Tomorrow, I’m sitting down for a chat with Paul Hawken, author, entrepreneur, and environmental legend. We’ll be discussing, among other things, his new book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. (If you’re in Seattle tomorrow, you can see Hawken at a Grist-sponsored event at Town Hall.)
If you’ve got questions you’d like me to ask Hawken, let me know in comments.
In the meantime, here’s the introduction from Blessed Unrest:
Over the past fifteen years I have given nearly one thousand talks about the environment, and every time I have done so I have felt like a tightrope performer struggling to maintain perfect balance. To be sure, people are curious to know what is happening to their world, but no speaker wants to leave an auditorium depressed, however dark and frightening a tomorrow is predicted by the science that studies the rate of environmental loss. To be sanguine about the future, however, requires a plausible basis for constructive action: you cannot describe possibilities for that future unless the present problem is accurately defined. Bridging the chasm between the two was always a challenge, but audiences kindly ignored my intellectual vertigo and over time provided a rare perspective instead. After every speech a smaller crowd would gather to talk, ask questions, and exchange business cards. These people were typically working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights. They came from the nonprofit and nongovernmental world, also known as civil society; they looked after rivers and bays, educated consumers about sustainable agriculture, retrofitted houses with solar panels, lobbied state legislatures about pollution, fought against corporate-weighted trade policies, worked to green inner cities, and taught children about the environment. Quite simply, they had dedicated themselves to trying to safeguard nature and ensure justice. Although this was the 1990s, and the media largely ignored them, in those small meetings I had a chance to listen to their concerns. They were students, grandmothers, teenagers, tribe members, businesspeople, architects, teachers, retired professors, and worried mothers and fathers. Because I was itinerant, and the organizations they represented were rooted in their communities, over the years I began to grasp the diversity of these groups and their cumulative number. My interlocutors had a lot to say. They were informed, imaginative, and vital, and offered ideas, information, and insight. To a great extent Blessed Unrest is their gift to me.
My new friends would thrust articles and books into my hands, tuck small gifts into my knapsack, or pass along proposals for green companies. A Native American taught me that the division between ecology and human rights was an artificial one, that the environmental and social justice movements addressed two sides of a single larger dilemma. The way we harm the earth affects all people, and how we treat one another is reflected in how we treat the earth. As my talks began to mirror my deeper understanding, the hands offering business cards grew more diverse. I would get from five to thirty such cards per speech, and after being on the road for a week or two would return home with a few hundred of them stuffed into various pockets. I would lay them out on the table in my kitchen, read the names, look at the logos, envisage the missions, and marvel at the scope and diversity of what groups were doing on behalf of others. Later, I would store them in drawers or paper bags as keepsakes of the journey. Over the course of years the number of cards mounted into the thousands, and whenever I glanced at them, I came back to one question: Did anyone truly appreciate how many groups and organizations were engaged in progressive causes? At first, this was a matter of curiosity on my part, but it slowly grew into a hunch that something larger was afoot, a significant social movement that was eluding the radar of mainstream culture.
So, curious, I began to count. I looked at government records for different countries and, using various methods to approximate the number of environmental and social justice groups from tax census data, I initially estimated a total of 30,000 environmental organizations around the globe; when I added social justice and indigenous peoples’ rights organizations, the number exceeded 100,000. I then researched to see if there had ever been any equals to this movement in scale or scope, but I couldn’t find anything, past or present. The more I probed, the more I unearthed, and the numbers continued to climb, as I discovered lists, indexes, and small databases specific to certain sectors or geographic areas. In trying to pick up a stone, I found the exposed tip of a much larger geological formation. I soon realized that my initial estimate of 100,000 organizations was off by at least a factor of ten, and I now believe there are over one — and maybe even two — million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social justice.
By any conventional definition, this vast collection of committed individuals does not constitute a movement. Movements have leaders and ideologies. People join movements, study their tracts, and identify themselves with a group. They read the biography of the founder(s) or listen to them perorate on tape or in person. Movements, in short, have followers. This movement, however, doesn’t fit the standard model. It is dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent. It has no manifesto or doctrine, no overriding authority to check with. It is taking shape in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, companies, deserts, fisheries, slums — and yes, even fancy New York hotels. One of its distinctive features is that it is tentatively emerging as a global humanitarian movement arising from the bottom up. Historically social movements have arisen primarily in response to injustice, inequities, and corruption. Those woes still remain legion, joined by a new condition that has no precedent: the planet has a life-threatening disease, marked by massive ecological degradation and rapid climate change. As I counted the vast number of organizations it crossed my mind that perhaps I was witnessing the growth of something organic, if not biologic. Rather than a movement in the conventional sense, could it be an instinctive, collective response to threat? Is it atomized for reasons that are innate to its purpose? How does it function? How fast is it growing? How is it connected? Why is it largely ignored? Does it have a history? Can it successfully address the issues that governments are failing to do: energy, jobs, conservation, poverty, and global warming? Will it become centralized, or will it continue to be dispersed and cede its power to ideologies and fundamentalism?
