Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, and the author of such influential books as The Next Economy (1983), The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability (1993), and Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (1999). The founder of socially and environmentally responsible businesses such as Erewhon and Smith & Hawken, he heads the Natural Capital Institute, a research organization that has created a hub for global civil society (WiserEarth.org), providing an open-source networking platform that links NGOs (non-governmental organizations), funders, business, government, social entrepreneurs, students, organizers, academics, activists, scientists, and citizens. In March of this year, Tricycle contributing editor Clark Strand interviewed Hawken about his latest book,Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming(Viking, 2007). In that book, Hawken documents the emergence of “the movement”: a worldwide network of organizations—”from billiondollar nonprofits to single-person dot.causes”—that has arisen spontaneously in response to global crises that threaten the survival of our ecosystems and of humanity itself. To quote the anthropologist Gregory Bateson, Hawken has seen past conventional views of social change and identified “the pattern which connects” at least a million groups, many millions of individuals, and countless causes in a coherent and synergistic whole. Because it has no overriding ideology, is not based on government or institutional power, and has no real leaders, the movement he describes has until now remained, as it were, hidden in plain sight. Drawing on a vast range of sources—including his longtime study of Zen Buddhism—Hawken fashions a lucid, erudite, and convincing argument.
Could you explain what you mean by the “movement” and why, as you put it, “nobody saw it coming”? “Movement” is simply a placeholder for the one to two million organizations in the world today that address issues of the environment and social justice. No one saw this massing of organizations coming because it didn’t start as a top-down, ideological movement with charismatic leaders and a manifesto.
To this day, new nonprofits and NGOs usually reinvent the wheel because they’re created by individuals who find themselves dealing with issues that are not being properly addressed by government or business—or not being addressed at all. When groups of citizens figure that out, they form alliances, institutes, community-based organizations, coalitions, foundations, networks, and educational or faith-based organizations to fill the need.
The movement stands against the forces of globalization. Are there some positive aspects of globalization that may actually work in the service of the movement? People do not stand against globalization, although that is certainly the word used by the media; they stand up to corporatization of the world’s common resources, the obliteration of culture, local economies, and environments by market fundamentalism.
Globalization is a civilizing influence creating better understanding through the exchange of culture, music, religion, foodways, and so on. Corporatization is a five-hundred-year practice of domination over countries, people, and places for profit by corporate entities that have no vested interest other than business itself. Virtually all wars and acts of genocide in the past five centuries have been about money and resources, and behind all of them are corporate interests. Today we have Darfur, Iraq, Rwanda, Afghanistan, Kuwait, the Congo, Burma, Chad, Chiapas, and so forth.
Does the movement run the risk of becoming anthropocentric, with its focus on human rights, social justice, and indigenous peoples? The movement should be anthropocentric. We’re human. We see through the eyes given to us. The problem is that we are not anthropocentric enough, because when we truly see ourselves we see that we are connected to all else, that we are inseparable from every molecule, thought, child, twig, and creature on earth. When we know that to take care of one life we have to take care of all life, and that life includes what we say, how we act, what we do, and what we honor, that is the beginning of the sacred embodiment that leads to true civilization.
The concept of karma is this realization of connectedness. There is nothing we do that does not affect all of life. However, to your question, the movement is broad and diverse. Areas of focus include cetaceans, permaculture, arts activism, microcredit, perrisodactyls, rights of the child, mangrove conservation, community service, language revitalization, green schools, endocrine disruptors, fire ecology, climate justice, mountaintop removal, biomimicry, boreal forests—should I go on? You get the idea. It is vast, and the issues broadly defined as social justice and the environment are not separate issues at all. They are kith and kin, two sides to one hurt, the harm people do to each other with nature as the instrument and equal victim.
You’ve suggested that the free flow of information—what you call “directionless communication”—is the greatest asset of the movement in its effort to reorganize humanity around the issues of sustainability. Would you say that the Internet is an expression of that effort? The flow of information has exploded because of the Internet and in the developing world because of cell phones, and the low cost and democratization of information distribution is what feeds the rapid growth of the movement. Governments and companies find it more difficult to hide their actions, while the coordination of activity is greatly enhanced.
I loved your David-and-Goliath story about India Resource Center, a one-person NGO that had taken on Coca-Cola for its environmental abuses in India. Coca-Cola didn’t take it seriously at first, but in the end this particular David cost them big. Is this kind of success against big business anomalous? It is called the Mosquito-in-the-Dark strategy. Small NGOs have developed an array of techniques to address huge, faceless corporations that speak to the public through the communications departments in a language of feigned responsibility. In the case of Coca-Cola, they built plants in India that polluted and depleted the groundwater of local farmers and refused to acknowledge their responsibility until they were busted. Even then they did not make amends, and they have not done so to this day. Nevertheless, they are being stopped. This case is not anomalous. It happens every day, but we don’t hear about it.
