sponsored links
TED2012

Paul Gilding: The Earth is full

February 28, 2012

Have we used up all our resources? Have we filled up all the livable space on Earth? Paul Gilding suggests we have, and the possibility of devastating consequences, in a talk that's equal parts terrifying and, oddly, hopeful.

Paul Gilding - Writer
Paul Gilding is an independent writer, activist and adviser on a sustainable economy. Click through to watch the onstage debate that followed this talk. Full bio

sponsored links
Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Let me begin with four words
00:15
that will provide the context for this week,
00:18
four words that will come to define
00:20
this century.
00:22
Here they are:
00:24
The Earth is full.
00:26
It's full of us, it's full of our stuff,
00:29
full of our waste, full of our demands.
00:32
Yes, we are a brilliant and creative species,
00:35
but we've created a little too much stuff --
00:38
so much that our economy is now bigger
00:42
than its host, our planet.
00:45
This is not a philosophical statement,
00:48
this is just science
00:50
based in physics,
00:52
chemistry and biology.
00:54
There are many science-based analyses of this,
00:57
but they all draw the same conclusion --
00:59
that we're living beyond our means.
01:02
The eminent scientists of the Global Footprint Network, for example,
01:05
calculate that we need about 1.5 Earths
01:08
to sustain this economy.
01:11
In other words,
01:14
to keep operating at our current level,
01:16
we need 50 percent more Earth than we've got.
01:18
In financial terms,
01:23
this would be like always spending 50 percent more than you earn,
01:25
going further into debt every year.
01:29
But of course, you can't borrow natural resources,
01:31
so we're burning through our capital,
01:34
or stealing from the future.
01:37
So when I say full, I mean really full --
01:40
well past any margin for error,
01:43
well past any dispute
01:45
about methodology.
01:47
What this means is our economy is unsustainable.
01:51
I'm not saying it's not nice or pleasant
01:54
or that it's bad for polar bears or forests,
01:57
though it certainly is.
01:59
What I'm saying
02:01
is our approach is simply unsustainable.
02:03
In other words, thanks to those pesky laws of physics,
02:05
when things aren't sustainable, they stop.
02:08
But that's not possible, you might think.
02:11
We can't stop economic growth.
02:13
Because that's what will stop: economic growth.
02:15
It will stop because of the end of trade resources.
02:18
It will stop because of the growing demand of us
02:21
on all the resources, all the capacity,
02:26
all the systems of the Earth,
02:28
which is now having economic damage.
02:30
When we think about economic growth stopping,
02:35
we go, "That's not possible,"
02:37
because economic growth is so essential to our society
02:40
that is is rarely questioned.
02:43
Although growth has certainly delivered many benefits,
02:46
it is an idea so essential
02:49
that we tend not to understand
02:51
the possibility of it not being around.
02:53
Even though it has delivered many benefits,
02:55
it is based on a crazy idea --
02:57
the crazy idea being
03:00
that we can have infinite growth
03:02
on a finite planet.
03:04
And I'm here to tell you the emperor has no clothes.
03:06
That the crazy idea is just that,
03:09
it is crazy,
03:11
and with the Earth full, it's game over.
03:13
Come on, you're thinking.
03:15
That's not possible.
03:17
Technology is amazing. People are innovative.
03:19
There are so many ways we can improve the way we do things.
03:22
We can surely sort this out.
03:24
That's all true.
03:26
Well, it's mostly true.
03:28
We are certainly amazing,
03:30
and we regularly solve complex problems
03:32
with amazing creativity.
03:34
So if our problem
03:36
was to get the human economy down
03:38
from 150 percent to 100 percent of the Earth's capacity,
03:40
we could do that.
03:43
The problem is we're just warming up
03:45
this growth engine.
03:47
We plan to take this highly-stressed economy
03:49
and make it twice as big
03:52
and then make it four times as big --
03:55
not in some distant future,
03:57
but in less than 40 years,
04:00
in the life time of most of you.
04:02
China plans to be there in just 20 years.
04:05
The only problem with this plan
04:09
is that it's not possible.
04:12
In response, some people argue,
04:16
but we need growth, we need it to solve poverty.
04:18
We need it to develop technology.
04:20
We need it to keep social stability.
04:22
I find this argument fascinating,
04:24
as though we can kind of bend the rules of physics
04:26
to suit our needs.
04:29
It's like the Earth doesn't care what we need.
04:34
Mother nature doesn't negotiate;
04:37
she just sets rules and describes consequences.
04:39
And these are not esoteric limits.
04:42
This is about food and water, soil and climate,
04:44
the basic practical and economic foundations
04:46
of our lives.
04:49
So the idea that we can smoothly transition
04:53
to a highly-efficient,
04:56
solar-powered, knowledge-based economy
04:58
transformed by science and technology
05:00
so that nine billion people
05:02
can live in 2050
05:04
a life of abundance and digital downloads
05:07
is a delusion.
05:09