I sought a name for the movement, but none exists. I met people who wanted to structure or organize it — a difficult task, since it would easily be the most complex association of human beings ever assembled. Many outside the movement critique it as powerless, but that assessment does not stop its growth. When describing it to politicians, academics, and businesspeople, I found that many believe they are already familiar with this movement, how it works, what it consists of, and its approximate size. They base their conclusion on media reports about Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, Oxfam, or other venerable institutions. They may be directly acquainted with a few smaller organizations and may even sit on the board of a local group. For them and others the movement is small, known, and circumscribed, a new type of charity, with a sprinkling of ragtag activists who occasionally give it a bad name. People inside the movement can also underestimate it, basing their judgment on only the organizations they are linked to, even though their networks can only encompass a fraction of the whole. But after spending years researching this phenomenon, including creating with my colleagues a global database of its constituent organizations, I have come to these conclusions: this is the largest social movement in all of human history. No one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye.
What does meet the eye is compelling: coherent, organic, self-organized congregations involving tens of millions of people dedicated to change. When asked at colleges if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart. What I see are ordinary and some not-so-ordinary individuals willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in an attempt to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. In the not-so-ordinary category, contrast ex-president Bill Clinton and sitting president George W. Bush. As I write this, Bush is on TV snarled in a skein of untruths as he tries to keep the lid on a nightmarish war fed by inept and misguided ambition; simultaneously the Clinton Global Initiative (which is a nongovernmental organization) met in New York and raised $7.3 billion in three days to combat global warming, injustice, intolerance, and poverty. Of the two initiatives, war and peace, which addresses root causes? Which has momentum? Which does not offend the world? Which is open to new ideas? The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, "My heart is moved by all I cannot save. So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world."1 There could be no better description of the audiences I met in my lectures.
This is the story without apologies of what is going right on this planet, narratives of imagination and conviction, not defeatist accounts about the limits. Wrong is an addictive, repetitive story; Right is where the movement is. There is a rabbinical teaching that holds that if the world is ending and the Messiah arrives, you first plant a tree and then see if the story is true. Islam has a similar teaching that tells adherents that if they have a palm cutting in their hand on Judgment Day, plant the cutting. Inspiration is not garnered from the recitation of what is flawed; it resides, rather, in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. "Consider" (con sidere) means "with the stars"; reconsider means to rejoin the movement and cycle of heaven and life. The emphasis here is on humanity’s intention, because humans are frail and imperfect. People are not always literate or educated. Most families in the world are impoverished and may suffer from chronic illnesses. The poor cannot always get the right foods for proper nutrition, and must struggle to feed and educate their young. If citizens with such burdens can rise above their quotidian difficulties and act with the clear intent to confront exploitation and bring about restoration, then something powerful is afoot. And it is not just the poor, but people of all races and classes everywhere in the world. "One day you finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around you kept shouting their bad advice"2 is Mary Oliver’s description of moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to the living world.
Although the six o’clock news is usually concerned with the death of strangers, millions of people work on behalf of strangers. This altruism has religious, even mythic origins and very practical eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first group to create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those they did not know. Until that time, no citizen group had ever filed a grievance except as it related to itself.3 Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the abolitionists then, just as conservatives taunt liberals, progressives, do-gooders, and activists today by making those four terms pejoratives. Healing the wounds of the earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party, only gumption and persistence. It is not a liberal or conservative activity; it is a sacred act. It is a massive enterprise undertaken by ordinary citizens everywhere, not by self-appointed governments or oligarchies.
Blessed Unrest is an exploration of this movement — its participants, its aims, and its ideals. I have been a part of it for decades, so I cannot claim to be the detached journalist skeptically prodding my subjects. I hope what follows is the expression of a deep listening. The subtitle of the book — how the largest movement in the world came into being — cannot be answered by one person. Like anyone, I have a perspective based on biases accumulated over time and a network of friends and peers who color my judgment. However, I wrote this book primarily to discover what I don’t know. Part of what I learned concerns an older quiescent history that is reemerging, what poet Gary Snyder calls the great underground, a current of humanity that dates back to the Paleolithic. Its lineage can be traced back to healers, priestesses, philosophers, monks, rabbis, poets, and artists "who speak for the planet, for other species, for interdependence, a life that courses under and through and around empires."4 At the same time, much of what I learned is new. Groups are intertwingling — there are no words to exactly describe the complexity of this web of relationships.5 The Internet and other communication technologies have revolutionized what is possible for small groups to accomplish and are accordingly changing the loci of power. There have always been networks of powerful people, but until recently it has never been possible for the entire world to be connected.