Jonathan Schell has written that revolutions such as the one you describe as a movement toward social justice and environmental action are often the result of changes that have already occurred but went unnoticed at the time. Does the movement have its roots in an earlier era? The movement has a long history going back to the teachers and philosophers of the Axial Age, roughly 200 to 900 B.C.E. In the United States it has roots in the Transcendentalists, especially Emerson and Thoreau. Most people think of the green movement as a postwar, post-Rachel Carson phenomenon, but one can trace it back to the nineteenth century and the birth of science and biology. The Darwinian revolution was about evolution, to be sure, but the basis for evolution is the idea of interconnection and integration. This sudden and unwelcome theory threatened the frozen tableau of creationist mythologies put forth by Christians.
The geologist Charles Lyell published Principles of Geology in 1830-33 and Darwin took a copy of volume 1 on the HMS Beagle. Lyell described a slowly changing earth millions of years old—not thousands of years, as popularly declaimed by the church. The conclusion of both men is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism: that everything is changing, always, without exception. If everything is changing, often because of biological processes, then what is the impact of human beings? That question was considered arrogant when God was the sole creator and our history was less than six thousand years old. When those delusions fell, the seeds were sown for a new understanding of humankind’s relationship to living systems.
And the Transcendentalists were influenced by Darwin? Yes. Thoreau was very much influenced by Darwin’s work, but he also had a copy of R. Spence Hardy’s Manual of Buddhism on the shelf above his bed at Walden Pond. I have a photocopy of his book, with his fascinating marginal notes. Thoreau’s work, especially his essay “Civil Disobedience,” later had a profound affect on Gandhi and Martin Luther King. Thoreau’s thinking had been shaped in turn by Emerson’s Nature, published in 1836. In that book, Emerson shared the implications of his realization that all of nature was connected, that we were not in nature but were nature itself. Taking Emerson at his word, Thoreau decided not to pay his poll tax as a way to protest the Mexican American war, which he saw as illegal, duplicitous, and in immoral. For Thoreau, paying taxes to the federal government when Texas Rangers were raping Mexican women was tantamount to being a rapist. He applied the moral implications of Emerson’s “web of life” to the web of society, and was arrested for nonpayment. His conclusion was simple: when the government is unjust, the just man is in jail. Until Thoreau’s time, being jailed was considered a public disgrace. It was an employee at the Indian Times in Durban, South Africa, who gave Gandhi a copy of “Civil Disobedience.” Until then, Gandhi was troubled about the implications of public arrest. Subsequently, he proudly carried Thoreau’s essay and flashed it to the press when he was escorted to jail for refusing to register under the apartheid system in 1907.
At the end of your book you refer to the movement as having no name. While I admit that there is certain appeal to the idea of a nameless, post-tribal humanism that emerges everywhere at once, I’m wondering if a movement without any clear overall organization, leadership, or ideology can actually function in the world. Aren’t these necessary to some extent? It has no name and central coordination because of the way it arose. Most of the problems we face in the world today aggregate in large, centralized institutions that concentrate power. The solutions to global problems, on the other hand, lie in highly connected communities that address food, commerce, energy, water, mobility, and so on, locally. There is a post-carbon movement in the U.S., and a “transition town” movement in the U.K., both of which are working toward a future that is not dependent on fossil fuel.
Bear in mind that ideology is what has gotten humanity into trouble every time, and it won’t serve us here. Every “ism” ends up in schisms, including Buddhism, and in the case of most “isms” the results are violence, war, and cruelty. The gift of this movement is that it is already atomized. It is not an ism, it cannot divide. It can only come together. It is something we’ve never seen before in human history. Consequently, we have no name for it.
You have referred to the movement as the “immune response” of humanity to protect itself from the forces of depredation—”social antibodies attaching themselves to the pathologies of power” was the way you put it in Blessed Unrest. What do you think is behind that response? God? Buddha? Or maybe some survival mechanism at the heart of life itself? The dream of every cell is to become two cells. We are communities of cells, a hundred trillion human cells to each body, with an ancient pedigree. We are life, and life is relentless and dogged. The first cells that assembled and metabolized under the most difficult of circumstances deep in the ocean nearly forty million centuries ago are in our bodies now, and we are, in the poet Mary Oliver’s words, “determined,” as they were then, “to save the only life we can.” But to save our own life, we need to save all life. Our primordial connection to all forms of life links us inseparably to our common fate. The analogy of the immune system is the only descriptor I have found that comes close to describing what we are seeing. There have been many social movements throughout history, but this is a movement of movements and is of such magnitude and depth that it defies sociological descriptions. I don’t make a distinction between life, the sacred, and concepts of divinity. They are the same thing, so if we are to ask what is behind this movement, we have to look inward.
