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An interview with Paul Hawken: "We choose a path of regeneration"

Paul Hawken

I met up with Paul Hawken at the Where do we go from here conference in Rheinbeck NY. I took the opportunity to grab some time for an interview.  We discussed growth, change and the power of action.  You can either listen to or download the podcast, or read the transcript below.  I began by asking him to introduce himself to readers who may not have come across his work before. 

"I’m Paul Hawken and I’m a writer. I’ve been writing about the environment since…I can’t remember when, 1973?  So 40 years now. But also writing about the environment and business, because I have been in business all my life. My first business was sustainable agriculture and natural foods, and I went into that business for the same reason you eat the food, which is to try to change both myself and where and how food is grown, and learned a lot.  For me business has always been a way to make something happen in the world that isn’t happening that should happen, as opposed to how you sell or make money, that’s not been so interesting to me.

In the process of doing that I’ve written a lot about it. The Ecology of Commerce, The Next Economy, Growing a Business, Natural Capitalism – which, by the way, is not about capitalism. It’s about natural capital and has nothing to do with capitalism!  But it’s purposely titled in order to ensnare people!  My leftist friends go “aargh!”, but there’s no such thing as natural capitalism, not in the way that people understand it.

Schumacher didn’t coin the term, but he used the term ‘natural capital’ to refer to all those things out there, resources, resource flows, ecosystems, services that aren’t on anybody’s balance sheet. Not that we should monetise them, but we should recognise them as being extraordinarily valuable. Natural Capitalism is really about what happens when the limiting factor to human wellbeing is not human capital, you know, roads and highways and hospitals, but actually natural capital.

Like you say, Natural Capitalism is not about capitalism as such, but is it possible to have a form of natural capitalism or any form of capitalism that doesn’t depend on economic growth? Do you think that growth is conducive to the world we need to create?

It’s a great question. What I mean by that is there’s always going to be growth. But whether there’s overall growth, metastatic growth, that’s the kind of growth that can’t happen. That’s not possible. Also, we have to define growth: is it growth in stuff or growth in services, is there growth in quality or is there growth in money? Growth itself isn’t the problem, it’s what’s growing and how prosperity is measured.

Paul Hawken

Right now, as you well know, the metrics we have for economic growth are just bollocks, they don’t mean anything at all. They have nothing to do with people’s experience or life quality. They may have, at one time, I’m not saying they didn’t, but they don’t now. So it’s possible. But just as when you reach adulthood you don’t grow in size hopefully too much, but you continue to grow in other ways, I can easily imagine an economy that grows in complexity and elegance, people becoming better and more refined, teaching and learning and innovating.

I think it’s very possible not only to grow, but to grow and have a ninefold reduction in energy and material, or tenfold. To reduce what we use by 10% and to grow in the sense of prosperity, an income that is more than the living wage and that provides people with their needs and extra, to provide for those things that they want to be discretionary about in their life, that’s very possible. Right now we’re stealing the future and we’re selling it in the present, we’re calling it GDP.

There’s no reason whatsoever we can’t heal the future and monetise that in the present and work at it. When you do that, you’re creating value for future generations, and that has a present value. The way we do it is a choice by default, by a lack of imagination. There’s no reason why we can’t have inter-generational financing where we’re in a sense financing the future by spending the present by lending to each other to create value that is paid back by restoring natural capital, our land, our forests, our waterways – all those things have so much value. Those choices are there for us.  That’s still a growing economy but not growing in impact, not growing in stuff, in fact there’s a radical reduction in both.

You wrote Blessed Unrest a few years ago, which was your mapping of the movement to change the world in its wider sense. What’s changed since then? Is your sense that that movement is stronger than it was when you wrote the book or as strong? What’s your update on this?

I do get asked that, especially when Occupy showed up and people wrote “you predicted Occupy, or the Arab Spring”.  I didn’t predict anything, let’s be clear.  Nor was I trying to. What I was trying to do, starting in ’99 in the WTO demonstrations in Seattle, which is where the book arose, I just kept noticing the diversity and how these people came there and the way it was organised. It was different to protests I had seen growing up: Civil Rights, anti-war, environmental...

