Paul Hawken: How to Stop Our Political and Economic Systems From Stealing Our Future

Paul Hawken, author of Blessed Unrest, discusses what he sees as the largest social movement in human history, and why that movement is so invisible to the media — and itself.

June 26, 2007  |   “It will be the stroke of midnight for the rest of our lives. It is too late for heroes. We need an accelerated intertwining of the over 1 million nonprofits and 100 million people who daily work for the preservation and restoration of life on earth. …The language of sustainability is about ideas that never end: growth without inequality, wealth without plunder, work without exploitation, a future without fear. A green movement fails unless there’s a black-, brown-, and copper-colored movement, and that can only exist if the movement to change the world touches the needs and suffering of every single person on earth.” – 12/26/06

Paul Hawken has spent over a decade researching organizations dedicated to restoring the environment and fostering social justice. From multimillion-dollar nonprofits to single-person dot.causes, these groups collectively comprise a movement that has no name, no leader, no location, and that has gone largely ignored by politicians and the media. Like nature itself, it is organizing from the bottom up. Hawken’s new book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, explores the diversity of the movement, its ideas, strategies and hidden history.

Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist and author. He has been involved in the startup of several businesses, including Erewhon natural foods and Smith & Hawken, the garden and catalog retailer. His six books have been published in more than 50 countries and have sold more than 2 million copies. They include Growing a Business (also a PBS series), The Ecology of Commerce, Natural Capitalism and Blessed Unrest.

Terrence McNally: I’ve heard you tell a story about how you first awakened to the environment in your early years …

Paul Hawken: I’m a fourth-generation Californian, so, like any family, there are stories, narratives and memories that are passed on. My childhood was one of growing up and seeing places transformed by industrialization. The best orchard lands in the world were in Santa Clara Valley. My great grandfather used to grow apricots in Cupertino where Apple Computer is today. I remember going down El Camino Real and seeing farm stands and cows and meadows, and people selling fresh eggs and things like that. Now it’s all condos and used car lots. So I have in my history this visual and visceral sense of development gone mad and taking over lands that were exquisite. I’ve seen rivers go, I’ve seen streams go, I’ve seen forests go. I’ve seen the land disappear under development and population growth.

TMN: You did Growing a Business about entrepreneurism, then Ecology of Commerce challenges business to be a solution to environmental ills. In Natural Capitalism, you expressed hope in technology. Now, in Blessed Unrest, you turn to the people. Can you trace the evolution of where you’ve placed your faith or hope over the years?

PH: I grew up in Berkeley, California, in a culture where business was the last thing you would pursue. In my family the idea of going into the trades was really déclassé. You just didn’t do it, you went into academia or something like that.

So for me to start a natural food company in 1967 was unusual, and at first I thought it should be a co-op or something other than a corporation. But finally I made it a corporation because that gave us the most freedom to do what we wanted to do. It’s sort of emblematic of this whole culture that corporations have so much freedom.

Growing a Business wasn’t about just growing your business, it was a metaphor for growing yourself. It wasn’t about growing to be big in size, but about evolution and development. I wrote that you should do the business that is a complete and clear expression of what you want to be and do in the world, that money would necessarily follow. If you led with the urge for money, however, you would fail.

I attempted at my company to be a good citizen, to be green, to be socially just. I think we innovated and did a tremendous amount of good work, and we were well recognized and awarded for that.

At the time I was on the boards of Audubon and Conservation International and active in other organizations. I was reading avidly, as I still do, about the environment. It became clear that no business could do it by itself. That is to say, the system was corrupt and inevitably led to certain outcomes. The system rewarded externalizing cost and did not reward internalizing them. Basically the system was not set up for companies to become more just, more responsible, or more green.

The Ecology of Commerce was written, as both a problem statement and a kind of a shot across the bow of business, saying, “Houston we have a real problem here.”

Solutions exist, and business — with the exception of the military — being the largest destroyer of what we have, could also be a creator or re-creator or restorer. Business has the tools, and generally speaking, the people are great. I’m not pro-business, I’m not anti-business. I’m pro-life, in the sense that I want to see life restored and returned where it’s been lost. That means culturally as well as biologically. The purpose of that book was to inspire business to turn around and look.