You write of citizen-based organisms as “the fundamental unit of social change.” In your opinion, is Buddhism currently committed enough to social change? Let me put it this way: If the movement is a bottom-up, grassroots phenomenon rather than a top-down, authority based one, how does Buddhism—or for that matter religion in general, which has tended to be passed down to us along hierarchical lines—contribute to it? Couldn’t it just as easily inhibit the movement’s work? The role of Buddhism varies from country to sect, and I am not qualified to comment on whether it is committed enough on an institutional level. Buddhism is hierarchical for good reason, but also for vestigial reasons. The core reason is that Buddhism is not a revealed religion but a transmitted one, a living doctrine that is passed from one teacher to another over time. The vestigial reason is that Buddhism flourished in Asia, where hierarchy and patriarchy co-evolved. In terms of commitment, I think Buddhist practice is by its very nature social change. It cultivates compassion, which is the source of transformation. The word means “suffering with.” Thus compassion arises from a deep place of receptivity and listening that is the beginning of healing. What we are talking about broadly is the healing of the world, a journey of a thousand years.
So how do you see the movement affecting Buddhism? Because if what you’ve said is true, it will, if only because it’s much larger and more pervasive than Buddhism. I don’t see Buddhism as separate from the movement. However, I believe that Buddhism as an institution will become much more engaged in social issues, because I cannot see a future where conditions do not worsen for all of us. The gift of the years ahead is that we cannot address the salient issues of our time and be the same people we are today.Dukkha, suffering, has always been the crucible of transformation for those who practice. Tanha, the cravings that interlace and permeate our world and minds, will not go away, but the delusion of being able to satisfy them in excessive and expanding ways will certainly come to the fore, giving each of us new eyes and a basis for profound reflection. And I believe that this is a very fertile era for Buddhism, a “teachable era,” one might say.
At the end of your book, you advance the idea that only a spiritual solution will suffice to address the global crises we face at present. Specifically, you propose the Golden Rule and a belief in the sacredness of all life as foundational ideals for the movement. Do you think that these provide a powerful enough “glue” to hold together the various disparate elements of the movement? I do believe that the only way we will find a just and respectful way of life is through the heart. However, I do not propose the Golden Rule and the sacredness of life as the only ideals. These two tenets, developed independently by teachers, sages, and philosophers in China, India, the Mideast and Greece during the Axial Age, were the root of the idea of a charity (as the word is used in England) and were the roots of the first civil society movement that began in London in 1787, which was the movement to abolish the trade in slaves. It was the first time that a group of individuals worked on behalf of people they would never know and from whom they would never receive benefit. At the time, critics thought it daft. Why would someone do something for which there was no personal gain? Nevertheless, they did, and the Abolitionist movement became the template of what I write about in my book. Today, millions of citizens work on behalf of people they will never know or meet, and it is astonishing that altruism guides and permeates the fastest growing movement in the world.
Blessed Unrest is essentially a handbook for membership in the movement, but for all that, it’s pretty light on fixed guidelines or principles. Is there any advice you have for people who are just beginning to wake up to the fact that humanity needs a collective response to globalization? I didn’t write the book as a handbook. It was an attempt to bring to light what should be obvious, a one hundred-million-person movement that is largely ignored. Even if it were a handbook, it would defy the nature of the movement to set down guidelines and principles. That’s top-down thinking. As they say in AA, “Your best thinking got you here.” In the same way, it was our best top-down thinking that created a world careening into social and ecological crises. To get out of it may require faith in real people doing real things absent the idea that someone distant knows better.
The task here is to present the information we have without fear, because it is fear that got us into the situation we are in today. Fear cannot heal us. The interplay between the shrinking supply of carbon-based energy and the impact of combustion of coal, gas, and oil (climate change) is without question the greatest crisis that humankind has ever faced. The rise of a burgeoning civil society movement to address these cascading crises is due to the inability of conventional institutions to act. Leadership is arising from the bottom up, not from the top down, and my metaphor for what we are seeing is that the movement represents humanity’s immune response to political corruption, economic disease, and ecological degradation.
If we want to know what to do, we need to ask the people who pay the highest price for the economic and ecological violence that pervades the earth—and these would be children, women, people of color, and the localized poor. They don’t need guidelines, they need rights and honor. My advice for people is to love the world they are in, in whatever way makes sense to them. It may be a devotional practice, it may be song or poetry, it may be by gardening, it may be as an activist, scientist, or community leader. The path to restoration extends from our heart to the heart of sentient beings, and that path will be different for every person.
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.