It's not that it's not possible to feed, clothe and house us all
05:12
and have us live decent lives.
05:15
It certainly is.
05:18
But the idea that we can gently grow there
05:20
with a few minor hiccups
05:22
is just wrong,
05:24
and it's dangerously wrong,
05:26
because it means we're not getting ready
05:28
for what's really going to happen.
05:30
See what happens when you operate a system
05:32
past its limits
05:35
and then keep on going
05:37
at an ever-accelerating rate
05:39
is that the system stops working and breaks down.
05:42
And that's what will happen to us.
05:46
Many of you will be thinking,
05:53
but surely we can still stop this.
05:55
If it's that bad, we'll react.
05:57
Let's just think through that idea.
06:00
Now we've had
06:02
50 years of warnings.
06:04
We've had science proving
06:06
the urgency of change.
06:09
We've had economic analysis pointing out
06:11
that, not only can we afford it,
06:13
it's cheaper to act early.
06:15
And yet, the reality is
06:17
we've done pretty much nothing to change course.
06:19
We're not even slowing down.
06:22
Last year on climate, for example,
06:25
we had the highest global emissions ever.
06:27
The story on food, on water, on soil, on climate
06:29
is all much the same.
06:32
I actually don't say this in despair.
06:35
I've done my grieving about the loss.
06:37
I accept where we are.
06:39
It is sad,
06:41
but it is what it is.
06:43
But it is also time
06:45
that we ended our denial
06:47
and recognized
06:49
that we're not acting, we're not close to acting
06:51
and we're not going to act
06:54
until this crisis hits the economy.
06:56
And that's why the end of growth
06:58
is the central issue
07:00
and the event that we need to get ready for.
07:02
So when does this transition begin?
07:06
When does this breakdown begin?
07:08
In my view, it is well underway.
07:10
I know most people don't see it that way.
07:13
We tend to look at the world,
07:15
not as the integrated system that it is,
07:17
but as a series of individual issues.
07:19
We see the Occupy protests,
07:21
we see spiraling debt crises,
07:24
we see growing inequality,
07:26
we see money's influence on politics,
07:28
we see resource constraint, food and oil prices.
07:30
But we see, mistakenly, each of these issues
07:33
as individual problems to be solved.
07:35
In fact, it's the system
07:39
in the painful process of breaking down --
07:41
our system, of debt-fueled economic growth,
07:44
of ineffective democracy,
07:47
of overloading planet Earth,
07:49
is eating itself alive.
07:51
I could give you countless studies
07:56
and evidence to prove this,
07:57
but I won't because, if you want to see it,
08:00
that evidence is all around you.
08:02
I want to talk to you about fear.
08:05
I want to do so because, in my view,
08:08
the most important issue we face
08:11
is how we respond
08:16
to this question.
08:18
The crisis is now inevitable.
08:20
This issue is, how will we react?
08:23
Of course, we can't know what will happen.
08:27
The future is inherently uncertain.
08:30
But let's just think through what the science is telling us
08:32
is likely to happen.
08:35
Imagine our economy
08:38
when the carbon bubble bursts,
08:41
when the financial markets recognize
08:43
that, to have any hope
08:45
of preventing the climate spiraling out of control,
08:47
the oil and coal industries are finished.
08:50
Imagine China, India and Pakistan going to war
08:54
as climate impacts
08:57
generate conflict over food and water.
08:59
Imagine the Middle East without oil income,
09:03
but with collapsing governments.
09:06
Imagine our highly-tuned, just-in-time food industry
09:08
and our highly-stressed agricultural system failing
09:12
and supermarket shelves emptying.
09:15
Imagine 30 percent unemployment in America
09:19
as the global economy is gripped
09:22
by fear and uncertainty.
09:24
Now imagine what that means for you,
09:26
your family, your friends,
09:28
your personal financial security.
09:31
Imagine what it means
09:33
for your personal security
09:35
as a heavily armed civilian population
09:37
gets angrier and angrier
09:39
about why this was allowed to happen.
09:41
Imagine what you'll tell your children
09:45
when they ask you,
09:47
"So, in 2012, Mom and Dad,
09:49
what was it like
09:51
when you'd had the hottest decade on record
09:53
for the third decade in a row,
09:56
when every scientific body in the world was saying
09:58
you've got a major problem,
10:01
when the oceans were acidifying,
10:04
when oil and food prices were spiking,
10:06
when they were rioting in the streets of London
10:08
and occupying Wall Street?
10:11
When the system was so clearly breaking down, Mom and Dad,
10:13
what did you do, what were you thinking?"
10:16
So how do you feel
10:21
when the lights go out
10:24
on the global economy in your mind,
10:26
when your assumptions about the future
10:30
fade away
10:33
and something very different emerges?
10:35
Just take a moment
10:38
and take a breath
10:40
and think, what do you feel
10:42
at this point?
10:45
Perhaps denial.
10:51
Perhaps anger.
10:54
Maybe fear.
10:57
Of course, we can't know what's going to happen
11:02
and we have to live with uncertainty.
11:05
But when we think about the kind of possibilities I paint,
11:08
we should feel a bit of fear.