"Blessed Unrest" is an overview that describes how this movement differs from previous social movements, particularly with respect to ideology. The organizations in the movement arise one by one, generally with no predetermined vision for the world, and craft their goals without reference to orthodoxy. For some historians and analysts, movements only exist when they have an ideological or religious core of beliefs. And movements certainly don’t exist in a vacuum: a strong leader(s) is an earmark of a movement and often its intellectual pivot point, even if deceased. The movement I describe here has neither, and so represents a completely different form of social phenomenon.
The following three chapters are glimpses of some of the movement’s roots. One cannot do justice to its history in a clutch of books, much less a few chapters. America has been the home of some of the most important progressive efforts in history — women’s suffrage, abolition, civil rights, food safety — but you would not know that, given the narrowness of scope of today’s education. My survey reflects the views of a North American because it is the only history I can adequately present. This bias is important to acknowledge, because global history is invariably skewed when seen through the eyes of Western culture, no matter how hard one tries to be objective. There are other histories, African and Native American, English and Japanese, Brazilian and Mediterranean, all equally valid, and all with their own particular inflections. In India, for example, environmentalism is a social justice movement, concerned with the rights of people to the land and its bounty. In 1991 Sunita Narain, the director of the Center for Science and the Environment in New Delhi, called global warming environmental colonialism, and was one of the first to question whether environmental management should be based on human rights rather than legal convention. In the United States the environmental movement found itself faced with a backlash when it was accused of placing the rights of the animals and plants on the land before those of people. Ron Dellums, an African-American congressman from Oakland, California, asked the Sierra Club, "I know you care about black bears but do you care about black people?"6 In Germany the green movement became an organized political party, and its members now hold positions at the highest echelons of government. In the global South, environmentalism is a movement of the poor, with peasants leading campaigns that include land reform, trade rights, and corporate hegemony. The environmental movement began in England as a series of public health campaigns during the Industrial Revolution. In Italy, it concerns the dynamics between la città and la campagna; in South Africa it is inextricably bound to social justice issues embedded in the country’s history.7 My purpose in recounting some of the threads of the past is not merely to extol great personages such as Darwin, Gandhi, Rachel Carson, or Thoreau, but to recognize the importance of connection and coincidence. Long ago small, seemingly inconsequential actions took place that eventually changed the world — outcomes the original actors might never have imagined. One such occurrence was Emerson’s encounter with the Jussieu family of scientists in Paris, a little remarked-upon event whose influence, as we will see, eventually wends itself into the civil rights movement 123 years later. In a time when people feel powerless, a history of altruism can be a balm because it reveals the power of helpful and humble acts, a reminder that constructive changes in human affairs arise from intention, not coercion.
"Indigene" and "We Interrupt This Empire" concern globalization. "Indigene" is concerned with indigenous cultures. Their traditional lands represent the greatest remaining sanctuaries of life on earth, and resource-hungry corporations are commercializing and destroying these biological arks. The cultures that have coevolved with these environments are resisting the encroachment, uniting with alliances of nonprofits to bring accountability and limits to unchecked development. "We Interrupt This Empire" focuses on organizations that are engaged in protecting citizens, workers, and environments from the juggernaut of free market fundamentalism.
The final two chapters look at the entire movement from two perspectives. "Immunity" uses the cellular metaphor of how an organism defends itself as a plausible way to describe the collective activity of the movement. The immune system is the most complex system in the body and provides a useful model for examining the properties of these groups. The terms environment and social justice encompass innovative organizations that are redolent with ideas and inventive techniques, and a few are explored here. I also consider the weakness of the movement, how its multiplicity and diversity may hobble it as the world descends into violence and disorder. "Restoration" describes the biological principles that inform all forms of life, including human beings, and uses the principles as a framework to bring a different vocabulary to the movement. In biologist Janine Benyus’s quintessential summation, "life creates the conditions that are conducive to life." It is fair to ask whether that might not be a suitable organizing principle for all human activity, from economics to trade to how we build our cities. While it is risky to rely on life sciences to explain social phenomena, it is equally risky to assume that the standard language that has served to chronicle past social movements is sufficient to describe this one. The individuals featured in this book all try to do good, but this book is not only about doing good. It is about people who want to save the entire sacred, cellular basis of existence — the entire planet and all its inconceivable diversity. In total, the book is inadvertently optimistic, an odd thing in these bleak times. I didn’t intend it; optimism discovered me.
Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from BLESSED UNREST by Paul Hawken. Copyright Â© Paul Hawken, 2007