Brave New World?

Paul Gilding doesn’t mince any words. Things are going to get bad. Very bad. What will be required is a mobilization of social resources, a reorientation in the way we relate to one another and to the world, that will make our transition to a war economy in the Second World War look trivial. The Earth is full, you see. Climate change, scarce resources and an exploding population have pushed us to the edge. We soon begin the free fall.

I read all this in his new book, The Great Disruption: Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring on the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, with a sense of foreboding, but also with relief. This is no siren call for a disappearing world. Gilding, a former Greenpeace activist, takes a long view. If the economy can no longer grow in ways sufficient to support the world’s people, or, more to the point, if permitting it to grow in ways that will require us to survive as a species is impossible, then change is inevitable.

Gilding believes that we will not change willingly. It will take a catastrophe to focus the political will to mobilize us as a civilization. We will learn to harvest the Sun’s energy. (Did you know that each day the Earth is bombarded with sufficient energy from the Sun, renewable energy, I might add, to replace all that is required to meet the world’s energy needs for a year?) Yes, the technology to harvest this energy is now lacking; but who, at the time of our Civil War, foresaw the automobile and the importance of fossil fuels?

We are hurtling into the future consuming energy and resources at a rate far in excess of our ability to replace them. In other words, we are living on accumulated resources and borrowed time. We are doing to the environment what bankers taught us to do with cheap and easy credit. It can’t go on forever.

I read all this with a sorrowful sense of anachronism. 

If Gilding is right, and the planet and its people are heading for a global meltdown that will challenge our ability as a species to survive, then we are in store for big, even cataclysmic changes. If the past two centuries of explosive economic growth are an unsustainable aberration, and he makes a good case that they are, then what becomes of the political and social institutions that this growth has fostered? What, to cut to the chase, comes of our sense of individual rights and liberties? Is individualism a luxury we can no longer afford?

I’ve spent more time than I care to admit recently studying films of the behavior of starlings in large groups. Hundreds of thousands of these birds can fly together in unison, turning instantaneously, never colliding one with another, forming gigantic and beautiful mobiles. Do the starlings no instinctually what we must learn to do by means of socialization? No starling struts alone, apart from the group.

The cycles of American political life show wavering support for political liberty. In times of crisis, when confronting a world torn by conflict between France and Britain after our founding, during the Civil War, during the First World War, during the Red Scare, and during the Second World War, we’ve traded liberty for a sense of security. During the past decade, we have once again rolled back Constitutional guarantees of liberty in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. But these threats to our security seem small as compared to the threat posed by an Earth suddenly grown hostile to our purposes, or to a crowded planet in which wars are fought over access to food and water.

Gilding writes about the survival of the species with a sense of optimism. We are an adaptive species, capable of much more than we have thus far accomplished. I read this with a sense of something approaching optimism. But when I put the book down I wondered whether the survival of the species will make individual liberty an anachronism. If starlings teach, do they teach us to become like China? I wonder, but I cannot imagine becoming so.


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