The Global Financial Crisis – From Despair to Excitement


These are exciting times. While every week I have a conversation with someone who feels despair at the ecological and economic crisis unfolding around us, I have come to an acceptance of the inevitability of this crisis. So I focus instead on the uplifting responses emerging around the world as people build new approaches and gather support for them.

The so-called global financial crisis is in fact a blessing for humanity. While it is causing significant dislocation, it is bringing into sharp relief the idiocy of our consumer culture and the unsustainability of our economic model. It is a blessing because the sooner we face up to this, the less suffering there will ultimately be. A short sharp shock can help us to wake up.

And waking up we are. While these ideas have been proposed for many decades, the debate has stayed on the fringes. Now we have mainstream commentators starting to question the fundamental assumptions behind the global market. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and author Tom Friedman is one such example. Tom has long been an advocate of globalisation and free markets and is widely read all around the world. He argued in a recent column:

Let’s today step out of the normal boundaries of analysis of our economic crisis and ask a radical question: What if the crisis of 2008 represents something much more fundamental than a deep recession? What if it’s telling us that the whole growth model we created over the last 50 years is simply unsustainable economically and ecologically and that 2008 was when we hit the wall — when Mother Nature and the market both said: “No more.”

So that’s why I’m excited, because after decades of involvement in social change I have come to trust my intuition and at this time it is screaming at me that our time has arrived. We are now going to tackle the big issues.

Yes, it’s happening for the wrong reasons. It’s happening because the Arctic ice cap is melting, because Australia’s Murray Darling river system is dying, because severe droughts and floods are damaging food supplies and so on. Every day we hear more news like this. So I recognise how hard it is for us all to hear that and yet stay positive and optimistic. I too have struggled mightily with that challenge. However in the end I have come to a point of acceptance of that being a reality I can no longer change. I now find life is much better lived in a space that sees the opportunity inherent in the crisis.

Without the global financial crisis we may never have got Barack Obama. We now have a President of the world’s most powerful country arguing for world wide nuclear disarmament, arguing for a culture of service in our communities, reaching out to the Islamic world and appointing science based advocates for action on climate change to key positions. I feel great optimism that America is going to play a very different role in the world when Obama appoints people like Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu as Secretary for Energy and Harvard Professor John Holdren as his chief Science Advisor. Obama described Holdren “one of the most passionate and persistent voices of our time about the growing threat of climate change”. He’s now in the West Wing!

Sounds good to me.

In China too, where we all focus on the very real problem of rapid expansion of coal fired power stations, we also have great reasons for hope. Where did the world’s first production plug in hybrid go on sale for just $22,000? China. With even Toyota struggling to catch up, and Ford and GM firmly left in the dust, a Chinese company BYD is building the capacity for 500,000 electric cars and buses per year by the end of 2011. Some rumours suggest a tie-up with Wal-Mart to sell them into the US. Roll over in your grave Henry Ford!

So yes, it’s going to get ugly in the ecosystem, we are going to see some very unpleasant consequences of our failure to act, and we are going to see some significant suffering as food supplies dwindle, oil prices spike and governments scramble to respond to climate disasters. But all over the world people are getting ready in a bottom up community based movement to make their world a better place to live.

Growing out of the US and the UK the transition towns movement now has over 150 towns and cities working on the philosophy that between Peak Oil and Climate Change, the crisis is inevitable and we should get ready for it. Rather than being victims they choose to take control, with the view that:

“by shifting our mind-set we can actually recognise the coming post-cheap oil era as an opportunity rather than a threat, and design the future low carbon age to be thriving, resilient and abundant – somewhere much better to live than our current alienated consumer culture based on greed, war and the myth of perpetual growth.”

Thriving, resilient and abundant. Sounds good to me. Let’s live there.

17 thoughts on “The Global Financial Crisis – From Despair to Excitement

  1. Gail

    Thank you Paul Gilding! Now how funny is this…how names lead to destiny.

    You are a purveyor of gilding, could we extrapolate a bit and call it, the silver lining in the cloud?

    I tend to be more pessimistic and that is why, I so appreciate your refreshing approach.

    More power to you.

    Regards from New Jersey!

  2. Roger

    Yes. Thanks Paul.. (again)

    I have tried to draw hope from various other “Optimistic” views.. The Glass is half full.. But they mostly seem to be referring to the top half of the glass..

    Thanks for some credible balance..

    South Coast NSW Australia

  3. Govind B.Meti

    .Dear Paul:
    Greetings all the way from Bangalore, India!! I have been an optimist with the many things happening in the recent past despite the various negatives you have already quoted in your write up. Foremost of all these are there is a political will with leadership now… This needs to be heard and encashed by the concerned universal citizens like you and Tom!! Keep working on your magic articles Tom…
    Once again, thanks for sharing the joy of positive thinking

  4. Hi Paul,
    A very well written article and always refreshing when an influncial writer such as yourself focuses us on the upside of global activity. I think it worth underscoring that when you look at any one aspect of current affairs it could look dismal especially if one is being effected personally. However when you look from the more expansive view of a natural demarcation in the natural order of evolution and thinking you can see that everthing is perfect and our job is to learn how to live in these times with ourselves and each other.
    I put your article on twitter
    I love what you are doing…Alan

  5. Hi Paul,

    In some ways, we’re dealing here with the psychology of change. Some people are wired to embrace change; others fear it. And still more experience what I call the schizophrenic dance of hope and fear:

    This likely has more to do with individuals’ life experiences and possibly their genetic disposition than any “objective” appraisal of what’s to come. After all, we each see the world through our personal lens.