I thought, this is something that’s going on here.  I pulled the string on the flour bag and it just kept getting deeper and deeper and deeper. Then I asked the simple question, I wonder how many groups are out there, there must be somebody who knows. There must be a registry, you know? 

I started looking through lists of so many things and there was just nothing anywhere. I grew up at a university and Marion the librarian was a hero in our family, so I went to the library and they didn’t know. That’s when I started to get really interested and started counting. Once I started counting and realised that there was over a million organisations.  Then we got a grant from a really wonderful man to actually go in and do a typology, a taxonomy – what are we talking about here, environment, social justice, indigenous rights, what does that mean?

We started going through the list of organisations that we discovered and then looking at their mission statements, looking at ‘who we are’, the descriptions, and then saying what category they belonged in. When we started doing that, we started a category for groups about climate justice. At the time it was nascent, though not anymore. We just kept naming, naming, naming, and when it was done we had over two thousand different types of organisations that were inextricably knitted together as this movement, although not necessarily all aware of that.

From my point of view, since it was published in 2007, it continues to grow. The economic shock of ’08-’09 I think created the need for groups to work more closely together. Resources became more limited, but the need became more urgent.

If you look back to the Sixties and the flowering of movements and all that incredible diversity of movements there that flowered in the late Sixties and then tailed away quite steeply going into the Seventies, it felt to me – I wasn’t born until the tail end of it – but looking back on it and reflecting on it, that one of the key things seemed to be that yes there were lots of different groups, but there wasn’t an emotional maturity grounding what they were doing in some kind of process. So everyone just fell out with each other and got stoned and the whole thing didn’t really achieve its aims.  Do you have a sense that we’ve somehow learnt from those mistakes, that this is more mature than what happened in the Sixties, or is there a danger that it repeats the same thing with lots of groups that don’t get on with each other?

When you generalise you have to be careful.  Are you talking about England, are you talking about France, talking about the US, New Jersey, Arizona? Or Japan? It’s different in every country, the level of maturity is different. I would say that in the US, it’s extraordinarily sophisticated now, and there’s not a chance that the Sixties will happen. The Sixties wasn’t that big, it was just at the time any activism was given a lot of press. It was novel, it was different, it got news because it got news. It attracted followers or activists. There was a symbiotic relationship. You don’t really get that kind of attention now.

It’s not that you don’t have activist groups.  At the moment there’s 350.org with Keystone XL, that’s very active, and there are lots of splinter groups that have spoken out at that. What you see now is much more boots on the ground, and it’s about getting the work done. It’s not about being active, it’s about being collaborative, it’s about listening. It’s about working with communities and places and towns. It’s about really bringing diversity together instead of being right.

From my own perspective, you’re still seeing growth. But like any biological organism you’re seeing death too, it’s about turnover and learning. It’s a movement of movements and there’s no centre, there’s no head, there’s no ideology, no-one needs one nor wants one, so therefore when you talk about it you have to be really careful. You have to always be careful not to generalise.

One of the things that was really interesting in your talk today was when you talked about Pacala and Socolow’s wedges (seven 'wedges' representing different carbon-reducing technologies that combined could lead to the desired scale of overall reductions). I’ve always shared your sense that actually one of the dangers with those wedges is that they’re all things that other people do, or don’t do, on our behalf. Like you say, you lose agency with them. It’s occurred to me for a while that something like Transition or actually the movement in Blessed Unrest has the potential to be a wedge. I wondered if you could talk about that a little bit. 

I think the movement has a chance to be almost every wedge, actually. Not the Socolow wedges but the wedges we spoke about today (in his presentation at Omega) in terms of I think we had 92, or 102, you saw the scrolling list is not complete but these are the real wedges. The wedge thing is so linear, mechanical, [laughs] only a PHD could do a drawing like that!

Pacala & Socolow's 'stabilisation wedges'

I think what Blessed Unrest was trying to describe, and didn’t name, because I don’t think it has a name, is doing exactly that, and inventing ways as we speak too. Some may be considered marginal, but marginal things add up and are significant, and that’s what the wedges didn’t do. We’re brushing up on all that stuff, these are the 8, the big headliners, most of which are never going to happen. It’s like Golden Rice, 22 years and counting, it’s like the stalking horse for the GM companies: “are you going to let these kids go blind from your foolish objection of GMOs?”

