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

Image credit: Shall.us

In part two of our in-depth discussion, Paul Hawken unpacks his new opensource, wiki-based Web entity, WISER Earth. He also offers up some details on Blessed Unrest the movie (and the remix), and brings it back to basics with the news no one wants to talk about. ::TreeHugger Radio

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

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

(Full text after the jump)TreeHugger: Environmentalism—in the past three years, really in a very short span of time—has taken on a new form. You've been watching this happen for quite some time, but it's burst into public awareness in a way that is unprecedented and is so widespread. It's infused with mainstream media, technology, and business.

And something you hear less and less of are terms like "the movement." Has there been an emphasis away from this? Or does that fly in the face of this ever-building underground swell?

Paul Hawken: The purpose of the NGO and civil society is to change the institutions. I don't think it's the purpose of civil society to persist forever and ever. They have a need to fill, and that means they'll try to fill it.

You are seeing everybody rushing to the other side of the boat right now. All of a sudden, green is in. And that's true in business, that's true in most governments (though that's not true really in Washington, D.C.). And again, you have to go back to the media, because the media is going to go pay attention to that, because that's home base. So you can have an impression that somehow the non-profit community is less robust and not growing, which is not the case at all; it's growing much faster now.

But we have to remember, too, that the NGO community is really a feeder to institutions. Religions, now, are changing because of pressure and activity from NGOs. Businesses are changing because of activity and ideas from NGOs.

Natural Capitalism was written by NGOs (I mean it was written by Amory Lovins and myself) but we are NGOs: RMI and the Natural Capital Institute. And that's had a profound effect on companies and businesses and governments, from China to France and back.

So the growth of NGOs right now is because the growth of problems is really proliferating faster than they're being attended to. And furthermore, the effects of problems that have been predicted and widely heralded by NGOs (to wit climate change) are now becoming more ubiquitous.

So people are dealing with it, not as a theory, not as a concept, not as a scientific paper, but as a problem in their area. This comes in terms of the lack of water from glacial melt, or changes in disease vectors, or rainfall patterns, or the lodge pole pine being killed off by beetles in million-acre swaths. Whole ecosystems are changing, and ways of life are changing very rapidly because of it.

And so you're seeing those organizations actually starting to deal with the transition, because there now has to be a transition. It's not like we're going to stop it and everything is going to be cool. There's going to be a huge transformation. I mean, the storm is coming. And it's massive. And still nobody is really talking about it, and nobody is talking about it in the media and there's still a lot of happy talk, like, "green this" and "green that" and green fashion shows and all this sort of stuff.

When in fact if you look the other way, the convergence of events and trends and impacts and dynamics that are all converging in the next 10, 15, 20 years are stupendously overwhelming. I'm just amazed at how brilliantly we can look the other way while we're talking about the environment.

And really, when you look at Plenty, and you look at Dwell, and you look at these magazines, you think (I mean, god love 'em) but you'd think the environment was like a walk in the park. You can be happier and make money!

And you can, I suppose. I don't question that. I'm not talking about wearing hair shirts. But it's just that the enormity of the problem we face is not being discussed except for by a very few people like Bill McKibben, who does it with a very light touch.

And when it is sometimes talked about (sometimes in a ham-handed way or too heavily—I'm not going to name names) then obviously society shuns it away and it doesn't get a lot of airtime. And somehow we have to find a way to talk about what we face. It may be that events will force us to that discussion.

TH: It's funny you say "happy talk." The last person to talk about that was David Orr, the environmental chair at Oberlin. When I interviewed him, the last thing he had to say was about hope, optimism, and pessimism. And so since then I’ve tried to ask everybody that question, and I want to ask you that. What does that balance feel like between hope and pessimism?

PH: Pessimism doesn't do anything. It doesn't get you anywhere. Then what? It's like being a Marxist, being this incredible deconstructionist. You can tell somebody why everything there is isn't good and won't work and is wrong. OK, then what? [laughs]

I mean, nobody can deconstruct a capitalist economy better than a good neo-Marxist. They can just lay it flat on the ground. But it doesn't do a thing to help you solve a problem in the next day, the next hour, the next week.

We need hope that's passed the sobriety test and can walk a fairly straight line to reality. And that kind of hope has to be based in a fundamental and clear understanding of what the problems are.

So my concern about the fact of what we're facing isn't because I'm a doomer and therefore I want everybody to feel bad about it, but rather I think people are brilliant, innovative, and extraordinary. And you can't tap into that unless people understand that they have a role in this transformation.

But when they don't even necessarily see it coming, or it's hugely downplayed by people who should know better—so-called leaders—then it lulls people into ennui or boredom or inactivity or a sense of security and safety which is unwarranted.