    To create a true movement of people who embrace what you call “the great disruption,” space needs to be made for both hope and fear. And yet, how we approach “the great disruption” will likely have a major influence on just how disruptive it will be. Certainly on how equitable it will be. So I think it’s hugely important to offer a positive vision, as long as fear is not ignored. But that positive vision has to be grounded in reality.

    My issue with Friedman is that he (perhaps knowingly) is giving people a false hope in what he calls the ET (energy technology) revolution. To think that we will be able to replace fossil fuel energy for renewables 1 to 1 is a pipe dream, and a dangerous one at that.

    I don’t mean to belittle progress in renewable technology and energy efficiency. But these gains are so small compared to the enormity of the crisis that we have to view them in perspective. It’s great that the first production plug-in vehicle was sold in China. But those gains will be flooded by the sheer number of new Chinese drivers–even if they all drive plug-in hybrids. And yes, having Obama in the White House after George W. Bush is a sea change, a huge boon. But while Chu is certainly not denying global climate change, he’s still spouting foolish solutions like “clean coal.”

    It’s a hard reality to hold but I personally try to hold on to both realities: There is much to fear and there is much to have hope in.

  6. Troy

    Hi Paul,

    Thank you, what a refreshing read… not the usual stuff about what bad is going to happen, but the inspiration about what good IS happening to combat that. I have sent this onto to my sustainability committee in my office (an Australian funds management company) to promote further inspiration about what we all can do. I look forward to further installments.

  7. Randy Yale

    I have just finished reading “The World Without Us.” It is a fascinating intellectual exercise in projecting what the world might look like if humans go extinct.
    What is both encouraging and frightening is that things would definitely be better. But we wouldn’t be around to enjoy the sudden abundance. Of course, it would be much like the sudden calm after your obnoxious neighbors finish having the loudest, trashiest party in history. Much of the toxic/radioactive/non-degradable waste we leave behind will plague the environment and other species for millions of years. I also think quite a bit about Jared Diamond’s “Collapse.” Human society doesn’t have the greatest record of changing course in the face of looming catastrophe.

    That having been said, I share some of Paul’s belief that humanity will figure out a better way forward. Though I do worry about his reference to “transition” towns. There was an article in the NY Times magazine’s Green Issue about a group in South Dakota. They seemed both impractical and disorganized–not a great blueprint for the future.

    I believe the only real hope is for a technological breakthrough. I don’t see those of us who already have affluence giving it up nor do I see those who aspire to it saying “well the West has gone overboard so we need to settle for a more sustainable lifestyle.”

  8. Jeremy Rabie

    Hi Paul,
    I was present at your speech last night at the Seymour Centre. I would like to make a few comments in the interests of moving the debate forward. I believe your characterisation of the present crisis facing mankind is correct. But short of ‘love’, new shopping habits and ‘excitement’ at the upcoming opportunities, you offer no real vision for the future. Please don’t take offence – this is not personal.
    I believe I have limited space, and will try to keep my comments short.
    Mankind has long passed dealing with vital social, political and economic questions in such a nebulous manner. We have centuries of human history, experience and thinking to draw upon, and yes, hopefully to improve. The alternative will be that the millions that die will be the world’s poorest and weakest (as usual), while we have the luxury of expressing love and hope for a better world while letting our governments enforce these privileges with all means at their disposal. This is what’s being prepared for, in case you hadn’t noticed. WIth the record high spending on ‘defence’, with the repressive and anti-democratic laws now being enacted in countries like ours, there is a very clear view about what’s heading towards us and a very clear determination to ensure that the ‘system’ remains in tact for us priviledged few, and business returns to the ‘as usual’exploitation of the planet.
    But you are right when you say that the moderate peoples of the world need to get on their feet and act in their defence. The big question is – how, what, where, with what objectives, (etc.), and these sorts of tiresome but crucial questions. People do get up and act – when the alternative to doing nothing is death. And this crisis will inevitiably produce the same. Look at South Africa and the ending of the Apartheid system. And there are many other examples of people overthrowing their awful regimes or circumstances and fighting for a better life. But, as has also been shown over and over again, it’s easier to change a system than to build the future. Without a plan for what that future looks like, such changes so often lead to more of the same in a new guise.
    Unfortunately, the crisis will not generate universal human love and a desire to cooperate – although this is what ideally must happen. As said above, the ‘haves’ will find it in their interest to act one way, and the ‘have-nots’ in another. Look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While I know that moderates on both sides want peaceful co-existence – the Israeli side see things differently to the desperate Palestinians, and so unity of purpose which could effect real change is as elusive as possible.
    I won’t bang on any further. The crucial discussion for the human species remains what kind of future will equitably meet the needs of humanity and in a way sustainable for current and future generations. This needs a discussion about what form of social, political and economic organisation can make this possible. This is the discussion we need to have if our futures (or those of us who survive) is not to be determined by the same sorry policies which dominate the globe presently.