To me, you’re seeing the same thing with those.  If you capture the [carbon emissions from] coal, tell me about it, but in the meantime you have to do something, and that’s why I like Transition Towns and Transition movement because it’s “let’s do it!”  What happens, as you so beautifully explained and illustrated (in your talk here at Omega) is that people know what to do. They just need the question really.They know what to do. 

 It’s not like you or me or somebody saying, I know what to do, not at all.  It’s like creating the conditions for people rise up and they want to rise up. They want meaning in their life. They want their life to be relevant. They want their children to grow up in some semblance of stability and economic security.

The movement to localise is so important. Most of it concentrates on food and other things. What Janine Benyus and I do and what she was talking about in her discussion, we’ve been trying to make a solar panel so that you can have local energy. Local means you make it and recycle it right there. You don’t go to China. You don’t go to some big company in Germany. You don’t use exotic materials, you don’t have cadmium-coated glass, which you have on 15% of all solar panels right now. You have things that are safe, and children can go to the factory and breathe and don’t cause fish to die like they do in China from solar companies. But it’s local.

When you have that kind of control over food and energy and materials, that resilience, what I would call that ‘ecological sovereignty’ with other villages, cities, towns. Now you have something really interesting which is when Lewis and Clark got to the Pacific North-West there were Native Americans there who had shells from Patagonia. From there all the way down to Patagonia people were obviously doing business. That’s why I say that commerce is sacred. Commerce is actually beautiful.  It’s when you aggregate and scale it, that’s when you get into really big problems, but when people are serving each other by their hands and their wit and their services and their craft, it’s really a very beautiful thing.

That’s what localisation does. We just wanted to create something where nobody would benefit from centralising it. Nobody can make it cheaper in some other country. Nobody can lord over you.  Nobody can lord over you with carrots! We think solar should be like that right now. Solar is not a great technology.

Omega sign

Jeremy Leggett has just published a book in which he tells a story about when he met Tony Blair and discussed peak oil with him. Blair said “if it does happen, it’s going to be horrible, and there’s nothing you can do about it. If it doesn’t happen, everyone will say that you were alarmist and will blame you and will vote you out as well, you’ll scare people and they won’t vote for you”.  Tony Blair’s thing was that we just have to hope that the oil companies are right. On issues like climate change and peak oil, these big, defining issues, can we expect any leadership from government do you think?

No. I think there’s another thing that I’d throw in with peak oil which is Energy Return on Energy Invested (EROEI). It’s not just energy. There’s kinds of energy, but then there’s how much you’re getting for the energy you’re putting in to retrieve that energy. Peak oil – who knows when that is, because you can frack the whole bloody planet. But EROEI is just dropping, dropping, dropping, dropping. The tar sands are, on a good day 2.5:1. I doubt it, given the huge ecological footprint, the damage that it’s done, I don’t read it that way, but I’ll give them 2.5:1, that’s what they say. Hunter gatherer societies were 10:1, so let’s see, we’re 25% of a hunter gatherer society!

Surplus energy is the mother’s milk of civilisation. It created towns. It created religion and education and dance and music and opera and all the things that are not about survival, but are about celebration of humanity. Surplus energy is a good thing, there’s nothing wrong with that. But putting aside carbon, putting aside CO2, putting aside combustion, putting aside pollution, it’s the wrong way to go. It’s diabolical.

Tony Blair’s comments are so interesting because there’s such a lack of leadership in them. Whether you think of it as a precautionary principle or however you wish to think about it, let’s have a no regrets policy which says, if we do that, no matter how it turns out, you’ll have no regrets whatsoever.

So energy independence, reducing our footprint, cleaning up our energy metabolism so it’s not poisoning us or others with this pollution, creating jobs that are endemic to the country or region rather than going outside somewhere, getting rid of political corruption which follows energy like flies around poop, as does war. When you take away those stakes, when you take away that concentration of power, all those things benefit from a no regrets energy policy. And if you’re wrong, your country is cleaner, stronger, more economically vibrant, more resilient. If you’re right, then look what you’ve done for others. So his answer, to me, is upside down and backwards.

Blessed Unrest was about that bottom-up movement, what it looks like. As you say, there’s no sign of any leadership coming from the top. How do those two things interact with each other? What does it look like when a vibrant bottom-up Blessed Unrest movement meets the top-down?

