So What’s the Plan After the ‘Great Disruption’?

As we ponder the root causes of our economic and ecological distress, we should also be thinking about what to do if things get much worse.

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is famous for his big picture narratives, the kind that unify global trends by connecting a Lexus and an olive tree, and depicting the world to be hot, flat and crowded. In recent years, Friedman has become convinced that civilization is on the cusp of a “great disruption,” an economic and ecological reckoning of sorts. It’s been interesting to watch him fit disparate events into this latest grand theory.


For instance, two years ago, as the worldwide financial meltdown was under way, he wrote: “I am coming to the conclusion that the market and Mother Nature both hit the wall here in 2008/2009.” By this summer, he believed the proof was piling up. He led off a June column:

“You really do have to wonder whether a few years from now we’ll look back at the first decade of the 21st century — when food prices spiked, energy prices soared, world population surged, tornados plowed through cities, floods and droughts set records, populations were displaced and governments were threatened by the confluence of it all — and ask ourselves: What were we thinking? How did we not panic when the evidence was so obvious that we’d crossed some growth/climate/natural resource/population redlines all at once?”

In a column earlier this week, Friedman revisited the “great disruption” theme again, citing additional evidence:

“When you see spontaneous social protests erupting from Tunisia to Tel Aviv to Wall Street, it’s clear that something is happening globally that needs defining.”

This time, Friedman left room for another explanation, taken from a recent book called The Power of Pull. Instead of a “great disruption,” Friedman says the authors suggest:

“that we’re in the early stages of a ‘Big Shift,’ precipitated by the merging of globalization and the Information Technology Revolution. In the early stages, we experience this Big Shift as mounting pressure, deteriorating performance and growing stress because we continue to operate with institutions and practices that are increasingly dysfunctional — so the eruption of protest movements is no surprise.”

At end of that column, Friedman invited the reader to decide which thesis best describes the state of the world.

With respect to climate change and increasing environmental pressures, there is a prevailing opinion of many that the world won’t act until the evidence mounts to crisis proportions.

For example, noting the deadlocked climate politics, Thomas Homer-Dixon has written that “we’ll almost certainly need some kind of devastating climate shock to get effective climate policy.” He argues:

“Policy makers need to accept that societies won’t make drastic changes to address climate change until such a crisis hits. But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing for them to do in the meantime. When a crisis does occur, the societies with response plans on the shelf will be far better off than those that are blindsided. The task for national and regional leaders, then, is to develop a set of contingency plans for possible climate shocks — what we might call, collectively, Plan Z.”

While the discussion over a unifying theory of global upheaval continues, it might be wise to keep the suggestion for a Plan Z in mind.

Keith Kloor

Keith Kloor is a New York City-based freelance journalist who writes often about the environment and climate change.
Bookmark the permalink.

11 Responses to So What’s the Plan After the ‘Great Disruption’?

  1. Disruption, pull, crash or fall.

    Ah yes… our civilization is just beginning to discover the ruthless certainty of gravity and thermodynamics.

    All the talk, newspapers and politics will do little to change those laws. The challenge, as always, will be for survival – It used to be the heroism of individual struggles, or even the tragedy of a few species lost, but now it will be all humans facing the great test.

  2. Asteroid Miner says:

    If we don’t act immediately and take draconian action, we humans could be extinct by 2060.   This is not a joke.

    Please read:
    “Drought Under Global Warming: a Review”

    See the maps of drought in the 2060s on page 15.

    “Preliminary Analysis of a Global Drought Time Series”  by Barton Paul Levenson, not yet published. Under BAU [Business As Usual], agriculture and civilization will collapse some time between 2050 and 2055 due to drought caused by GW [Global Warming].

    “Ecological Footprints and Bio-Capacity: Essential Elements in Sustainability Assessment”  by William E. Rees, PhD, University of British Columbia and “Living Planet Report 2008″ also by Rees.

    We went past the Earth’s permanent carrying capacity for humans some time in the 1980s.   We are 20%+ over our limit already.   And the US no longer has excess biocapacity.   We are feeding on imports. 4 Billion people will die because we are 2 Billion over the carrying capacity. An overshoot must be followed by an undershoot.

    Reference: “The Long Summer” by Brian Fagan and “Collapse” by Jared Diamond.   When agriculture collapses, civilization collapses.   Fagan and Diamond told the stories of something like 2 dozen previous very small civilizations.   Most of the collapses were caused by fraction of a degree climate changes.   In some cases, all of that group died.   On the average, 1 out of 10,000 survived.    We humans could go EXTINCT in 2051.   The 1 out of 10,000 survived because he wandered in the direction of food.   If the collapse is global, there is no right direction.

    1. We must take extreme action now.   Cut CO2 production 40% by the end of 2015.   [How to do this:  Replace all coal fired power plants with factory built nuclear and renewables.]   Continuing to make CO2 is the greatest imaginable GENOCIDE.   We have to act NOW.   Acting in 2049 will not work.   Nature just doesn’t work that way.   All fossil fuel fired power plants must be shut down and replaced with nuclear and renewables.   Target date: 2015.

    2. Expect at least 4 Billion people to die because of the population overshoot. Attempt to maintain some form of civilization while this happens.

