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Paul Hawken Saw Wave of Change Coming: Now What?

Eco-entrepreneur wrote book portending Tahrir Square and Occupiers. He'll speak on new opportunities in Vancouver Tuesday. Here's a taste.

By David Beers 11 Nov 2011 |

David Beers is editor of The Tyee.

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Paul Hawken: How can we British Columbians do more with our 'blessings'?

Right about now, as economies and nature unravel, spawning all kinds of democratic uprisings, you'd probably like to spend time with a brilliant person who's been making hopeful sense of all this for not just weeks, but decades.

That person would be Paul Hawken. You can hear his ideas on how best to connect with the great wave of global change this Tuesday evening in Vancouver.

Hawken has worked with Martin Luther King, Jr., established several highly successful green enterprises as well as the Natural Capital Institute think tank, and written groundbreaking bestsellers including The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability and Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution. Four years ago he published Blessed Unrest, an investigation into the myriad groups around the planet advocating for justice and the environment, an amorphous "largest movement in the world" that Hawken concluded was unstoppable. Think back to when Hawken began researching his book, around the time of Sept. 11, 2001. That was not the most obvious moment to go looking for, and find, the spirit of Tahrir Square and Occupy Wall Street, but Hawken nailed it.

It may be because Hawken, who lives in Sausalito, California and made his first serious money by building a quality tool company, is a practical thinker, yet no one ever accused him of thinking too small.

On Tuesday evening Hawken will draw on examples from around the world to discuss ways to leverage our wisdom, our money and our humanity for a better world. Then a panel of local social entrepreneurs will join Hawken in a discussion of projects and initiatives that are transforming our local community and society. Audience members will also be given an opportunity to join in the conversation. To learn more about the event, click here.

Sponsored by Vancity, this gathering is intended to inform and invigorate anyone working for a better world in business, not for profits, government or other settings. The venue is the Orpheum Theatre; start time is 7:00 p.m. Tickets, priced on a sliding scale, can be reserved here.

In anticipation of Tuesday evening, The Tyee emailed Paul Hawken some questions and here's what he sent back:

Do you think Blessed Unrest predicted the Occupy Movement? Do the Occupiers represent a new phase of what you were cataloguing in your book?

"Blessed Unrest was published in 2007 but I had written about this phenomenon before then. In 2001 I wrote an essay for a book entitled 'Imagine: What America Could be in the 21st Century.' In it I described the movement from which Occupy emerges. Although people have quoted from Blessed Unrest and other essays with the view to my having predicted Occupy, I would say no. I try not to predict. I wrote about something that was evident more than 10 years ago. The difference is that the movement is now visible to many. The Occupiers represent a new manifestation of what has been present and growing all along. This is a bit long but this is what I wrote 10 years ago.

"In the United States, more than 30,000 non-governmental organizations (NGOs), foundations, and citizens' groups are addressing the issue of social and ecological sustainability in the most complete sense of the word. Worldwide, this number exceeds 100,000. Together they address a broad array of issues, including environmental justice, ecological literacy, public policy, conservation, women's rights and health, population, renewable energy, corporate reform, labour rights, climate change, trade rules, ethical investing, ecological tax reform, water, and much more. These groups follow Gandhi's imperatives: some resist, while others create new structures, patterns, and means. The groups tend to be local, marginal, poorly funded, and overworked. It is hard for most groups not to feel palpable anxiety -- that they could perish in a twinkling. At the same time, a deeper pattern is emerging that is extraordinary.

"If you ask each of these groups for their principles, frameworks, conventions, models, or declarations, you will find they do not conflict. This has never happened before in history. In the past, movements that became powerful started with a unified or centralized set of ideas (Marxism, Christianity, Freud) and disseminated them, creating power struggles over time as the core mental model or dogma was changed, diluted, or revised. The sustainability movement did not start this way. It does not agree on everything, nor should it ever, but remarkably it shares a basic set of fundamental understandings about the earth, how it functions, and the necessity of fairness and equity for all people in partaking of the earth's life-giving systems.

"These groups believe that self-sufficiency is a human right; they imagine a future where the means to kill people is not a business but a crime, where families do not starve, where fathers can work, where children are never sold, where women cannot be impoverished because they choose to be mothers. They believe that water and air belong to us all, not to the rich. They believe seeds and life itself cannot be owned or patented by corporations. They believe that nature is the basis of true prosperity and must be honored. This shared understanding is arising spontaneously, from different economic sectors, cultures, regions and cohorts. And it is growing and spreading, with no exception, throughout this country and worldwide. No one started this worldview, no one is in charge of it, and no orthodoxy is restraining it. It is the fastest and most powerful movement in the world today, unrecognizable to the American media because it is not centralized, based on power, or led by white, male, charismatic vertebrates. As external conditions continue to change and worsen socially, environmentally, and politically, organizations working toward sustainability increase, deepen, and multiply.

"Our children, who will look back 50 years from now and wonder at what these groups accomplished, are avidly reading Harry Potter books. What they know from these books is that there are too many Muggles in the world. As Bill McKibben wrote in his articles on the protests in Seattle, one kept seeing the sticker 'Wake up Muggles.' If Muggles stand for a hyper-rational world of no magic, economic analysis, and hyper-growth at all costs, then what we are beginning to see is the reemergence of a celebratory resistance to what Caroline Casey calls the 'Reality Police,' the angry columnists, the vacant politicians, the blind economists, the obsessed CEO, and pathological financiers, the people who cannot see that what is emerging now is the possibility of being fully human."