But I've said, and I'll keep saying, if you look at the data and you're hopeful, then you're not looking at the data. If you look at people (you really go out there and see what people are doing, who they are and what's in their hearts) and you're not hopeful, then you don't have a pulse.

So both are true at the same time, and they're related, actually. And the gift of this time we live in, and the gift of the enormity of the problems we confront and face going forward, is that none of us will be the same person that we are today. None of us. Not one single thing will be the same on this Earth. And that is a great transformation. And that is what we are going to undergo.

And people say, ‘will we fail or succeed?’ It's, again, one of those unanswerable questions, and it's not really worth spending much time on, because you can only do what you've been blessed to be able to do, and you can't know. If we knew, why would we do it? [laughs]

So the gift of this movement is also that it exists, and there's something to grow onto. It’s expanding. It has networks and tendrils and little things reaching out, and we can learn from each other.

And at the same time we have great leadership: Greg Nickels, the mayor of Seattle. A friend has an NGO there and when he listened to the State of the City speech last year, he said, ‘You know, I don't think I need to have my non-profit anymore. I think I'll just go join the city.’

You are seeing cities take on activities that were considered radical not so many years ago if they were proposed by a non-profit. So the rate of change is quite extraordinary.

Somebody quoted me; I said that the rate of change is agonizingly slow. And now it's agonizingly quicker. But it's not quick enough, because they still are framing it in a way that is within their own paradigm. If you're a hammer, the world looks like a nail; if you're a car-maker, it looks like you make things for highways. They don't really see the true opportunity or the real breakthroughs in what they could be doing.

But the fact is that the time is nigh and the bell has rung. And you saw Business Week [recently]: General Motors is betting the farm on green cars. Who would'a' thunk it? Those people did more to squash…I mean, for years and years, they were the worst. And even the guy leading the charge, Bob Lutz, is a climate denier. So who's to say what's going on?

But the fact is that the change is going to be so rapid, and nobody's in control. And this quality that is coming from the civil society, from the NGO community, round the world, collectively, is an extraordinary thing. It's about service, it's about change, it's not about pensions and how much money I can make and the capital and power.

It really is about serving each other, and serving humanity. And I think that innate sense of moral kindness is really the glue that is going to help make sure that we, in this transformation, don't go off the rails. The tendency of big government and big business is to go off the rails. They've done it for 500 years—there's no reason to think they won't do it again.

We don't have a lot of time left. We have a huge cache of resources. We need to invest in resources that will allow us to endure and be durable and sustain ourselves, throughout this and the next century.

And, right now, we're on the verge of using those resources to make high-rises and chochkees and toys and meaningless things, instead of really converting this world to renewable energy, renewable and biological agriculture, restoring our oceans, reforesting the world, to ceasing the cutting in the Amazon, to restore human health, and do all things that really will create the basis for a humane existence.

That's where our resources need to go if we're going to make this transition properly. And right now they're massively misdirected into commerce, into consumerism, into war, into violence, into industries that will take us away from the human transition.

TH: A really fascinating offshoot of Blessed Unrest is the WISER Earth portal. To call it a website seems just too small. It stands for the World Index for Social and Environmental Responsibility, and what you've tried to do is magnetize these groups together into a way that's centralized in a way, where you've got a town-square opportunity, but nobody's organizing it top-down.

PH: Yeah. I mean it's a home page, but our goal is to take that information that's there, that people are creating, and make what we call an "information commons" out of it. So that any website can sit on top of it and draw it into its website. So that, say, Pachamama or aBioneers or the Earth Encyclopedia or the Ecological Society of America or Color of Change, they can have their website do all the things it does.

But through there you can create a personal profile or an organization profile, or host an event, and so forth, and it will have meta calendars that go right across locales and regions, so that we can just connect up to each other in ways that are very useful and not do it through the one town square, which is WISER Earth.

WISER Earth is a surrogate, actually, for the time, which is coming now, where other organizations can literally take the data and then sit on top of it in a different way and share it, add to it.

And it's like a big potluck, really. The more people add to it the more valuable it becomes to someone else, including that organization; so it follows Metcalfe's Law in terms of a network: the more nodes on a network the more valuable the network is.

And so we deliberately took the position of the point of view that what the world didn't need was another Change.org or another Care2 or another Facebook or another Green.com, ‘come register and buy Cliff bars on the site’ organization. We just thought, enough already! They're great, but what we needed is to create something that would provide that kind of connectivity between those organizations. And that's what we're trying to do.

It’s been a year and it's grown some it's true. We started as like the millionth most popular website on the net. And then it was 999,999 but still so far removed from where all the action is.

But what inspired me, actually, was Jimmy Wales. For the first three years of Wikipedia it was flatlining: there was no traffic. But there were some really great people trying to figure out what a Wikipedia thing would do and how it would work and how you would create all these complex social relationships that ensured that it wasn't gamed, that it was neutral, that it was objective. And it took them a while to work it out. And then at a certain point it just started to grow.

