Why didn’t more of us see it coming? After all, the signals have been clear enough – signals that the ecological system that supports human society is hitting its limits, groaning under the strain of an economy simply too big for the planet. But we didn’t and, as a result, the time to act preventatively has passed.
Now we must brace for impact. Now comes The Great Disruption.
It is true that the coming years won’t be pleasant, as our society and economy hits the wall and then realigns around what was always an obvious reality: You cannot have infinite growth on a finite planet. Not ‘should not’, or ‘better not’, but cannot.
We can, however, get through what’s ahead – if we prepare. I wrote my forthcoming book, The Great Disruption, to help us do that. My conclusion in writing it was this: not only can we make it through, we can come out the other side in better shape.
First, though, back to the present. There are countless analyses and metrics that clearly describe and record what is happening – our children will surely look back at what we can see now and ask, “What were you thinking?” One is oil prices, again on the way up, driven by surging demand in the developing world. Peak oil, long considered a fringe theory, is now widely acknowledged as inevitable, if not underway.
Leaked US diplomatic cables show evidence that oil reserves have been overstated, along with German military reports framing the connected security threat and comments by the UK energy secretary that the risk is real. No surprises here. Consumption has been outstripping the discovery of new reserves for a long time and, as production peaks, prices will rise – probably dramatically – with major economic consequences. Obvious to those who look.
An even more obvious concern is food. More than anything else, I believe food will come to define our entry into this period. Food prices, after hovering around long-term highs for several years, are now passing the extreme peaks of 2008 as climate chaos takes hold.
With our population growing and our diets moving to more energy- and grain-intensive meat production, supply was already tight. So, when record heat waves and drought hit Russia, crashing their wheat harvest and leading to an export ban, the global price response was rapid.
Next was Brazil. Did you hear about the so-called ‘one in one hundred-year’ drought in 2005 in the Amazon? Well there was another one in 2010, but this time worse. It appears that the Amazon, last year, was a dramatic net emitter of greenhouse gases rather than an absorber. Strange days indeed.
But actually not that strange, and certainly not surprising – you increase the thickness of the earth’s blanket and it gets warmer. Despite the wishful thinking of some, the global climate is behaving as the climate models forecast it would – a bit worse than expected but broadly in line. Indeed, 2010 tied with 2005 as the hottest year on record and, by year’s end, the sea temperature off Australia was the warmest ever recorded.
With warm oceans releasing more water vapour, we saw floods of biblical proportions hit the agricultural regions of Queensland, killing 22 people and impacting an area larger than France and Germany. The floods were quickly followed by one of the most intense cyclone ever to hit Queensland. Not good for food supplies, so expect prices to keep rising, especially considering that this was not a localised problem. Climate chaos is now worldwide, with an unprecedented 19 countries breaking temperature records in 2010.
Think that was just a bad year? Think again. Writing at Salon.com, Andrew Leonard argued recently that this may all come to a head in China. He quotes the UN, who’ve just warned that a severe drought is “threatening the wheat crop in China, the world’s largest wheat producer, and resulting in shortages of drinking water for people and livestock.” According to a Xinhua report, if serious rain doesn’t fall by the end of this month, the key grain producing region of Shandong will face its worst drought in 200 years. Of course, 200 years ago they didn’t have 1.3 billion mouths to feed. Imagine China facing a food shortage and, with plenty of money in the bank, going on a global shopping spree to feed itself. This, argues food expert Lester Brown, could be China in 2011. Enjoy your daily bread while you can still afford it.
Maybe it will rain there again soon – but next time? People are starting to understand that this type of thing is not a one off. Commenting on rising food prices, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote in The New York Times recently: “The evidence does, in fact, suggest that what we’re getting now is a first taste of the disruption, economic and political, that we’ll face in a warming world. And given our failure to act on greenhouse gases, there will be much more, and much worse, to come.”
But don’t panic. We will wake up soon. Not because the ecosystem is showing signs of major breakdown. Not because people are drowning. No, we will wake up because something much more important to us is now clearly threatened. When you try to create infinite growth on a finite planet, only two things can change: Either the planet gets bigger, which seems unlikely, or the economy stops growing. It’s the end of economic growth that will really get our attention.
There is surprisingly good news in all of this. We as humans have long been very good in a crisis. We ignore our health issues until the heart attack; our unwise lifestyle choices until the cancer diagnosis. We ignore our badly designed financial system until the economic crisis; or the threat of Hitler until the brink of war. Again and again, we respond to problems late, but dramatically – and, crucially, effectively. Slow, but not stupid.
This is a good attribute, given what’s coming. We’re going to have to transform our economy very rapidly, including our energy, transport and agricultural systems. This transition – to a zero net CO2 economy – will soon be underway and the business and economic opportunities for those who are ready (and risks to those who aren’t) are hard to overstate.
That’s why China is getting ready to win this race, with significantly more impressive programs to capture the opportunity than most Western countries. They understand that in the new world that is unfolding, being a ‘solar power’ will define geopolitical strength. Maybe the United States will start late, but strongly, surging out of Silicon Valley with a technology boom ready to disrupt and reinvigorate the world again. Time will tell – and probably sooner than you think.
There’s much more to this than technology, though, with some exciting cultural and political challenges ahead as well. In a growth-constrained world, our current central economic policy of ‘keep calm and carry on shopping’ is looking increasingly wrongheaded. It’s certainly insufficient for continued human development. (More good news there, however, because all the research suggests that shopping, or more specifically accruing more money and more stuff, is a very poor way to increase your happiness, once you’re out of absolute poverty.)
In response to the now inevitable crisis, we will demand our governments think more deeply. We will have to adopt policies known to improve quality of life, like encouraging community, social inclusion and – the most heretical idea of all – greater equality and a steady state economy. Interesting times indeed.
Taking all this together, we can now say with a high degree of certainty that change is going to start coming thick and fast. Change in our economy, in our politics, and in our lives. Change that will be challenging, but that will ultimately lead us to a better place.
So get ready for the ride. The Great Disruption is now underway.