11:12
We are in danger, all of us,
11:16
and we've evolved to respond to danger with fear
11:19
to motivate a powerful response,
11:22
to help us bravely face a threat.
11:26
But this time it's not a tiger at the cave mouth.
11:29
You can't see the danger at your door.
11:32
But if you look,
11:35
you can see it at the door of your civilization.
11:37
That's why we need to feel our response now while the lights are still on,
11:41
because if we wait until the crisis takes hold,
11:44
we may panic and hide.
11:47
If we feel it now and think it through,
11:49
we will realize we have nothing to fear
11:51
but fear itself.
11:53
Yes, things will get ugly, and it will happen soon --
11:58
certainly in our lifetime --
12:01
but we are more than capable
12:03
of getting through everything that's coming.
12:05
You see, those people that have faith
12:08
that humans can solve any problem,
12:11
that technology is limitless, that markets can be a force for good,
12:14
are in fact right.
12:17
The only thing they're missing
12:19
is that it takes a good crisis to get us going.
12:21
When we feel fear and we fear loss
12:24
we are capable of quite extraordinary things.
12:27
Think about war.
12:30
After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it just took four days
12:33
for the government to ban the production of civilian cars
12:36
and to redirect the auto industry,
12:38
and from there to rationing of food and energy.
12:40
Think about how a company responds to a bankruptcy threat
12:44
and how a change that seemed impossible just gets done.
12:47
Think about how an individual responds
12:50
to a diagnosis of a life-threatening illness
12:52
and how lifestyle changes
12:55
that previously were just too difficult
12:57
suddenly become relatively easy.
13:00
We are smart, in fact, we really are quite amazing,
13:04
but we do love a good crisis.
13:07
And the good news, this one's a monster.
13:09
(Laughter)
13:11
Sure, if we get it wrong,
13:13
we could face the end of this civilization,
13:15
but if we get it right,
13:17
it could be the beginning of civilization instead.
13:19
And how cool would it be
13:22
to tell your grandchildren that you were part of that?
13:24
There's certainly no technical or economic barrier in the way.
13:29
Scientists like James Hansen tell us
13:34
we may need to eliminate net CO2 emissions from the economy
13:36
in just a few decades.
13:39
I wanted to know what that would take,
13:41
so I worked with professor Jorgen Randers from Norway
13:43
to find the answer.
13:46
We developed a plan called "The One Degree War Plan" --
13:48
so named because of the level of mobilization and focus required.
13:52
To my surprise,
13:56
eliminating net CO2 emissions from the economy in just 20 years
13:58
is actually pretty easy and pretty cheap,
14:01
not very cheap,
14:04
but certainly less than the cost of a collapsing civilization.
14:06
We didn't calculate that precisely,
14:09
but we understand that's very expensive.
14:11
You can read the details,
14:14
but in summary, we can transform our economy.
14:16
We can do it with proven technology.
14:18
We can do it at an affordable cost.
14:20
We can do it with existing political structures.
14:22
The only thing we need to change
14:24
is how we think and how we feel.
14:26
And this is where you come in.
14:29
When we think about the future I paint,
14:32
of course we should feel a bit of fear.
14:34
But fear can be paralyzing or motivating.
14:36
We need to accept the fear and then we need to act.
14:39
We need to act
14:42
like the future depends on it.
14:44
We need to act like we only have one planet.
14:46
We can do this.
14:50
I know the free market fundamentalists will tell you
14:52
that more growth, more stuff and nine billion people going shopping
14:55
is the best we can do.
14:58
They're wrong.
15:00
We can be more,
15:02
we can be much more.
15:04
We have achieved remarkable things
15:06
since working out how to grow food some 10,000 years ago.
15:09
We've built a powerful foundation
15:11
of science, knowledge and technology --
15:14
more than enough to build a society
15:16
where nine billion people
15:18
can lead decent, meaningful and satisfying lives.
15:20
The Earth can support that
15:22
if we choose the right path.
15:24
We can choose this moment of crisis
15:28
to ask and answer the big questions of society's evolution --
15:30
like, what do we want to be when we grow up,
15:33
when we move past this bumbling adolescence
15:36
where we think there are no limits
15:39
and suffer delusions of immortality?
15:41
Well it's time to grow up,
15:44
to be wiser, to be calmer,
15:46
to be more considered.
15:48
Like generations before us,
15:50
we'll be growing up in war --
15:52
not a war between civilizations,
15:54
but a war for civilization,
15:56
for the extraordinary opportunity
15:58
to build a society
16:00
which is stronger and happier
16:02
and plans on staying around
16:04
into middle age.
16:06
We can choose life over fear.
16:09
We can do what we need to do,
16:11
but it will take every entrepreneur,
16:15
every artist,
16:17
every scientist, every communicator,
16:19
every mother, every father, every child,
16:21
every one of us.
16:24
This could be our finest hour.
16:27
Thank you.
16:30
(Applause)
16:32