I think we’re in a stage of devolution of the big, centralised political institutions. They’re going to collapse. I don’t think governments are going to collapse, I’m not apocalyptic that way at all, but I think the thinking and the way it informs itself and conducts itself will collapse in maybe 10, 15, 20 years. It’s just inevitable.

I think that what civil society is doing is not trying to replace government or not trying to replace the church or the universities or venerable institutions. I think what it’s trying to do is permeate them with new ways of being and thinking and relating in the world. Government is so ripe for that because there’s no reason now to have the government we have, which is behind closed doors and good old boy and smarmy corruption, wink wink nudge nudge. It’s so outdated.

In an age of the internet and instant feedback, in an age in which we can set up new memes where people govern themselves, the ‘present-ess’ I talked about, the wisdom of the crowds, the idea that democracy is really bad. The crowd, if it knows it, has that power.  It’s very pre-considered. It doesn’t vote its emotions, it actually considers things.

Then what happens in that kind of situation is that if you have true democracy and don’t have corruption, you actually have information flowing to people which is open and transparent. From good information, people can make good decisions. If you have bad information as people do now, the decisions get skewed.

We’re going to see the bankruptcy of the existing political systems become more and more evident. I think of Vaclav Havel, he was a playwright and he and his colleagues kept practising parliamentary democracy in Czechoslovakia, under the nose of the Communist party. The secret police were always trying to find out where they were meeting and what they were doing, and they found them and threw them in jail, and humiliated them and took away all their possessions, and they’d get out and they’d do it again.

When the Berlin Wall fell, there were these people who had practised, they’d rehearsed. I feel like when you look at this movement, we’re all rehearsing, we’re all practising. What’s going to happen, I believe, is that the larger world, if you will, the world that’s asleep, the world that’s numb, the world that still has faith in the inertia of the existing system, when that crumbles, cracks, then they’re going to turn around and ask, what is working? Then you get this exponential change. You got this sudden change in Czechoslovakia from Fascism to democracy and it was a very smooth transition because people had felt depressed by the old system but they also had really great leadership.

People are practising leadership in real time, but they will be the go-to organisations, the go-to people, the go-to spokesperson, and we’ll have that really phased transition where things change overnight, very quickly. Rob, I don’t know whether it’s 5 or 50 or 15 years, I don’t know when it’s going to happen, but it’s all set up for that to happen.

This is the first time I’ve ever been to America, and one of the things that’s really struck me is the amount of flags you see everywhere.  In front of people’s houses, everywhere, the Stars and Stripes. You rarely see that where I come from.  That whole idea of people saying ‘unAmerican’ to mean a bad thing, can that degree of nationalism be squared with a love of the environment and the care ethos that we need to move forward or is that kind of flag-grasping really something that really keeps us in the past, do you think?

Well, as they say, “patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels”.  There are people who are rigidly holding on to a symbol. Then there are people who are really frightened of change in the world, the people who are representative of that, gay marriage is a threat, and so on and so on. 

Then there are the demagogues and the people who use that totemic symbol as a means to insert fear and use fear as a way to mobilise. That’s what we’re seeing in America. Adam Curtis talked about that in ‘The Power of Nightmares’.  It’s taking grip, it’s very powerful here. We can imagine the end of the world very easily now, we’re all getting really good at it, the end of civilisation, but what’s unimaginable is the transformation of the world, and we have to work on that.

What you see in America is really a sunset effect. It could also be a prelude to fascism of course. Fascism was born in Germany of Versailles. That treaty was humiliating and was a breeding ground for demagoguery and too bad that Adolf went to the Wagner opera and thought he was going to be a hero and save his people.

I’m not saying America will be this way or that way. It was Churchill that said “Americans do the right thing after they’ve tried everything else” and they really do try everything else. But there is a deep core of goodness in America which is being, I think, misdirected and exploited by media, by the person outside the country, Rupert Murdoch, who’s not even American.

I don’t know how it’s going to turn out, but I do think that the reason the cities in the US are so effective in their government, senators and the president is so ineffective is that that’s a level of sovereignty where our difference is. The things that unite us are much more important than our differences. That’s true on any scale, even in a city as big as New York.

