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As a child of the American South and Midwest, I have more than a passing acquaintance with fundamentalist Christian apocalyptics.  So I was immediately struck by the resemblance when I read The Great Disruption, by Paul Gilding.  His book has stirred considerable excitement in the environmental community, and has recently been lauded by Tom Friedman in a New York Times column.  Its description of an imminent apocalypse is eerily similar to the Biblical Revelation of John, which prophecies that rampant evil will provoke God’s wrath and the deaths of multitudes in natural disasters and war.  Once the old world has been cleansed by catastrophe, peace and brotherhood will reign in a New Jerusalem.

Paul Gilding’s version is a bit more prosaic, but no less sweeping: “The Earth is full,” as Tom Friedman puts it, and the heedless materialism of a burgeoning humanity is shattering the Earth’s capacity to sustain it.  Climate change is but one symptom of this assault on the ecosphere, which will lead to Gilding’s apocalypse:

“We are heading for a social and economic hurricane that will cause great damage, sweep away much of our current economy and our assumptions about the future, and cause a great crisis that will impact the whole world ..”

As for the multitudes:

"… I expect we’ll tragically lose a few billion people."

Gilding prophecies that after the catastrophe, the survivors will finally accept manifest truth, abandon the materialist gods that have shattered the ecosphere, and embrace the egalitarian ethic that will govern a global New Jerusalem.

This is heady stuff, but should we believe it?  I could quibble with Gilding and Friedman about whether “the Earth is full” in so many material dimensions, but I won’t bother because agreement about one will suffice:  We’re headed for the brink on carbon emissions, and we give every indication of remaining in denial until Gilding’s climate apocalypse is upon us.  But if that actually happens, does anyone seriously expect peace and brotherhood to reign in a world that has lost “a few billion people”?  After all, we already know that the losses will be far from random.  The world’s poor will bear the brunt of a climate catastrophe, as recent studies of weather disasters, sea-level rise, agricultural losses and general vulnerability have repeatedly shown.  Any rich-world reader of The Great Disruption who is seduced by the vision of a post-apocalyptic New Jerusalem should recognize that its gates are certain to be crashed by the legions of desperate survivors in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Let’s not deceive ourselves with a millennial vision that invites fatal passivity.  Paul Gilding himself offers a hopeful note: “We may be slow, but we’re not stupid.”  So let’s act that way, because we can clearly solve the climate problem if we put our minds to it.  Something as pedestrian as a global tax of $100/ton on CO2 would probably do the trick.  That’s peanuts by any sane standard, and surely better than hoping for a New Jerusalem after the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse have laid waste to the world we’ve known.

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CGD blog posts reflect the views of the authors, drawing on prior research and experience in their areas of expertise. CGD is a nonpartisan, independent organization and does not take institutional positions.