  9. Dear Paul, you have proved again what I first discovered in 1975/6 that you were an insightful and original thinker. All power to you. I work all over the world and increasingly find thinking people infused with hope. It is as though the silent majority has voice after a long time. We all need to be shocked from lethargy and this has been a fundemental change agent – now the flu adds other levels of clarity to how we live, manage food production and importantly how totaly interconnected we are. Of course we are not perfect and things will not be better overnight but the doomdayers and the status quoers have both had their time. Its a time for renewal and hope. Its time for multitudes of mico action rippling around the world setting new standards for the bigger players. We let this once in a generation moment slip from our hands at our peril. Thank you again for your worthy contribution to the debate.
    Much affection
    Oliver Scofield

  10. Dear Paul

    Thank you for creating a space for the debate that needs to happen and the passionate, overlapping and uncertain voices that need to be heard. As always you write from the heart and with a truth that is compelling and clear. I know from my persoanl experiences that change is happening as most of the conversations I have these days are with a broad spectrum of people who recognise that business as usual belongs in the past. No one seems to be able to predict what will happen but many cling to the hope that we won;t be affected – which is why we need writers like you and the people who’ve responded to be part of the shift in understanding and actions these bring to be part of helping people understand, get ready and adapt.

    The future is unfolding in front of us.
    best wishes. Paul

  11. Carroline Ravenall

    Thank you Paul
    You have inspired me to research and act. I guess we can all plan and pontificate about the perfect solution, delivered at the perfect time by the perfect recognised body or government. Yet, every one of us has a choice. Our life as we experience it today is nothing more than a sum of the choices we have made. We can choose to take control of our own situation and ‘do our bit’, or to sit back and wait for someone else to take the lead. Wherever we are, in whatever circumstances we find ourselves we can contribute or contaminate. We can encourage a spirit of community essential to the sustainability of large scale efforts or we can contribute to it’s demise by our own complacency and pessimism. We can encourage others to take control of their destiny or we can tolerate their pessimism and helplessness, which only serves to fuel our own. We don’t think we can m.ake a difference in life, but I believe we can. It all depends on the difference we want to make. Let’s not wait for someone to show us the way, why don’t we start something now…anything… with gusto. I am sure that there are many like me who want to live in a better world. Organisations and countries don’t change, people do. Let’s be accountable for the change we want to see in the world and become the forerunners of something amazing. And, so what if we don’t succeed in the ‘ideal sense’ then we can be comfortable in the knowledge that we have at least got off our butts and made a difference…even if it’s to just one person, somewhere.

  12. I was riveted by your talk on ABC this (Sunday) morning and would like to keep in touch and receive information.
    You are right – despair has changed (shakily) to hope during your talk. I am so desperately fed up with Kevin Rudd and his antics, in fact politicains generally, and three year terms when they spend one year finding their way, the second year maybe doing something and starting to get into election mode and the third year nothing but electioneering and silly projects to capture the votes. I can see that you are making a difference by cutting through to the people, who actually need someone riveting to focus on, away from party politics.

    Very best wishes to you,
    June Shenton Turner in Perth, W.A. (the dear old West)That gives me away, yes I am 83.

  13. At last! An energy emerges from the true heart of people. (it’s always been there, but cleverly masked so we only looked to external gratification.) Perhaps brought about by the disrespect we have had for the planet we live on, we now see impacting us locally, the corporate greed, we now see affects our neighbour. This is the actions of one causing impact on another person, collectively impacts a whole tribe, a nation, a country.
    It seems we needed a “stop moment” like the financial crisis to actually allow change to be at least considered. No longer was the greenie movement a fringe left ideal for tree huggers only, it became a mainstream question about sustainability – even enonomic brains had to look at the impact of linear values. Hooray.

    So we can react in fear and try to find something to comfort our old patterns of behaviour, and go back to denial and reaction, or recognise it and embrace it honestly and start to live in a new awareness of personal energy with joy and love of our union to others and ability to change things, one choice at a time, each minute, each day. it seems crazy that with all our so called advances of technology, science, medical breakthroughs, why depression, bi-polar and cancer is now worse than ever – surely it should be far less – so if we are so “advanced” – Our health, the health of
    the planet will only improve when we live in harmony with self and our surroundings – A change of heart changes everything. With love, Ian.

  14. joushuoa

    hi pauly wauly

    i disagree with you.
    because global financial crisis is not a blessing for indeed is a punishment.


  15. neville ford

    we must note the apparent fact that the oil well that caused the problem was not correctly cemented into drilled hole thit lack of quality in cement has happened before and is supposedly the reason for keeping samples in case testing later is required

  16. Excellent Paul, I couldn’t agree more.

    It’s a pity it has taken humanity so long to understand our role within the Earths ecosystem – indeed times are changing. Mother nature is raising her voice and we are starting to listen. We need to utilise her crescendo to encourage action, let it’s chorus echo within us!!

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