    How are we feeding 7 billion now? On “mined” water. Aquifers are running dry. When the aquifers are dry, the food is gone.

  3. Dan Rogers says:

    Hogwash! All this carbon scareyness is simply hogwash! The climate is just fine, slowly getting warmer as we emerge from the current ice age. I agree that nuclear power generation is the wave of the future, but there is no need to be telling lies about how carbon dioxide generation by humans is going to spell the end to civilization as we know it.

    Digging coal out of the ground, and pumping oil and gas out of the ground, and burning them to generate electric power is simply wasteful of human energy when nuclear power generation is so much easier to do. But there is no need to spook people into that course of action by lying to them about dire climate change caused by carbon dioxide. That kind of malarkey discredits “environmentalism” in general.

    • Eadler says:

      In fact there is no natural cause for climate to get warmer. The long term trend is for the climate to get colder due to the point we are in the Milankovitch cycle. We emerged from the ice age about 10,000 years ago and the global temperature peaked about 8000 years ago, and has generally trended cooler since then.

      It is debatable whether Nuclear power is the wave of the future, and siting of plants in the US and other places is quite difficult.

  4. Tanager says:

    Dan, what are your qualifications for making such statements compared to, say, the National Academies of Sciences of 13 top industrial nations?

    Sounds like you slept in a Holiday Inn Express last night. Apparently not the one in Fukashima…

    • Michael Ioffe says:

      If Copernicus, Newton, Faraday, Einstein and many others scientists will agree with 99.999.. percent of scientists of their time, where will be our science today?
      Look on properties of water and you will forget about opinion of 13 national Academies and 98% of peer reviewed so called scientists of climate change, which used political slogan-Debate is over to support their nonsense.

  5. Michael Ioffe says:

    We have problems with two sciences- economy and climate change, which using computer modeling without understanding reality.
    In economy globalization of today level brings old economical statement that money could save economy to nonsense.
    At the same time two main parties in USA still trying save our economy or by bail out or by ceiling.
    In climate change computer models properties of water or ignored or in the best cases involved as parameters.
    It brings wrong explanation for reason of climate change and wrong tools to fight climate change by solar cells, windmills, nuclear power, which are disaster as for environment as for economy.
    It gives populist like Friedman, Al Gore, Bill Clinton. Pak Ki Moon, Tony Blair, Robert Redford…., power and influence in mass media hysteria about our future.
    They will be right, if even in Yale University media forum most of articles are not scientific.

  6. Eadler says:

    It is interesting to note that one of the leading Republican Candidates for the presidency, Rick Perry has absolutely no plan except to pray for rain.
    In addition, the state of Texas refuses to publish any reports by climate scientists in which climate change is mentioned.

    “In one of the most flagrant recent instances of scientific censorship, the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) refused to publish a report chapter unless all mention of climate change and its impact on sea level rise were eliminated. The author — Rice University oceanographer John Anderson, a leading expert on sea level rise with more than 200 publications — refused. As a result, TCEQ killed his chapter in The State of the Bay, a regular publication of the Galveston Bay Estuary Program.

    Climate Progress interviewed Anderson along with other Texas scientists who revealed that this is not the first time officials removed references to climate change in a state report. Dr. Wendy Gordon, a scientist who spent 8 years working for the TCEQ and its predecessor agencies, told me she was not surprised by this censorship at all. She related the story of one of her colleagues whose attempt to incorporate climate change into a state water planning report was “eviscerated by the higher-ups.””

    • Michael Ioffe says:

      I am trying to bring attention to properties of water in cooling of atmosphere, despite water vapor is GHG, durind 6 years.
      You could found my responces in articles of site Chevron, in the huffington post.
      I badly tried to bring attention in many scientific and not so scientific magazines, in news papers to new opportunities in our economy and fighting climate change, if we will realize real influence of water on climate.
      I send email to President Bush, to Senators Obama, McCain, and many others, to President Obama.
      I wrote even book about this-Economy and climate change or KGB agent in 2010.
      I present around 40 copies of this book to everyone, who interested, and that it.
      Censorship about properties of water in peer reviewed mass media, universities is unlimited.
      I will advice to you, please look on all properties of water-evaporation, condensation, participation in convection forces, cloud formation, solving in droplets of rain all gases, including carbon dioxide.
      If after that you will believe in today science of climate change, look again in properties of water.
      Climate change is real, explanation of reason, why it happen is wrong and it will bring to mankind more problems than we had before.

  7. Jack Hughes says:

    Keith, where do people get these apocalyptic ideas from? I thought you lot were “post-religious”?

  8. scas says:

    The above comments prove the Homer Dixon’s point that a severe shock is necessary to mobilize the public.

    Unfortunately, that shock will come very soon. The Arctic sea ice reached a record low volume and can be expected to disappear before 2020 and as soon as 2013. Methane hydrate mobilization from the East Siberian Arctic Shelf and permafrost has begun. This we are due for a Lovelockian future of militarized nations, geoengineering and synthetic sugars, oils, and fungal proteins. Canada, USA, and Russia will capitalize on the Arctics massive oil, gas, and mineral reserves.

    We will experience abrupt climate change, desertification of our croplands, and famine. This will be the shock.