And WISER Earth took its model from that, really from nature, which is that things that grow well and big, generally grow very small at first, and you don't notice them. So it was never our purpose to go beat the drum and hire PR people and really get a lot of links and so forth.

We actually put it out there to see what people would do, so we could have a small enough community. It's about 14,000 people right now; but a small enough community, so that there was a lot of conversation and interaction. And now there's going to be a WISER in Mexico, and one in Catalan, in Spain; and we're going to see them start up.

But this is not Internet time, this is people time, this is the way people naturally organize.

But the best thing to do with WISER Earth is go on and check it out and get lost in it and see what it does and who's doing what. But know that it's open source—you can have the whole program to yourself and then you can write your own whatever and connect it to WISER Earth. And that was very intentional from the beginning.

And now it's just a matter of publishing the API that will allow people to re-source and re-purpose that information in any way that makes sense for their sites.

TH: You had a great conversation with Larry Brilliant at Google (which is on YouTube). It's really an excellent conversation. What did the Google people think of all this? Did they give you any feedback? Were they jazzed on it?

PH: No, I don't think they gave me any feedback that I can remember. Google is busy, and I think we probably appeared to them to be under the radar. But, again, what I'm saying is that that was purposeful: three years under the radar is fine with us.

But we're now starting to form these really interesting partnerships with organizations: Roots of Change, Enterra, the Encyclopedia of Earth (which came out of Boston), Solutions Magazine (an online magazine that's coming out of the Ecological Economics College at the University of Vermont).

But again it's not WISER Earth that's going to grow; it's the thing that WISER Earth engenders that's going to grow. And it's going to take many different shapes and forms. And I would say, watch the space and play in it.

And, of course, the thing that people have to understand is it's community-driven, it's community-owned, it's community, it's yours. And it's not like there's some corporation somewhere that says, ‘this is what you can do.’ It's not a curated wiki: it's a wiki. And that means that it's transparent, because you can't do anything unless you show up and put a profile up. It's not like a wiki that way, where you can't do things anonymously. It's all transparent.

And then pretty soon we're going to launch WISER Business and WISER Philanthropy. WISER Philanthropy is so people can see where money is coming from and where it's going. Which we don't really know. And these are supposed to be public-trust institutions that don't pay taxes, because they're supposed to tell us everything about themselves, and everything is supposed to be public. But, of course, they're very private.

And then WISER Business because business, particularly small business, is just, excuse my French, but just kickass in terms of what it's doing and innovation and how it's really taking up the true social responsibilities on that level.

There are some big companies that are doing some good stuff, but they're exceptional compared to the ones that are local, in your neighborhood, on the corner. Those are the people who are really carrying the water right now. And so WISER Business is for them partly so they can connect to each other and so we can connect with them and we can see what and where. The best way to learn how to do something better is from your peers.

So businesses can learn from each other. They need to be like, ‘How do I reduce my footprint? How do I green this? How do I get more efficient ovens if I'm a baker? How do I learn more about green roofs?’ Those things are best judged between people who are actually doing them, and so WISER Business is for those people.

TH: Is Blessed Unrest going to be a documentary film?

PH: Yes, it is. The premier of the trailer is at the Aspen Ideas Festival [this year] with Forrest Whittaker and George Clooney. Whatever. [laughs]

There's a lot of interest in it. And it's very different, because what's happening is we're creating a website where people are putting in footage. An FTP site: a big digital repository where everybody can put in can take out of, and people can make any movie they want. So it'll be amazing. So we just hope that a hundred movies come out.

TH: Blessed Unrest: The Remix.

PH: Exactly. So we'll have one, cause it will have the title. But what we're looking to do is create a repository of things that people can share with each other all over the world, and can use with permission to make other movies or clips or little iPod downloads or whatever it is.

So that's the core of the Blessed Unrest movie: the community that it creates. It's trying to mimic and model what it wrote about, instead of like, ten people got into a room and made a movie. It's like the movement making a movie about itself.

And of course there's a director and producer; but, at the same time, there isn't—the camera crew isn't going to go around the world and capture this. That's been done over and over and over and over. It's like a sop, you know. We need something a lot different in order to make us feel and make us understand that something truly different is going on here. And that's what I want to do with the movie.

So the music, what you see, what you hear, is not what you expect, not what you think it's going to be. It's not National Geographic with Robert Redford and Glen Close, or the Goldman Prizes, where everyone cries.

This movement is too big and too diverse to pigeonhole and put into the media boxes that we place things in. And so our challenge is to rip it right open, so people get a sense of ‘Oh, my God!’ Not only the challenges that face us, environmentally and socially, but also the stunning brilliance, innovation, creativity, and vigor of this movement in the world. That's our hope.

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