The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding

I am over halfway through this book and it’s going to give me some kind of brain herniation if I keep reading it. It’s called The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding. The book started out pretty well. At one point I even said to my wife that I thought she’d enjoy it, as it laid out a series of very solid facts about the world economy, more clearly than anything else I’d read, that aligned perfectly with ideas she’s held for some time. Sadly, that recommendation was premature. It was sort of like reaching into the fridge for this perfect-looking carrot, only to realize the whole ass–end has turned to orange pudding in the bag.

The central premise of the book is based on an essay Gilding wrote called Scream, Crash, Boom, which details the three Kübler-Rossian phases he believes the world is going to go through as we face down climate change and economic collapse. Scream is what environmentalists and leftie economists have been doing the last two decades. Crash is, well, the inevitable collapse of our fossil-fuelled, growth-addicted society. And Boom is the social, economic, and technological utopia on the other side of the crash. Oh, and did I mention he believes the entire cycle will be complete by mid-century?

Therein lies the cause of my impending brain herniation.

The big metaphor of the book is this. A fast-moving climate change/economic collapse train is bearing down on us. But we don’t know it because it’s very foggy. Then, at the last minute, when we clue in to how bad things are, the fog clears and we jump out of the way of the giant locomotive.

OK, the poet in me had his hand raised at this point. Yeah, I’m that annoying kid who interrupts the teacher mid-sentence to point out that the first thing out of her mouth is wrong and all the hours of teaching and notes and quizzes she had prepared, well, we may never get to it.
Let me first say, wow, dude, you couldn’t have picked a worse metaphor. The biggest problem with it is that it’s far too simple. He makes the absurd assumption that nothing else bad is going to happen between now and solving this magically isolated problem of climate change. If you could step back a bit and give me a little metaphor-telescoping room, I will demonstrate.

OK, there is a train bearing down on us. But this isn’t your average 5:00p.m. Commuter Special that is going to play fair. The truth is, it slipped the rails half a mile back and now about forty cars are coming at you sideways. Yes, it’s foggy (do I smell hydrogen sulfide?). But there is also a murder of tornados bearing down on you (I love crow references). Oh, and we can’t forget about the fracking-caused earthquake under your feet preventing you from running away or the fact that you lost your job in the nose-diving economy and want to kill yourself anyway. The train’s just going to save you a bullet. There’s also a flood on the coast that has drowned your mother-in-law and the drunken last-born in her basement. But hey, no loss there. Incidentally, your town hasn’t had a source of water in two years. The company that drained the aquifer went bankrupt, so the only job you could get was euthanizing the ducks that fell into the toxic tailings ponds. Now you keep falling over from the weigh of the tumor on your left temple, so even getting to the train track was a problem.

Too much? Mr. Gilding thinks so. His entire argument hinges on the ideas that just because it is necessary to solve our problems, we will, and just because the technologies to solve them exist, we will use them. Dude, you ever hear about Easter Island? How they needed wood to build boats so they could fish and yet, they cut down every last tree on the island to transport their giant sculptures to the beach and had zilch left for boats or houses. As a result, their entire culture collapsed and most of them starved to death.

He believes that the fog will lift by 2024, long before we have any problems other than fog. Between now and then is time enough for us not only to stop all fossil fuels emissions, but to reverse the effects of all the emissions since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to keep this century’s expected temperature rise down. How? Well, apparently we have carbon capture and storage technology for all fossil fuels uses except coal-fired power plants. But between government pressure and the markets coming to their senses, they’re all going to close anyway. Yes, you heard it here. The governments are going to apply pressure to industry to get it to commit hara-kiri and the stock market is going to suddenly get a conscience.

I don’t know if you’re read the news lately, but one of today’s headlines is, Romney: Get rid of energy officials, meaning, he wants to fire the top energy and environment administrators and increase U.S. oil drilling and natural gas and coal energy development. This could be your next prez, guys. And if he gets in, it’s likely he will be in power till 2020.

The fog is getting thicker by the day. Yes, today’s clean energy advocates are jumping for joy that coal’s percentage of U.S. power generation is the lowest it has been since 1979. Sadly, it’s not because they got a conscience or the government put pressure on producers of the fuel. No, it’s that low because the government lifted pressure on producers of a different fuel, natural gas. Did that stop the coal industry? No, they keep digging and are looking hungrily for new markets.  In the first 3/4 of 2010, they dug 808 million tons. Over the same period of 2011, that rose to 812 million. As far as energy is concerned, government is in a frenzy of deregulation. Canadian Prime Minister Harper walked away from Kyoto and seemed to have no trouble convincing the rest of the world not to talk about climate change till 2015 and not do anything about it till at least 2020. Meanwhile, it’s business as usual, and given the inertia of the global system, it will be many decades before that changes significantly.

