The TH Interview: Paul Hawken—Blessed Unrest (Part One)

Image credit: Shall.us

For many people, Paul Hawken is a man who needs no introduction at all. As an author, a speaker, a theorist, and a business person, Paul Hawken has shaped the discussion of what sustainability is, and how it can be achieved. His Ecology of Commerce was an eye opener for many people (including Ray Anderson, last week’s interviewee), and Natural Capitalism, that he wrote with Amory and Hunter Lovins, can often be seen in the hands of Bill Clinton, brandished as a wakeup call to industry. Paul’s new book, Blessed Unrest (and its sister web community, Wiser Earth), is something different altogether: an exploration of what he says is the largest movement in human history. ::TreeHugger Radio

Listen to the podcast of this interview via iTunes, or just click here to listen, right-click to download.

Special thanks go to CraigMichaels, the organizer of the Sustainable Operations Summit, for arranging this interview.

(Full text after the jump)TreeHugger: Blessed Unrest is an exploration of this huge underground thing, this groundswell, that most people didn't seem to even know was there. It seemed that you'd been getting hints over the years that it was there, but never had you thought of truly trying to zero in on how big it is. But that's been the subject of this exploration. What is it? How big is it?

Paul Hawken: Well, it goes back years and years. In talking to groups you meet people, and people share with you what they're doing and give you business cards. I’d take them home and look at them. And what I noticed over time was that I didn't know these groups; that is, I hadn't been familiar with them and I hadn't heard about them before. And there's a sense in the media that you know what civil society is: it's the NRDC, it’s the Sierra Club, it's Amnesty, it's Oxfam, WWOOF.

And you hear new groups, but basically you hear about the same groups over and over again, because they have press relations and that's who the media turns to. And what impressed me was how many other organizations there were. And I just assumed there was a list, a database, a registry, or somewhere where you could just go look it up and figure out who was there, doing what and where. And there wasn't.

And so the whole book, Blessed Unrest, really started out of curiosity. I was curious to know how many and where they were and what they were doing. And that just kept growing and growing as the numbers grew; and I began to explore tax records here and abroad and other databases. And, any way I could, I started to extrapolate what the numbers were. And the numbers started at 30,000 (which I thought was high, actually) so, from then on, every number after that seemed incredible; and it went to 70,000.

But, at 70,000 organizations in the environmental field, I thought, ‘Wait a minute.’ I really understood you couldn't disaggregate social justice and the environment at all. You had to count those. And that upped the count, deedless to say, and it went to 150 000, 250,000, and it just kept climbing ever since. And now it's between one million and two million, easily.

TH: So Wiser Earth aggregates these, it's like if every NGO had a Facebook page. But it's more malleable even than that: it's got a whole interactive and open source wiki component. How are you finding these groups or magnetizing them so that they find you? And then how are they plugging in to be part of it?

PH: Well, you have to go to the site (WiserEarth.org) and play. We first started by seeding it with 100,000 organizations. And then we turned on different functions—groups and personal networking sites. And essentially we've turned it over to the community. And it's very different than most of the social networking sites. Most of them, almost without exception, are businesses, and they're commodifying the green movement. And so the more face time they can get from you online, the more they can resell you to an advertiser.

And we decided that wasn't our goal. We thought there should be a place where civil society can meet that isn’t sponsored—in other words, that is in fact just a meeting. Get in the room and talk (obviously a digital room). So Wiser Earth is very different in the sense that the community is really deciding the future and the functionality, how it's changing, how it's growing.

And what you're seeing now is that the platform is open source, and different organizations are taking the whole platform and creating their own sites. Then we are in the process of connecting in on the level of information; that is to say, the personal profiles, or the organizations, or the events, or the groups that are on there actively discussing and planning and meeting and doing things.

So our goal is very different than what you see out there, which is to brand something or to be the hub. Our goal is to serve the movement and find and create better ways for it to connect and communicate and collaborate with itself. It doesn't exclude any other organization. We are writing APIs right now so people can create widgets to use the data and connect into it any way they want, and vice versa.

But we wanted a place where people could create themselves, in the non-profit movement, instead of it being part of a branded thing.

TH: You say that nobody saw this movement coming. And people must ask you, ‘If it's so massive, why wasn't it seen?’ How come it's so difficult to show that it's there, even now that we have an awareness that it exists? Why so invisible?

PH: There are many reasons. It's us, how we see the world, how we're trained to see the world. We're trained to see the world in terms of charismatic organizations and charismatic people. That's who we look to for leadership and change, for transformation.

We're awaiting the next J.F.K., the next Martin Luther King, the next Gandhi, the next Nelson Mandela. We're looking for those people, and we find them. People like Wangari Mathaai, women or men who do espouse and uphold a lot of these qualities. We give them Nobel Prizes and we're very happy that these people exist.

But the fact is, that's not how real change occurs. Real change occurs from the bottom up, it occurs person to person, and it almost always occurs in small groups and locales and then bubbles up and aggregates to larger vectors of change.

So the movement we're talking about, the unnamed movement of environmental social justice and indigenous organizations, are forming and collecting to address the salient issues of our time: in poverty and water and climate and the enormous inequities that exist economically in the world, the continuous and rapid degradation of our resource bases, the injustice of pollution itself, in terms of what it does to people's health and their children.