sponsored links

Paul Gilding - Writer
Paul Gilding is an independent writer, activist and adviser on a sustainable economy. Click through to watch the onstage debate that followed this talk.

Why you should listen

Watch the debate with Peter Diamandis that followed this talk >>

Paul Gilding has spent 35 years trying to change the world. He’s served in the Australian military, chased nuclear armed aircraft carriers in small inflatable boats, plugged up industrial waste discharge pipes, been global CEO of Greenpeace, taught at Cambridge University, started two successful businesses and advised the CEOs of some the world’s largest companies.

Despite his clear lack of progress, the unstoppable and flexible optimist is now a writer and advocate, travelling the world with his book The Great Disruption alerting people to the global economic and ecological crisis unfolding around us, as the world economy reaches and passes the limits to growth. He is confident we can get through what’s coming and says rather than the end of civilization, this could be the beginning! He argues we will rise to the occasion and see change at a scale and speed incomprehensible today, but need to urgently prepare for The Great Disruption and “the end of shopping”, as we reinvent the global economy and our model of social progress.

Read his reaction to attending TED2012: "Will the techno-optimists save the world?

The original video is available on TED.com
sponsored links

If you need translations, you can install "Google Translate" extension into your Chrome Browser.
Furthermore, you can change playback rate by installing "Video Speed Controller" extension.

Data provided by TED.

This website is owned and operated by Tokyo English Network.
The developer's blog is here.