be.”

“It’s going to hurt, it’s going to painful, it’s going to be messy, but we’re going to sort it out,” he told Blank.

And it’s quite likely that food will be the catalyst. Gilding reinforces, not for the last time, that there will probably be a very significant food crisis and that there will be conflict over food.

“You can’t imagine not hitting the wall in terms of the food system. Our whole food supply system is built around the idea of – we grow food here, we have silos there, trainlines there, storage facilities over here. So if you suddenly change the climate, even in a short time – say ten years – you have to rearrange the whole supply chain, and that’s not going to happen easily.”

“And that, I think is the most likely trigger,” he said. “It’s not just about climate change, food kind of synthesises all of those issues: water supply, depleting aquifers, changing climate, conflict.”

“Recovering from this is a 50 – 100 year process but I think it gets a lot uglier before it gets better. We’re going to see dramatic action happen in the next ten years and we’re going to see some ramping up of response but it’s going to take a few decades to work through the systems,” Gilding said.

I ask him what he thinks some of those ‘ugly’ things might be. How exactly does it get uglier? The picture Gilding paints isn’t pretty. And again, he’s talking food.

“I think we’ll see a global food crisis, I think we’re going to see a lot of backlash in the system around food – food shortages, food price spikes because of that,” he told Blank.

“I do think we’re going to see some extreme weather impacts accelerate and some record hot years – I think that’s going to happen this year, actually.”

“People who are deeply enmeshed in climate change see my view as positive, because they’re in a catastrophe and they see it coming, and it is coming. And therefore they see the negativity around it. Fair enough. And therefore they see me as optimistic,” Gilding said.


Paul Gilding - Forum sign - StephenBooth-2Photo courtesy Stephen Booth (Splendour in the Grass)

“If you’re back here somewhere,” he says, sweeping his hand around the Splendour surrounds, “then it’s the harbinger of doom. Which shows how far we have to go. And people respond to my stuff in much different ways – some very positively and they go ‘this is great’, we’re going to get through this, we’re going to be OK, and some very negatively like ‘I didn’t know it was going to be so bad’.”

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Read Paul Gilding’s blog at
Paul’s book The Great Disruption is available at most good book stores




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