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