Anticipating Climate Catastrophe, But With Optimism All over the world, fisheries are collapsing, deforestation is on the rise and food prices have spiked again. Paul Gilding, the former head of Greenpeace International, explains in his new book why, as he puts it, "the Earth is full" — and why he thinks humankind will respond.
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Anticipating Climate Catastrophe, But With Optimism

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Anticipating Climate Catastrophe, But With Optimism

Anticipating Climate Catastrophe, But With Optimism

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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RACHEL MARTIN, host: Civilization is on a collision course: that's the message Paul Gilding, the former head of Greenpeace International, is sounding in his new book. It's called "The Great Disruption." The facts, as he spells them out, are frightening. Humans are using 140 percent of the earth's resources. The United Nations predicts the world's population will reach 9.3 billion by the time 2050 rolls around. Fisheries are collapsing. Deforestation is on the rise, and food prices have spiked again. But Paul Gilding looks at all of this gloom and doom and sees opportunity.

Paul Gilding is with us from Melbourne, Australia. Welcome to the program. Thanks for being here, Paul.

PAUL GILDING: Great. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So that statistic I just rattled off from your book that humans are using 140 percent of earth's resources, explain that.

GILDING: What they are calculating is how much area of land and water we would need to sustain this economy as it's currently operating. And to do that on a sustained basis would take 140 percent as much land and sea as there is on the earth today. I mean, of course, like living on your credit card, that can't be maintained, and the bill is coming due.

MARTIN: Now, we've been hearing these warnings for decades. We're using too many resources too quickly, doing lots of serious damage in the process. And then you look at all the natural disasters just in the past year - hurricanes and tornadoes, massive floods and droughts. What kinds of connections should we be making about all of this?

GILDING: Look, very direct. I mean, obviously, weather, you know, is always the challenging one. That's why there's such debate on the area because it does very naturally. But you look at what's happening lately in the U.S. clearly, but also around the world. In my own country in Australia, we just had floods that covered an area the size of France and Germany combined. I mean, just massive in style.

And what that says is we've now reached a tipping point in this degradation of the environment where, if you like, Mother Nature fights back. I don't mean in kind of some spiritual sense, but in terms of some basic physics, chemistry balancing. This is a system, and you do certain things with this system, and it has a response. And the response of more, say or two in the atmosphere, the response of degrading fisheries, the response of now cutting down too many trees and so on, is that the system changes.

And those changes, they're OK for nature for a while, because nature adapts to the new situation, but it's not OK for us. This is now a human economic issue that we now have sort of gotten past the point of protecting nature for its own sake and moving into a very different scale.

MARTIN: So what do you suppose or reaction as a collective society should be? I mean, early on in your book, you quote Winston Churchill about the way earlier generations were sleepwalking into disaster. I take it you think that we're currently sleepwalking today.

GILDING: Look, we are, but we're waking up. Historically, looking at World War II, I think, as the prime example. Now, we don't act until the crisis hits. We don't act until the evidence is so overwhelming, we have no choice left. But then we do amazing things. And that's sort of the exciting part of this is that we can no longer avoid the crisis, but we can avoid collapse. And by the way, we normally do act when the crisis comes, and we're pretty incredible as a species once we get going.

Now, before World War II, if I told you, you know, in 1938, 1939, that, you know, we were going to do the things that we did in World War II in terms of social change, in terms of technology change, in terms of how much money we spent, I mean, by the end of World War II, the U.S. was spending 37 percent of GDP on the war effort, up from one and a half percent before it started. So just phenomenal changes and inconvenient and difficult and challenging, but still, nevertheless, achieved, and that's what we're capable of as a species. And we will do that when the crisis hits.

MARTIN: When you think about what the crisis would look like that would spur us into action to make these dramatic changes, what kind of scale are we talking about? What does that crisis look like?

GILDING: It doesn't look very nice, I must say. It does look like food prices spiking to the point where we have food shortages. Obviously, extreme weather and we're seeing that a lot. And we can't say the extreme weather is a bit inconvenient. We're not yet seeing it as an economic issue at large scale. But if insurance companies become affected, if we get economic risk being put in the whole system as a result, that becomes a very serious impact. So I think we are going to see economic impacts of human limits to growth.

When I say the earth is full, what that means is we can't grow the economy much more than it is today because it simply won't fit on the planet. That's a question of physics.

MARTIN: So you're not - you don't seem concerned about this. You seem pretty confident that when this happens, everyone will kind of collectively recognize what has to be done?

GILDING: Correct, but not smoothly. I don't want to make it sound like it's all going to happen, we'll all be holding hands, you know, walking towards the future. You know, it's going to be pretty ugly at times, as it was in World War II, as it always is in a crisis. There will be arguments and debates and conflicts between countries, and we will think we won't make it at various times. Remembering again World War II, I think, is such a good example of what's coming is that people weren't sure they were going to win. It was absolutely a doubt. They sort of talked a good game. But they were nervous, they were scared that that wouldn't make it true. We will be too.

But what I'm saying is from history, the evidence is that we will make this and we'll work it out. The only thing that has to change is for us to end the denial that it's happening and get to work on fixing the problem.

MARTIN: Paul Gilding. He's the author of "The Great Disruption." He joined us from Melbourne, Australia. Paul, thanks very much.

GILDING: Thank you.

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