The next book, Natural Capitalism, is not about capitalism at all. It’s about “natural capital,” the term that E.F. Schumacher used to describe resources that have no economic value. Of course, they have tremendous value, but until they’re cut, mined or extracted, no value on the balance sheet. It wasn’t about “granola capitalism;” the “ism” is a modifier of natural capital.

That was really a solution statement, essentially saying that we have no excuse not to reduce our ecological footprint, our material footprint and our energy footprint, by 70, 80, 90 percent in the next 34 years. In terms of technology, social and otherwise, there are state-of-the-shelf technologies that businesses can apply and implement right now. So obviously it wasn’t the means that was the problem, it was the intention, the education, the understanding. Going back to The Ecology of Commerce, we have a basic fundamental systemic problem brought about by hundreds of years of corruption by business through government.

TMN: That brings us to Blessed Unrest.

PH: Starting in the ’90s, after I published The Ecology of Commerce, I began doing a lot of public speaking — at conferences, universities, anybody who’d have me. really, in this country and in Europe, Asia, Australia, New Zealand.

After speeches people would give me their cards, and I’d give them mine. I began to have a very large collection of cards from NGOs all around the world. It occurred to me that I didn’t recognize the names of most of these groups. They were really new, new, new, and I thought, “Well, how many are there?” I was sure there must be a directory of all the groups — but there wasn’t anything really, and there still isn’t.

So I began to count the environmental organizations and the social justice organizations, because at that point I realized that they were inseparable. We do separate them in mind and activity and funding and all that sort of stuff, but the fact is that both environmental and social justice organizations affect and address a political and economic system that is stealing the future.

Whether you steal it in the form of exploitation of a child or a forest, it doesn’t make any difference, you’re still doing fundamentally the same thing. If you take it from something like a forest, you’re taking it from somebody because that forest is a source of water, a water catchment for floods, for food, for so many eco system services.

So as I began to count, I checked tax records and elsewhere looking for the number of groups, and I started to come up with numbers — 30,000, 70,000, 100,000 groups. At about 100,000, I went to the literature to compare this with other social movements, both currently and in the past. I started to realize that this movement that has no name was becoming the largest social movement in human history, albeit unknown to itself and unknown to the media.

TMN: — and in many ways unconnected to itself …

PH: Largely unconnected. There were networks, but there was no larger connection to itself.

During that time, of course, technology marched in with cell phones, texting and the internet. What you saw in the ’90s, and now in this century, is the rapid explosion of connectivity and awareness around the world, and, as that happened, the groups began to increase even more quickly in number.

I estimate today that there are between one and two million organizations in the world that are addressing social justice and the environment, human rights and ecological restoration. It’s not only the largest movement in the world, it is so large compared to any other thing that exists or has existed, that there is really no second place. And I think the reason we don’t see it as a movement is because it is so different from anything we’ve seen before. We see movements as ideological, as starting in some center and spreading out from that place, as having leaders that we look to for inspiration, and who then manage and guide.

At the same time, most movements have wanted to amalgamate power to themselves in some form or another. They’ve looked at concentrations of power and said, “We want some.” But this movement is very different. It’s not ideological, it’s based on ideas. Ideologies constrain and dictate what you can and cannot do.

TMN: Right, they choose a certain set of ideas and declare, “This is us,” and outside is outside.

PH: For instance, there’s Catholic theology, but then there’s also liberation theology, and “woops — oh no, you’ve stepped out of bounds,” and the Vatican’s going to come down on you. Well, that’s an ideology. You call it religion, but it’s an ideology.

This movement is about ideas, and ideas open and liberate, they evolve. When ideas don’t work, you throw them away and try new ones. No one’s the worse for it, or the better for it, and no one’s attached to it, because it’s about process. It’s about making things work, as opposed to holding on to something as a belief.

The intention of this movement is to disperse the pathological concentrations of power. That doesn’t mean that it wants to take power for itself, and so it’s seen as powerless. It’s not powerless at all: It takes a great amount of courage and fierceness and dedication. To me this is the most powerful movement in the world — not in terms of gunships and fighters and helicopters, but in the sense of people’s hearts and their stamina and endurance.