Those organizations organize themselves usually in a region, in a city, in a village, in a rural area, because some entity has not taken charge of a problem. They have a problem, and they turn to their government, or they turn to the corporation that is deforesting their watershed. They don't find that they're getting any help, or there's no response, or they are experiencing the commons, which they share, as being destroyed by outsiders.

And so the reason there are so many nongovernmental organizations is that the true non-governing organizations, the true NGOs, are in Washington, D.C. and Paris and Bonn and London and Tokyo. And those governing organizations really are non-governing organizations, not because they've been taken over by money and corporations, and they're corrupt (and the corruption is so ubiquitous and so complete, from Russia all the way through Africa and up through the Americas and so forth, that we just take it for granted, and we just say, well, that's just the way it is).

Well, that's not the way it is. It can be other ways, as well.

So because of that default, that lack of governance, that lack of leadership, that lack of the willingness for national organizations to really represent their people instead of representing money, we see this enormous rise of civil society to take over, to create, in the handmade way, the real democracies of our time.


TH: In Blessed Unrest you talk about how this is not an ideological movement. It is free from isms and from these charismatic male vertebrates. It's not branded, in other words. And that's why it's so hard to get a handle on.

But, at the same time, it seems like it's always getting slapped with labels, with ism labels like "liberalism" or "environmentalism." Is that people's effort to try to pull it back in to an identifiable sphere?

PH: Exactly. What happens is that the media has a pretty short attention span, and actually a pretty small vocabulary, so the tendency of the media is to pigeonhole everything—not just this but a person, art, any genre, anything. It wants to find a name, a category.

And if it doesn't have one that's preexisting, then it will just mash it into something that already does. So the labeling is due to two things: to the ignorance of it, which is that the media tends to gravitate towards civil society when there's a march, when there's resistance, when there is a protest, when there are signs, when there's conflict of some sort.
The media is all excited about that. If there's teargas, better; if there's pyrotechnics or an arrest, then it gets really excited about it. And, for them, that's civil society.

But in our analysis, at the most one percent of the organizations in the world are about protests and resistance. (And thank God they're there, by the way. They do an amazing, amazing job.) But the other 99 percent are about ideas, about information, about solutions. It's about collaboration. It's about listening.

You can't, in a village or in a logging town, figure out how to work with everybody and solve the problems that beset the community unless you're going to listen, first of all. And you can't take a divisive, polarizing, ideological position and win the day. You can't—it doesn't work.

What you find is that most of these on-the-ground organizations are not apolitical, they're political, but they're not ideological in the political sense. And they're trying to work on behalf of people they serve and those people around them, and so they have to listen to them.

So they’re liberals and they're progressives. They're all those things. They're the true conservatives: they want to conserve resources and what is truly valuable for future generationsc

They're progressives because they really do want to see progress and they're seeing a world going off a cliff right now. They're seeing a world do everything it can to make it worse for the future and the people who are coming.

So any label will do, as long as it's not just one label. They are religious: most of these groups have some sort of spiritual practice or belief that they talk about. They don't wear it on their sleeve. It's the most diverse movement in the world. It's in every city, country, culture, language there is, without exception, from the Arctic all the way down to Antarctica.

So what you're seeing here is something that we couldn't imagine, because it's really us, if you will, rising up from the bottom. Not to go over the ramparts and overthrow the king, but to reinfuse society with the possibility that there are very, very different ways of living, different ways of doing things, and much more astute ways to come together and express the fundamental values of what it means to be a human being.

TH: You categorize this movement into three main groups. What are the groups, and how do they blend together and interconnect?

PH: I divide it into the environmental movement, the social-justice movement, and indigenous organizations.

The indigenous organizations are the fewest in number, but in many ways are the hub or the core, on a philosophical level, because indigenous cultures never disaggregated the idea of the environment and us. And so they never had two different expressions.

In the West, human rights and the environment arose really in different ways. The human rights and social justice movement really goes back to the abolitionists' movement, and takes most of what it does today from those early activities. The environmental movement has roots in different countries and different places. In Europe, it's different than in the United States, different in Japan and China. So there isn't a single root of that.

But the coming together of them is obvious, because one is just the kith of the other. They're kith and kin in the sense that everything we do to harm the place we live in is an injustice to those who are there and who will come. When you pollute a river, it's a supreme injustice to those who are downstream and those who live in the river who are not human beings.

If you double glaze the planet with carbon, is that just an environmental issue? It's a justice issue. At the same time, if you create economic institutions that impoverish people, that diminish their capacity to support themselves, to flourish and to have decent living-wage jobs and homes and schools and health care. Those people will undertake activities that can very well degrade the environment.

And so the answer to the environment is as much taking care of people as it is taking care of the environment. Yes, population is a huge problem—birth rates are too high. And in order to take care of the environment we have to make sure that every child that comes here, that arrives, knows that he or she is welcome, is going to be cared for and honored.

Unless we have that sensibility throughout this world, then we do not have a way of understanding how we relate to this world. We're relating to this world in a way that's going make great horror for children that are here now and those unborn. Because of the overheating of climate change, the loss of water, the loss of agricultural areas, the rising of oceans.

The enormous changes that will occur geographically and climatically will be highly disruptive to any form of growth or civilization, and that's a price that people will pay.

And so, as I say, I think you're seeing them come together. Not like they had a meeting somewhere, a convention, and made an agreement, but I think we're starting to see that kind of collaboration, that kind of activity, that kind of recognition, between these organizations. And, in order for them to be effective, all of us have to be effective.

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