In the Fall 2008 issue of Tricycle, contributing editor Clark Strand interviewed author, activist, and entrepreneur Paul Hawken about “the Movement with No Name,” which Hawken had recently documented in his book Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being, and Why No One Saw It Coming. The book draws from a vast range of sources—including the author’s own longtime study of Buddhism—to fashion an argument that is clear, convincing, and compelling. In the article’s introduction, Strand wrote: “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.”
That was then; this is now.
Beginning early in 2011 and continuing today, there has been a dramatic and global upsurge of activity among the kinds of civil society groups Hawken wrote about in Blessed Unrest. Protests in the Middle East, then Wisconsin, then Western Europe, then Eastern Europe, and finally the advent of the Occupy movement made visible for everyone the very thing that he had been talking about. It is not so much that Hawken had seen what was going to happen. He just saw, long before nearly anyone else, what was happening already.
The accustomed ways of thinking about political and social movements quickly proved as inadequate in making sense of what was happening as they had been in identifying its long process of development. For perspective and insight, for a sense of how the patterns which connect are at currently at work, we atTricycle felt now would be a good time to talk again to Paul Hawken.
—Andrew Cooper, Features Editor
Since 2011, we have witnessed a great upsurge of the non-ideological, leaderless, international movement you describe in Blessed Unrest and elsewhere. Do you see common precipitating conditions to which various aspects of this movement are currently responding? Or in other words, why now? My hunch is that we are in the midst of a vast worldwide transition that is decades in the making. It is as if the Earth has been changing from one season to the next according to some greater calculus being perceived and experienced in various ways by different people. I believe we are at the end of a period of ersatz prosperity that was enabled by the creation of endless amounts of money (debt) that in turn stimulated hyper-consumption. The result was income polarization, ecological degradation, political corruption, economic disease, and resource shortages, especially with respect to water and carbon sinks. The invoices for this extended period of consumption are coming due, and the illusion of wealth is being shattered, whether by wheat prices in Egypt, public union decertification in Wisconsin, or government austerity programs being undertaken in Europe. This is the beginning. One only has to look at the mountains of unpayable debt in the world and people’s expectations to see that an increasing disillusionment is going to emerge. The blessing of this kind of opening of people’s eyes is that it will call to question deeply held allegiances, assumptions, and delusions about what constitutes governance, equity, and fairness. If we are lucky, it may even touch on the deeper question, which is how much can we realistically take for ourselves and have a livable planet. And if we are very fortunate it leads to the question about how we disaggregated justice, economics, and ecology. They are the same.
While no two cases are exactly the same, the Arab Spring, protests in Madrid and then in other European cities, the pro-union activities in Wisconsin, the civil society movement in Russia, the Occupy movement, and so forth, all seem connected. How would you describe the connection? I am not sure all of the mentioned movements are nonideological or leaderless, nor are all of them movements. Some are uprisings, some are protests; others, like Occupy, may constitute a true movement. Movements arise to redress long-standing and deeply imbedded grievances or injustices. What is common to nearly all uprisings, protests, and movements today is the ease with which they can be constituted due to modern communication technologies and the inability of institutions to operate in secret from the people they supposedly serve.
Looking specifically at the Occupy protests: To what degree do you see them falling into the parameters you discuss in Blessed Unrest? And how closely have you followed them? Occupy is closer to a true movement because it addresses deeper causes as opposed to, say, protesting against cuts in entitlements. Say what you will about the disorganized quality of Occupy, for most it was an expression of selflessness. It is a set of declarations, not demands. Although people have quoted from Blessed Unrest and other essays to show that I predicted Occupy, I would say no. I try not to predict. I wrote about something that was evident more than ten years ago. The difference is that the movement is now visible to many. Occupiers represent a manifestation of what has been present and growing all along. It is a living thing, like an organism, and like any living form it will either morph or languish, grow or die. I watch it with pleasure and participate too.
In Blessed, you affirm nonviolence, but you also strike out against “isms.” Is nonviolence a tactic, an ism, a principle or a tool? And from what you’ve seen, are the Occupy protesters seeing it in the same way?Nonviolence is a conscious way of acting that is based on the connectedness of all life. This is Buddhism, Taoism, and Hinduism 101. Violence against another is violence against one’s own being, so it is futile. The brutishness of the current socio-economic-industrial system cannot be remedied by violence. To a generation brought up on a steady diet of savage video games and Hollywood fantasy, nonviolence may seem docile. But to face—with open hands—armed, shielded, gas-masked riot police is the greatest form of courage. Non-violence is how you expose the violence of the system, and not seeing as “other” those charged with carrying out physical violence is how you communicate with them directly. It is a very difficult thing to do. Anyone who is not afraid in that situation is bloodless.
Awareness of interpenetration and connectedness is at the heart of the questions posed by Occupy with respect to transparency, accountability, and fairness. There are people within Occupy who speak with the “we-them” polemic, but that duality, the separation of self from others, is the thinking that created the myriad problems Occupy is trying to address. Occupy is a concatenation of events with no central authority or leader. That is what makes it so powerful, fascinating, and vulnerable.
