Scream or Countdown

The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding, subtitled Why the Climate Crisis Will Bring the End of Shopping and the Birth of a New World, Bloomsbury Press, 2011, gives us a screaming wakeup call. It predicts “global economic and social collapse,” a thorough “decent into chaos,” and that humans “won’t change at scale until the crisis is full-blown.” There’s no denying the mounting evidence, or historic precedence. Gilding is not a manic Chicken Little, but he is loopy. From the chapter one, which is actually an introduction, he assails us with gratuitous optimism. “This is where the story gets really interesting, not to mention a lot more cheerful and uplifting!” (Why tell me you’re not mentioning what you’re mentioning, and top it off with an inapposite exclamation point?) Then there’s more gloom and doom, then more farcical optimism with statements like, “The news gets better. . .” (No exclamation this time?) If he hadn’t been a past leader of Greenpeace International, I’d have thought he was writing satire for a comedy sketch.

The book is an extended version of a paper he wrote in 2005 called “Scream Crash Boom.” He goes on to provide us with a good explanation of the Scream, that is, the first warnings that our world is headed towards disaster. He starts with the Cranberry scare of 1959, moves on to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring in 1962, and continues with many of the other ’60s and ’70s environmental highlights, smog, Three Mile Island, DDT, the establishment of the EPA, Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book The Population Bomb, the Stockholm Conference of 1972, the OPEC oil embargo, and the MIT publication of “The Limits to Growth,” a projection of the inevitable if we maintain our business as usual policy.

The Crash and the Boom seem to have been forgotten, or maybe they are there buried somewhere in his ramblings without having made the direct connections. Either way, the book falls apart after chapter five, and I couldn’t take any more after chapter ten. Only so much of his stating the obvious, tautology, and prolixity is bearable. He grossly overextends himself, enamored with his prognostication and confirmation biased claims of accuracy. The future, Gilding states, “Has been the focus of a great deal of my research. . .” I’d really like to know how the future can be researched—a time machine perhaps? It’s unfortunate that he does such a bang-up job of sabotaging his own thesis. His arguments are inconsistently supported by his scattered, ill-defined, and disconnected chains of thought. There’s no need to beat a dead horse. Chapter one through five are possibly worth a quick read if you can get past his naive it’ll all come out in the wash, head in the sand, humanity shall overcome when faced with a crisis (even if its scale dwarfs any other in the history of our species), ’cause, aw shucks, we’ve always made it in the past pie-in-the-sky Pollyanna drivel.

In strong contrast, there’s Alan Weisman’s new book Countdown, a followup to his previous book A World Without Us. Weisman offers the reader a deeper, more thoughtful look at the future we’re blindly heading into. He respects his readers by not telling us what’s wrong, but rather, and more effectively, by showing us. There’s no browbeating with doomsday predictions. Weisman is a consummate journalist and an excellent writer. He tells us stories that weave startling images of the present conditions worldwide; the logical consequences of those conditions in turn reveal the fabric of the future. It’s done with an almost dispassionate objectivity, but underlying his levelheaded presentation is a muffled scream—a palpable and lurid alarm. He makes no definitive predictions, but the road ahead is undeniably exposed.

After traversing the globe for his research, interviewing people in England, Italy, Israel, China, Japan, Indian, Pakistan, Nepal, Niger, Nigeria, Libya, Philippines, Iran, Thailand, and elsewhere, he plies us with example after example of how we humans have transformed our global communities, economic systems, and biosphere. The stresses on these global systems are clearly exceeding the capacity for renewal, that is, we’re withdrawing more than nature can deposit, or in a single word, unsustainable. This has happened many times in the past. But in the past, it has all come out in the wash. The threat was localized, effecting only a small corner of the world for a relatively short period. An isolated population would wipe itself out through over consumption caused by exceeding the carrying capacity of the environment, and that was the end. Once the population collapsed, nature would recuperate. Today it’s intercontinental, and at an unprecedented scale. That scale is 7.1 billion and counting.

Countdown is not a book to be discounted. Its message needs to be read, to be absorbed, and talked about. And acted upon.

Countdown, Alan Weisman, Little, Brown & Company, 2013

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