Green Reads Review: The Great Disruption by Paul Gilding


A writer, entrepreneur, and environmental activist for over forty years, Paul Gilding is an expert on the effects of global warming and, in his book The Great Disruption, offers his take on our current climate crisis. His argument throughout the course of the text is that there is a disastrous contradiction in the way that growth is approached by corporations, fossil fuel executives, and politicians. The combination of lax environmental regulation and neoliberal economic policies have made it all but impossible to achieve affective change within our current paradigm. Detailing his points, Gilding insists that it is incongruent to pursue infinite economic growth on a planet with finite resources. 

The Great Disruption reads as a familiar account of what will happen if we do not curb the effects of climate change. What Gilding describes with the term “The Great Disruption” is a period of societal upheaval and economic reorganization that will occur after the current eventualities of climate change—widespread famine, drought, dangerous temperature fluctuation, and sea-level increase—become our reality. Even though these predictions are nothing that followers of green literature haven’t encountered before, Gilding’s account of how dire our situation is was effectively chilling. 

As a reader, I was initially unsure about Gilding’s conception of infinite growth. I learned that he considers infinite material growth problematic because it depletes our planet’s resources and accelerates climate collapse. Gilding’s book is a call to action, encouraging growth in other, less environmentally damaging ways before it’s too late. 

One paradox that Gilding highlights to help us understand the issues with infinite material growth is the disparity between our individual actions and mass societal behaviors. We both consider our choices so small and unimportant that they cannot harm the planet, and recognize that we—as an industrial society—control and manage our planetary resources. These two contradictory ideas, when working in tandem, create the belief that we are powerless as well as all-powerful, shaping the assumption that planetary limits are both unreachable and easily surmountable. 

A section where this crucial distinction emerges is when he is discussing climate change with leaders of the fossil fuel industry during a talk at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership, at which Gilding is a core faculty member. After describing the dire nature of our climate situation to these leaders, they, according to Gilding, made themselves appear as helpless to fix the crisis as any average citizen. This reveals that even those with the sway to cease harmful methods of energy production and begin the transition to renewable power sources are unable to disentangle their own personal profit motivations for the sake of events that are inconvenient to their goals. What remains my most pressing question, both after this section and upon my completion of the book, is what will motivate people to make the changes necessary in order to avoid a climate catastrophe?

One answer Gilding offers is that despair can be a reasonable motivator to shift the direction of public consumption and realign our growth mindset. It’s unclear if this conception of despair is separate from feelings of climate grief, an ecologically-informed anguish that is affecting many people across the world. Gilding concedes that the despair he mentions will have a slowing effect on progress that can be made but also, by mentioning those feelings as a motivator, invites important distinctions that help us understand the book and what it has to say for the lives of those in the sustainability field. 

It is here where what could be a criticism of the book ends up bringing a terrible clarity to the perilousness of our situation. Despair can be paralyzing but also be a galvanizing force for affecting change. I believe that there is something in this confusion that can be instructive to those working in the sustainability industry. Hope and despair, by themselves, are insufficient motivators for action in regards to the climate. This is especially true when brought down to the individual level where the actions suggested for the average citizen to curb climate change are to use less, which calls upon disparaging emotions, and to purchase products that are alternatives to their wasteful counterparts, which constitutes a hopeful action.  

The point that was the most illuminating in his telling was his framing of climate change as a symptom of a problem rather than the problem itself. That problem is infinite capital, and it bears discussion as this intersects with points that other writers for Green World Alliance have also discussed. The concept of a circular economy, or one that is a sustainable re-work of the linear model of consumer capitalism, goes hand in hand with a reorganization of the global economy. While Gilding himself assumes a deferential posture in his chapters that address the methods of economic overhaul, he remains steadfast on the necessity sticking to our planetary boundaries. The great disruption is not one great event that is on its way, but is already here. Our best hope, according to Gilding, is to find ways to mitigate these disastrous ecological effects. 

My main takeaway from this book, for those involved in the sustainability field, is to be persistent, seeking progress not perfection. Additionally, retreading the psychological implications of the text, there is a need for effective and affective motivators for both individual and systemic changes. What this book suggests is, in the end, part and parcel of the mission of Green World Alliance. By acting as a hub for information on how best to “green” a business, whether that be a hotel, restaurant, or office, GWA is working to disrupt the great disruption, making the world a more sustainable place.



–Jacob Rosen