Blessed Unrest emphasized the atomized and therefore difficult to define nature of the world's myriad groups working for social justice and environmental preservation. Is there a danger that we place too much emphasis on the Occupy movement to stand in for all this unruly effort all over the world?

"When you ask do we place too much emphasis on Occupy, I guess you would have to define who we is because we generally stands for the media, not people, and how the media reports Occupy has been consistently inaccurate and skewed and will no doubt continue. It will be years before we understand the meaning and impact of the Occupy movement. It may fall apart, it may cohere, it may morph, or it may grow and overthrow by its presence the corrupt and collusive machinations of corporations and legislatures in the U.S. and throughout the world.

"What the Occupy movement cannot do is prevent the bankruptcy of the U.S., Japan, China and much of Europe, which is where we are but have so far deferred by financial contortions. This is not being brought about by the peasants or even the middle class, but by oligarchies everywhere. We have created the delusion of economic growth and well being by creating unpayable debts to the future, whether they are financial debts, the debt of resource depletion, or the debt of structural poverty, and the Occupy movement is holding up a mirror to a political/financial system that is manifestly unfair and which is causing incalculable damage to the world, whether it is liar loans or the Athabasca Tar Sands."

Scan the world and tell us if you think any world leaders really get the power of this "blessed unrest" and have made an intelligent alliance with it.

"I think Bill Clinton gets it. He is not in office, but he is as much of a world leader now as he ever was as president, only now he is using civil society as his vehicle. But past that, I would say no. There is no current elected leader that understands the power of civil society. "

So you don't think Obama gets it? Has he betrayed its energy that helped him get elected?

"Obama is a lawyer. Lawyers frame and think in linear and logical ways. Obama is approaching a non-linear complex system, i.e. the world economic system, as a problem of logic advised by people who both created and benefited from the financial morass we are in today. Since he is dealing with a problem that does not have a linear solution, he is a bit hapless."

What if any lesson does Obama's experience offer other world leaders at this moment?

"I cannot think of anything Obama offers with respect to his experience. He is running the largest empire in history with no experience in running anything at all. He is backed by a default reserve currency that provides him and the Federal Reserve great latitude and leverage to paper over our problems at home. If he did not have this legacy currency, we would be facing a situation similar to Italy and Greece, and soon France. In his defence, he did not cause or create it, and no one has had to deal with what he is facing ever before."

What do you say to people who have become disillusioned with electoral politics to the point that they say "all politicians are alike"?

"I don't think it is helpful to see politicians as the bête noir of society. Politicians are people just like everyone else and I find many to be honorable and dedicated. That being said, I think we are looking for love in all the wrong places when we turn to national governments, because the role of governments is to slow things down, make commerce and citizens heedful of core values and the rule of law in the case of Canada and the U.S. Thus, they are not equipped to deal with the scale and rapidity of change we are witnessing, changes which will become ever more pronounced.

"Only citizen-based organizations and commerce can respond to change in a time-frame commensurate with the issues involved. Electoral politics, because it is hog-tied by problems it is ill equipped to solve, is devolving just as Plato predicted in The Republic, wherein the lowest common denominator becomes the arbiter of electoral politics. When that happens, we should not be surprised that nuance and civility have disappeared, and that many politicians do not have the intellectual capital to parse the issues or speak in a reasonable, non-polemical manner."

As the founder of the Natural Capital Institute and several companies that adhere to sustainable principles, please talk a bit about how business can be a positive source for social change.

"Business makes the biggest contribution by choosing what it does, and how it does it. Much of what we make and sell is absurd, unhealthy, useless, or toxic. We have to ask ourselves what is actually helpful at this time in history, what is needed, not just what people are addicted to. Marketing sugary, fatty junk food that creates the basis for obesity and type 2 diabetes is not helpful. Farming organically and banking carbon in the soil is extraordinarily helpful. Both are food businesses. The first type of business can never be sustainable whereas the second is inherently sustainable. Businesses that make things we need but do so in a destructive or uninformed way can become helpful by completely redoing how they manufacture and distribute their product, much as what happened with Ray Anderson and the Interface carpet company."

What qualities do you see in Vancouver and its region that make it a particularly fertile place for the kind of shift you have written about?

"I am not familiar enough with Vancouver to speak with any certitude on this. What I notice are the following qualities that greatly support the transformation the world is undergoing: functional governance systems that are not afraid of taxes or setting high standards; a fairly paid workforce; a diverse community; relative income equality; great schools; and a culture of innovation.

"What British Columbia has to be aware of is that it is an extraordinarily blessed place on the planet, and in some ways, it is removed from the travails and exigencies that most people in the world face on a daily basis. It could be said that true discovery and innovation lies in the shadows, that it rests within constraint rather than unbounded prosperity.

"Having just returned from Australia, there is a similarity to Canada in that both countries are resource rich in a world of diminishing resources. Both countries' economic futures are guaranteed for decades to come, and the question I would ask is whether or not these countries will use their blessings to lead the world."  [Tyee]

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