The Great Disruption by Paul GildingI had the pleasure of being one of two featured speakers along with Paul Gilding at the 2012 Global Supply Chain Business Summit in Singapore a couple of weeks ago. Paul’s book, The Great Disruption, and his talk on the subject pretty much blew me away. I’ve been thinking about them ever since. In fact, I dare say Paul’s ideas have changed the way I think about the future and the role of innovation in our society.

In a nutshell, goes Paul’s argument, our current way of life, specifically our economic system—no, the very premise behind our world economy—is doomed to fail. We’re hitting the wall now, the beginning of the Great Disruption.

That’s because our way of life is based on unlimited growth. And of course, we live on a finite planet. We need to transition to a steady state economy, one in which we produce just what we need, and not ever-growing streams of stuff to keep our economic engine going.

Only way we’ll make that change is after we hit the wall good and hard, numerous times, and our economy crashes. Climate change is one symptom of our hitting the wall, and it will only get worse before it gets better.

What’s to do? Get through the Great Disruption and come out the other side a more enlightened society, one in which we live for what matters—relationships, custodianship of the planet, the search for meaning—rather than the endless production and pursuit of more stuff. We can grow as people and as cultures indefinitely, but can’t keep up our current pace of producing stuff. We’re using up the raw materials on our planet faster than they can recover themselves.

The book is an obvious counterpoint to another book that came out this year, Abundance, which I also reviewed. In Abundance, Steven Kotler and Peter Diamandis argue pretty much the opposite of Paul, that exponential innovation will continue to drive exponential growth. Diamandis, for one, doesn’t deny that planet Earth is finite that therefore incapable of supporting infinite growth, he simply looks to the rest of the solar system for more Planetary Resources.

I think Gilding and Diamandis/Kotler are both right. Gilding has convinced me that our economy will crash along with a good portion of our environment. We will get off planet to reach all those riches out there waiting just beyond our atmosphere, but we won’t get there fast enough to prevent the Great Disruption.

Which brings to mind the question: what are we all working for? What are you working for? To create more stuff? Or to make the world a better place to live? We need more people working the big challenges, that’s for sure. What we, in this generation, do now, will impact the rest of history as no other generation before. We’re at a crossroads, we humans. Are we going to crash and take our civilization with it? Or are we going to solve our economic/environmental/energy crisis down here on Earth and push outward to the stars? It’s really up to us.