So, according to Gilding, once we clue in, we’re just going to capture all emissions and store them. I have to tell you, that’s just not going to happen. I’m not even going to mention the fact that governments will ultimately be responsible for maintaining those carbon storage sites for thousands of years. Hey, there’s good investment for your pension fund. And if any company is allowed to dump that problem onto their environment minister, they deserve some kind of Con-Job-of-the-Millennium Award.

Mr. Gilding is big on using economics to sell environmental arguments. Well, here’s one for you. It takes as much, if not more, energy to capture and store CO2 as it does to produce the fuels it is a by-product of. Are you telling me that industry will be OK with digging twice as much coal or drilling twice as much oil and get only the same amount of profit it’s getting today? Who do you think that lack of profit will be passed on to?

Which brings us to the question of the nature of our fossil-fueled capitalism. No company would be extracting fossil fuels if they had to pay the true cradle-to-grave price of the fuels and the consequences of their emissions. All that stuff they don’t have to pay for are called externalities. It’s the nature of capitalism to get someone else to pay the price and you reap the profit. Think of all the sources of energy we’ve had over the centuries. Horsepower, wood, coal, oil, gas, even slavery and the use of low-paid workers to make your stuff. The people who reaped the energy benefits got out much more than they, personally, put in. There would be no “profit” without someone or something else paying the shot. In the case of fossil fuels, we’re using the energy from millions of years of biological, geological, and chemical forces. You could argue that that energy is free for the drilling and there are very few externalities. The government gives a permit, the oil company takes on the capital risk and spends a chunk on iron and men to get the oil out. Free, right? The problem comes when no one is paying for the heat trapping CO2 that causes droughts, floods, stronger hurricanes, deaths, disease and so on. These are the true externalities the industry is not paying for. The very second they have to pay for it, they can no longer make a profit and they will go out of business. And no government will put their biggest industries out of business, period. So give up on government pressuring industry into self-annihilation and give up on industry coming to its senses and wanting to save the world.

The only way there will be a large push is when there is climate change equivalent of 9/11. And Gilding is right on this point: we need to put a face on the danger. A Hitler moustache on the fact that we are about to lose our lives, our freedoms, or both. Sadly, this is also the very reason we don’t have government sounding the alarm bells. If they started putting up anti-Nazi posters about the evils of the very industries that run their economies and got them into power, they wouldn’t be in power very long. Worse yet, if the entire country decided they were right and got behind them, what do you think would happen? In the next nano-second, when the stock markets got wind of the fact that in order to save ourselves the oil, gas, and coal industries all had to shut up shop, we would face an immediate and complete economic collapse. No more cars, plastics, electronics, heat, electricity or food? How are you going to make your solar panels and windmills then?

What pisses me off the most about Gilding’s book is that he spends the entire last two-thirds talking about what it will be like after the fog lifts. Dude, I gotta tell you. There are lots of psychics around, all of them are annoying whether they’re right or wrong. So as not to look like an idiot later, we can’t help but suspend belief. Yes, there is a tiger out there in the dark. Yes, he’s going to attack and we’re not ready. But then there’s the nitwit in the back of the cave talking about all the sweet, snuggly babies the survivors are going to have.

The details of the future are extremely difficult to predict. Climate change and economic crisis are only two variables. What about world politics, disease, fresh water, over-population and their myriad interactions? The climate change fog could be the least of our problems. All we need is one pandemic or the release of a big bunch of clathrates and we’re hooped. So enough about our glorious future. The train is going to hit a lot of people and it’s going to keep travelling at full speed for several thousand years. We’re not going to fix it all by 2024. I’m trying to sharpen my spear here, so shut up about the snuggly babies.


Erratum (March 27, 2012)
“Coal’s percentage of U.S. power generation is the lowest it has been since 1979 … because the government lifted pressure on producers of a different fuel, natural gas.” This is not true, I’ve discovered. Or rather, it is far from being the biggest truth. Mea maxima culpa. There are several, much larger issues that have caused coal’s lessening contribution to total U.S. energy.

1. Declining resource quality. Though plans for almost all new power plants in the U.S. the past decade have been cancelled or delayed, and though total tonnage has increased, the quality of the coal being dug has declined considerably. As with the oil industry, all the low-hanging fruit is gone. Coal producers must now run to keep in place: even though they are digging more, they are producing less of the country’s overall energy.

2. Declining resource quantity. Three states mine 52% of the country’s coal (Pennsylvania, West Virgina, and Kentuky). Production in all three states is either in decline or at a plateau. Companies in Pennsylvania are now forced to mine seams as thin as 28 inches.

3. Increased production costs. Since the price of oil got legs in 2004/2005, the cost of mining and transporting coal has gone through the roof. It has now become far less competitive compared to natural gas.

There are other reasons, of course, like NIMBY and political pressure to cut back on carbon emissions, but these are the biggies.