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The Earth is Full (TED Talk by Paul Gilding)

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“Let me begin with four words… four words that will come to define this century. Here they are: The Earth is full. It's full of us, it's full of our stuff, full of our waste, full of our demands. Yes, we are a brilliant and creative species, but we've created a little too much stuff -- so much that our economy is now bigger than its host, our planet. This is not a philosophical statement, this is just science based in physics, chemistry and biology. There are many science-based analyses of this, but they all draw the same conclusion -- that we're living beyond our means.”


Have we used up all our resources and filled up all the livable space on Earth? In Paul Gilding’s TED Talk, that you can find on the TED website or on Youtube called,“ The Earth is Full”, he tells us why this is true but he also puts in a pinch of hope and solutions.

Paul Gilding is an independent writer, activist and adviser on a sustainable economy who has spent 35 years trying to change the world. He’s served in the Australian military, chased nuclear armed aircraft carriers in small inflatable boats, plugged up industrial waste discharge pipes, been global CEO of Greenpeace, taught at Cambridge University, started two successful businesses and advised the CEOs of some the world’s largest companies.


In his talk, he quotes the scientists of the Global Footprint Network who calculate that we need about 1.5 Earths to sustain this economy.


“In financial terms, this would be like always spending 50 percent more than you earn, going further into debt every year. But of course, you can't borrow natural resources, so we're burning through our capital, or stealing from the future."

Simply put, Paul then tells us that what this means is our economy is unsustainable, by the definition of the word.


“When we think about economic growth stopping, we go, ‘That's not possible,’ because economic growth is so essential to our society that is so rarely questioned… The problem is we're just warming up this growth engine. We plan to take this highly-stressed economy and make it twice as big and then make it four times as big -- not in some distant future, but in less than 40 years, in the life time of most of you. China plans to be there in just 20 years. The only problem with this plan is that it's not possible.”


 What I really enjoyed about Mr. Gilding’s talk was his careful precision in addressing the other point of view on this issue and shedding light on it.


“In response, some people argue, but we need growth, we need it to solve poverty. We need it to develop technology. We need it to keep social stability. I find this argument fascinating, as though we can kind of bend the rules of physics to suit our needs. It's like the Earth doesn't care what we need. Mother nature doesn't negotiate; she just sets rules and describes consequences. And these are not esoteric limits. This is about food and water, soil and climate, the basic practical and economic foundations of our lives. “


I could not agree more with this former Greenpeace CEO. And I would assert that most human beings would also agree. It is SO easy to just bury our heads in the sand, but what Paul is saying is clear : WAKE UP PEOPLE! He paints a solemn picture for us by imagining the future, ridden with more energy wars and scarcity.


“Imagine what you'll tell your children when they ask you, ‘So, in 2012, Mom and Dad, what was it like when you'd had the hottest decade on record for the third decade in a row, when every scientific body in the world was saying you've got a major problem, when the oceans were acidifying, when oil and food prices were spiking, when they were rioting in the streets of London and occupying Wall Street? When the system was so clearly breaking down, Mom and Dad, what did you do, what were you thinking?’ So how do you feel when the lights go out on the global economy in your mind, when your assumptions about the future fade away and something very different emerges? Just take a moment and take a breath and think, what do you feel at this point?”


When I heard his words and his question, I was gripped with fear. Imagining the whole global economy in complete shambles was frankly scary. But then he assures us with a solution.


“When we think about the future I paint, of course we should feel a bit of fear. But fear can be paralyzing or motivating. We need to accept the fear and then we need to act. We need to act like the future depends on it. We need to act like we only have one planet. We can do this. I know the free market fundamentalists will tell you that more growth, more stuff and nine billion people going shopping is the best we can do. They're wrong. We can be more, we can be much more…The Earth can support that if we choose the right path."


He also makes an extraordinarily great point about our ability to conserve. After the bombing of Pearl Harbor, it just took four days for the government to ban the production of civilian cars and to redirect the auto industry, and from there to rationing of food and energy. He also explains that eliminating net CO2 emissions from the economy in just 20 years is actually pretty easy and pretty inexpensive and “certainly less than the cost of a collapsing civilization.” 

He declares that we can transform our economy. We can do it with proven technology. We can do it at an affordable cost. We can do it with existing politics. The only thing we need to change is how we think and how we feel. And this is where we come in.


I will end with his quote that took my breath away, and transformed my fear into energy to take on yet another day as an activist for this planet:


“We can choose this moment of crisis to ask and answer the big questions of society's evolution -- like, what do we want to be when we grow up, when we move past this bumbling adolescence where we think there are no limits and suffer delusions of immortality? Well it's time to grow up, to be wiser, to be calmer, to be more considered. Like generations before us, we'll be growing up in war -- not a war between civilizations, but a war for civilization…We can choose life over fear. We can do what we need to do, but it will take every entrepreneur, every artist, every scientist, every communicator, every mother, every father, every child, every one of us. This could be our finest hour. "


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