It can be so easy to become demoralized or even apocalyptic about the state of our planet. But entrepreneur and activist Paul Hawken believes we have less reason to despair than we think. In fact, Hawken asserts that if we act together, we can end the climate crisis in decades to come. In his new book, Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, Hawken offers a model of climate activism that puts life at the center of every act and decision and prioritizes our interconnectedness. After all, writes Hawken, “the most complex, radical climate technologies on Earth are the human heart, head, and mind, not a solar panel.”

In a recent episode of Life As It Is, Tricycle editor-in-chief James Shaheen and co-host Sharon Salzberg sat down with Hawken to explore the Buddhist teachings that underpin his approach to activism, particularly the power of reverence and community for long-term activism, because, as Hawken says, regeneration is “something we should always be doing. It’s not as if once we are successful, we can go back to destroying the world.” Read some excerpts from the conversation below, and listen to the full episode here.

On the importance of having unreasonable goals

Ending the climate crisis in one generation might not sound like a reasonable goal, but I believe we need unreasonable goals. If we have reasonable goals, they’re reasonable because we know how to do them. We need goals that we don’t know how to reach. When we don’t know, that is when imagination, creativity, innovation, and breakthroughs happen. 

Previously, climate scientists had said that even if we were to stop emitting greenhouse gases, we would still be in store for decades if not centuries of more warming. Last August, a report was released that stated that as soon as greenhouse gases peak, warming will start to go down within a relatively short time. In other words, we know the direction we should be heading in, and if we get there, we’ll be able to achieve something that makes sense for the future of civilization and the future of humanity.

On disconnection and repair

Global warming is caused by profound disconnection: disconnections between each other, humans to humans; disconnections between humans and nature; and disconnections within nature. We’re fragmenting nature itself, and we see this with the poisoning and acidification of oceans. Regeneration is repairing these fragmentations and putting these broken strands together. We know scientifically that the way you heal a system is to connect more of it to itself, whether it’s an ecosystem, an immune system, or a social system. In other words, all the pieces are there, and what we’ve got to do is reconnect them.

Reverence comes from the experience of seeing our connections to other forms of life. Suzanne Simard, the great Canadian scientist, spent years studying forest networks and models of interspecies cooperation. She coined the term “mother tree” to describe trees that support seedlings throughout the forest through underground fungal networks and connections. She was pounced on by her fellow male scientists, who saw the forest as competition rather than community. The trees live in community, and they support one another. When I look out my window every morning, I see about 25 redwood trees. Whenever I walk by them, I just pause and marvel: Whoa, this is community.

Reverence is the process of awakening to being alive. It’s the realization that life is amazing, and every living being is our sibling. You can’t have that experience looking at a screen. You can be prompted to have an experience, but the actual experience of connectedness comes from being outside. If we stay inside, we’re missing this extraordinary beauty that’s here on Earth, in people, in places, in creatures, in plants, and in ecosystems. The beauty is enough to make you weep.

On the healing work of weeds

With the advent of industrial agriculture in the early 20th century, companies began using chemicals like nitrate for fertilizer. These chemicals were also used for bombs. Using fertilizer allowed companies to get greener, bigger plants sooner. But it also produced very weak plants, which attracted insects, which meant that farmers needed to apply insecticides. The plants were also very shallow-rooted, so weeds began to come in and compete for resources, so farmers began applying herbicides and glyphosate. All of this contributed to the degradation of farmland (not to mention a whole host of other problems).

Now, if you look at a field of degraded land and you study the weeds that are growing there, you’ll see that the weeds are trying to heal the soil. If the soil is deficient in certain minerals, then Canadian thistle, which is a deep taproot, will sprout up to begin to bring up those minerals. You’ll also see amaranth and pigweed appear, each of which is an indicator of the earth trying to heal itself. If you start to pay attention in this way, then you’ll begin to see how life creates the conditions for life. That’s what it does. And it does so in such ingenious ways.

On finding joy and taking action

It can be easy to become demoralized about the climate. I often refer to the Wendell Berry quote, “Be joyful, though you’ve considered all the facts.” We have so many facts to consider. We can choose to despair, or we can choose to be joyful and see this life as a gift, as an offering. The way I look at it is that we’re being homeschooled. All our education never stops. We continue to be educated by the earth every day, and the first lesson is to get in alignment with biology.

People ask me sometimes, “What should I do?” I say, “I have no idea what you should do. But you do.” Look at the amazing, complex variety of ways in which you can be effective and engage and make change. Find the one that lights you up. Maybe you’ve always wanted to learn more about a particular animal or region. Maybe you care about a certain community or population. Find what makes you come alive, and that’s what you should do. That’s how we can end the climate crisis together.

Read an excerpt from Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation here.

More on climate change from the Tricycle archive:

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