TMN: In this movement that you’re describing, you lump together those who are working for environmental protection and restoration, and those who are working for social justice. Is that realistic? Speak a little more about why you feel that those two aims form one movement.

PH: Organizations and movements start because of a problem. In other words, something is happening, and a group rises to address it, to stop it, to resist it, to look for better ways of doing things. It doesn’t matter whether the issues are social or environmental. Ducks are dying. What’s happening? Where’s the mercury coming from? It’s happening upstream. What’s the source? Etcetera. That’s a classic case of an organization getting together and dealing with a habitat issue. But what matters is where the mercury came from.

TMN: Where’s the root?

PH: Where is the root, not just who put it in the water? And, once you start pulling the string on the bag of either social or environmental issues, you find they all come from the same system.

The major source of corruption in the world is business — that’s clear — and corruption is a major source of poverty in this world. Corruption destroys the rights of people and the ability of people to make their voices heard, and to secure what they deserve as citizens in any type of geographical entity.

Poverty drives population rates, population rates drive resource extraction and pressure on resources. Pressure on resources drives poverty. Poverty then drives migration to the cities, and that creates a big pool of low-income workers who are easily exploited in support of globalization. Globalization drives consumption, and consumption drives the use of carbon fuels. Carbon fuels drive climate change, climate change drives climate justice or injustice as the case may be. In other words, you start anywhere in the environmental and social justice movement and play it out, and you come full circle.

These movements that have been separate and distinct are starting to realize that we have a systems problem. When you move from symptom to systems, it’s all connected.

TMN: Respecting and serving the commons, the common good, and the common people, that’s what we’re talking about isn’t it?

PH: Absolutely, and it’s taken us a while. We grew up in a culture that is basically analytic and Cartesian. We’ve addressed things piecemeal, and the results show it. We are just starting to become more synthetic; in other words, synthesizing and working together and collaborating.

Van Jones in Oakland started out with a lot of understandable outrage at the plight of African-Americans and Hispanic Americans in West Oakland. He was working on it from a completely social point of view, until Julie Butterfly introduced him to the environmental connections. Now he’s talking about green jobs for Oakland in industries that can restore not just living wages, but respect and dignity. Jobs that actually change and transform Oakland itself. That’s a big shift, and you’re seeing that happen everywhere in the world.

I say this movement is “intertwingling.” It’s not just intertwining and intermingling, it’s actually intertwingling. It’s starting to become one movement, even though it is not aware of itself, nor is anybody else.

TMN: What do you hope that this book can accomplish by pointing it out or naming it?

PH: We’ve created a website — — that allows organizations and people to enlist. It’s a wiki, a relational database.

On the site, you can start to see this movement yourself. You can use the tools there — or create your own — to connect and to collaborate with people all over the world. In a sense, what we’re trying to do is create an information commons for this movement. It isn’t really owned by anybody. There are no ads; we are not benefiting from it. is a nonprofit, and you’re as welcome as anyone else to become an editor and co-create it with the community itself. That’s one of the goals.

A second goal of the book is to explore the history. It’s so interesting to see how deep this movement goes. It’s not really new, though it’s growing very rapidly. The book tells its deep and honorable and ancient history.

The third goal is to hold a mirror up to the movement itself and say, “See.” This is a movement of low self-esteem.

TMN: Why do you say that?

PH: It thinks it’s failing. It’s unresourced, it’s overworked, it’s burned out, it thinks that —

TMN: — that it works as hard as it can and things still get worse?

PH: Yes, exactly. And I’m saying it’s humanity’s immune response to political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation.

Immune responses lag the disease, otherwise they would be auto immune and …

TMN: — they would attack their hosts.

PH: The biological way of looking at things, where you see upstream solutions, root causes, all of that — is so powerful. The immune system is the closest metaphor analog I’ve found for this movement. It fits particularly well because the immune system is a response.

This blessed unrest isn’t about leaders putting stakes in the ground to gather followers and power. This is about survival, not of institutions, but of us all. It’s a natural, healthy and crucial response to ills in our society and in our environment.

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