Would you describe the link you see between the abolitionist movement and contemporary civil society activities such as Occupy? In his brilliant book Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild pointed out that the formation in England of the Committee for the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1787 was the first time citizens organized themselves on behalf of people whom they would never know or from whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. The motives of abolitionists confused the establishment. The prevailing wisdom was that people organized for social change only to protect or serve their own interests. An altruistic mass movement didn’t make sense in the latter part of the 18th century. Today, everywhere in the world except North Korea, there are civil society organizations that do this and it is considered normal. This represents a great awakening in humankind, the likes of which had not previously occurred. It is largely invisible to us, or is so taken for granted that we cannot see a miracle is happening. Occupy is deservedly nabbing the headlines, but we should remember that there are over one million organizations in the world addressing the salient issues of our time with respect to social justice and the environment.
Have the Occupy protesters, in your view, overemphasized jobs and student debt to the detriment of environmental and human rights concerns? I honestly do not know what they have emphasized, because there are over a thousand Occupy organizations. What confuses the media and draws scorn is that there are so many issues at play and that there is no they there. Critics do not see how seemingly disparate issues are connected and linked. We have to be careful to not let our understanding about Occupy come from the very institutions that need to be occupied, among which are corporate media.
In the fall and winter of 2011 we saw police crackdowns, often clearing the Occupy encampments. How important is the occupation of the commons, in your view? Now that it seems to have brought the crises you cite in your book into the public imagination, does it lose momentum if it shifts into other formats? The Wall Street encampment was a suggestion and call to action by Kalle Lasn and Micah White of Adbusters in Vancouver. All successful protest movements adapt and change. The occupation of the commons was critical at the outset, but notice how the meme of “occupy” has scattered like spores into hundreds of different venues from ports to foreclosed homes and other countries. The verb occupy is active, so it has a thousand homes, not just Wall Street or a federal building. I saw a posting for Ocupar Tijuana the other day.
What do you think will be the long-term significance of the Occupy protests? It will be years before we understand the meaning and impact of the Occupy movement. It may fall apart, it may cohere; it may be a footnote, or it may grow and overthrow by its presence the corrupt and collusive machinations of corporations and legislatures in the U.S.
The movement is part of humanity’s immune response to ecological degradation, political corruption, and economic destruction. There is a biological quality to the full sweep of humanity confronting its shadow. The upwelling of awareness and compassion—and anger and frustration—is different from anything humanity has done before because we are connected in a way that has never occurred. This is terra nova. We know something is happening, but we don’t know what it is, as Bob Dylan once wrote. 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 which we have so far deferred by financial contortions. 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 is causing incalculable damage to the world, whether it be by bank bailouts or the Athabasca tar sands and the Keystone XL Pipeline.
Here we seem to be touching upon the sheer enormity of the problems we face, the implacable reality of a world careening toward multiple social and environmental crises. In your previous Tricycle interview, you said that the point of Blessed Unrest was not to offer guidelines or principles for how people should respond and that to do so would, in fact, run counter to the very nature of the movement you were describing. So rather than ask for answers, I want to ask for questions. What are the good questions you think people are asking themselves? What are you asking yourself? What questions should we be asking of others? The questions I ask myself are: Why am I here? Why have billions of beings, including me, come to Earth at this time? Which delusions prevent me from being fully human and humane? What is joy? Are my words, actions, and work helpful to others? Do I have any control over the future (an easy but an important question)? Do I love the way things are right now? If not, why not? Am I grateful for the privilege of living in these extraordinary times? What is my intention?
You wrote Blessed during the Bush years. Much of the grassroots support for Barack Obama in 2008 was based on the hope that he would be responsive to the concerns of civil society, not just to those originating in centers of power and influence. To many, he has been disappointment in this respect. Realistically, how do you see President Obama’s relationship to the wider development of the movement without a name?Obama is a lawyer. Lawyers frame and think in linear and logical ways. Obama is approaching a nonlinear complex system—the world economy—as a problem of logic, advised by people who both created and benefited from the financial crises we are in today. Since he is dealing with a problem that does not have a linear solution, he is in difficulty, although in fairness to him it should be added that he inherited the morass he is dealing with.
You are here talking about the style of thinking—linear, instrumental logic—that is most valued in modern, technological society and in which, in virtually any profession, one is highly socialized. Would you say something about models of thinking that you find are more adequate to the problems we face? We need to think like a mountain, as Aldo Leopold famously said. He did not mean we should think like a big geologic uplift; he meant thinking like a system. We need the kind of thinking Joanna Macy has devoted her life to, as did the environmental scientist Donella Meadows. Buddhism offers a way to understand the dualistic nature of the phenomenal world. Duality is not a bad thing, but it is dynamic and endlessly causal. Suffering arises from expecting something different, from the idea that we can “fix” the world or get it right once and for all. With linear thinking, impermanence is usually seen as a threat instead of a blessing.
It can get pretty grim out there. Where do you find hope? I find hope uninteresting. Hope is a mental narcotic that masks our fears. Fear arises from attachment. We need a movement that is fearless, not hopeful. Fearlessness is free, active, vital, whereas hopefulness is an unending pit of disappointment and doubt. Kindness and transformative change arise not from hope but from our intention and practice.
Artwork by Edwin Beckenbach
From “Possibilities,” by Paul Hawken, an essay printed in Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century © 2000.
In the United States, more than thirty thousand nongovernmental organizations [I know that number to be much higher now], 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 one hundred thousand [that number is now one million]. 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, labor 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 hyperrational world of no magic, economic analysis, and hypergrowth 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 CEOs and pathological financiers, the people who cannot see that what is emerging now is the possibility of being fully human.
Excerpt reprinted with permission of Rodale Press.