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Economy that nurtures

Book>> The great disruption, how the climate crisis will transform the global economy • by Paul Gilding • Bloomsbury • Rs 599

By Rama Viswanathan
Published: Wednesday 15 August 2012

BookIt’s 2050. People shop far less compared to current times, communities are stronger, business far more responsible and political leaders more accountable. Technology is no longer nature’s greatest bugbear.

This is not a scene from science fiction. The optimist scenario is Paul Gilding’s projection in The Great Disruption, How the Climate Crisis Will Transform the Global Economy. For those unaware, Gilding is somewhat of a heretic. In the 1990s, he led Greenpeace International but moved away to advice the corporate sector on green issues—certainly not a career trajectory to win fans among activists. It’s quite unlikely that many activists will read his book.

But that will be a mistake. Gilding’s solutions have been mouthed by limits-to-growth theorists whom activists love. These solutions have been doing the rounds without actually showing much signs of taking off. Gilding shows what it will take to put them into action.

For one, he advocates a rejection of the dogma that economic growth is the only way the poor can be better off. This rejection does not stem from a biblical faith in an innate tendency in humankind that lets the meek inherit the world—in fact one chapter is cheekily titled, “No the poor will not always be with us”. Indeed, the tranquility Gilding projects will be preceded by decades of apocalypse. “We are seeing the beginning of that,” he argues. The economic crisis that began in 2008 is not a matter of banks making wrong investments. It is a culmination of centuries of wrong business choices.

imageFar worse is upon us. Millions are likely to lose their livelihoods, global fish stock will plummet, making several millions lose their primary source of protein, and climate refugees from Africa and Asia will be pushed into Europe causing unprecedented demographic upheaval.

Gilding, however, takes hope from humankind’s capacity to spring back from crises. In one of his chapters he compares the climate crisis with the rise of Hitler. In the early 1930s, European governments looked askance while Hitler embarked on his Nazi programme. It was only after Nazism threatened to run over the continent, did European governments unleash a war effort that mobilised their populations and transformed their economies and industries. Gilding has a similar prediction for what humankind will do when faced with an existential threat. This scenario combines massive investments in renewable energy and many years of slow and consistent effort to reduce our carbon emissions below zero.

The Nazi comparison notwithstanding, Gilding is not Eurocentric. Tree entrepreneurs from South Africa are one of his prominent harbingers of change. It is a programme I cannot resist describing. It involves the South African NGO, Wildlands Conservation Trust, distributing seedlings of indigenous trees and asking people to nurture them until they reach a certain height. Wildlands then buys the small trees back for credits, which the tree-entrepreneurs take to “tree stores” and exchange for bicycles, clothing, blankets and food. They can even save them up and use them for water tanks and university fees. So, while for them, money doesn’t grow on trees, food, clothing and bicycles do. Wildlands then plants these trees in urban greening and forest restoration programmes, generating carbon sinks and further local employment.

In fact, though he does not state as much, Gilding posits the universal concept of markets as a counter to the Western notion of growth as progress.

On that note, let’s get back to where we began. People do shop in the 2050s. But consumerism does not take over their lives. It is an economy that feeds, clothes, and houses all of our people, that gives everyone the opportunity to lead fulfilling lives, that treats the planet like it is the only one we have got. Amen to that.

Rama Viswanathan is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University in New Jersey in the US

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