That’s where you find mayors who signed the Kyoto Protocol and met it and surpassed it and are moving very rapidly to making their cities the greenest city in the world. I can’t tell you how many cities I go to in the world where the mayor says “we’re going to be the greenest city in the world”!. What a great competition.  More and more now, you get elected as mayor, if you don’t have a programme you’re almost unelectable. A joke.

Patriotism can come together in a way, because people can feel like values of children and education and safety and security, autonomy and resilience are starting to all blend together in a gestalt that makes sense to those who fought the war and have medals, and doesn’t make sense to a generation who just thought those wars were crazy. So we’ll see. Sometimes I just think we could just veer into fascism.

My last question was, we just passed 400 parts per million a few months ago. The IPCC report that just came out was hardly a clean bill of health in terms of the climate. What’s your sense of the movement that Blessed Unrest captures? Is it going to be enough to turn things around, do you think?

It’s only good enough to turn it around if it doesn’t become ‘it’. The whole purpose of any movement is to become ‘we’ in the largest sense of the word. There’s no ‘they’ there. I think that the question we have to ask ourselves is, is climate change happening to us or for us? Because if it’s happening to us, then we’re victims and we’ve been screwed and got the short end of the stick. And when it’s happening to you then you’re thinking, who did that? If it’s happening for us, which I believe by the way, then everything is wide open. Everything has to change. Our hearts, our minds, what we do, what we think of as patriotic…

How do you mean ‘for us’?

On our behalf. We are doing this. We in the bigger sense are doing this. We have created a situation, this shadow of our catabolic, thermal, industrial economy, in order to wake up. If we don’t wake up, then it’s fore-ordained, roughly, what will happen.  And it’s very rough, that ‘roughly’.

For us means that one by one by one, people are waking up. It’s not like one by one by one people are going to sleep, it’s the other way around. You can easily say that we’re all losing, but no, we’re not. I really radically disagree with that. We have to really be careful not to conflate the momentum, the inertia, the concentration of capital and the corruption attendant thereon, of large-scale fossil fuel companies and institutions that are allied with them or kin to them which are benefiting from and expressing momentum that goes back 50, 100, 150 years in industrialism.

With the mindset and the economic principles that aren’t principles, or economic, and the momentum, we don’t want to conflate that with the birth of a transformative humanity that takes shape in terms of groups and NGOs and collectives and co-ops in so many different ways, to address the salient issues of our time.

People say the momentum is exceeding the effort to halt it, the damage, therefore you’re failing. I say “no, no, no, no”.  That momentum has nothing to do with growth. This started small and it’s growing, and it’s growing much faster than anything else. It started small because it started in response. You could say there’s a lag time and a delay, sure, but it’s in response.  You can’t conflate the response to the instigation that caused the response. I don’t buy into this idea that somehow we’re losing.

Are we losing  diversity, elephants?  Yes, no question, the data is robust. But when we conflate it all together, then we just go dark, and despair, and we go numb, and lose our narrative. We lose a story that’s meaningful to us. There’s a great book by Jeremy Lear, The Crow People, about ethics in the face of cultural devastation and what happens when the narratives that inform the culture and made you and gave meaning to your life are taken out from underneath you.

If you buy into this ‘to us’ and you’re the victim, you’re also giving your narrative over to that which is dying.  It may be big, but that doesn’t mean it’s thriving. It may have more and more money in the world, it may be that incomes are getting more concentrated, but that is a sign of death, that’s not a sign of life.

It’s really important that we don’t do that, that we understand that there is a deeper story that’s being enacted out, being written by you and by so many people. You’re there, I know you know it, you’re in the towns, you listen, you watch, you see. Now you’ve been here and seen what it’s like here. Of course people are marginalised economically, they’ve chosen that, they know they can do better, make more if they do this, if they gave up, they can’t give up. What you see you can’t unsee.  They’ve chosen a path of regeneration.

What I’ve learnt, I was talking about my youth today, I spent a lot of time outside because I didn’t trust the adult world, I didn’t trust it at all. What I learnt young, and didn’t have the words for it, no matter what you do to nature, burn it, scrape it, scorch it, clear cut it, extract it, poison it, the moment you stop, life starts to regenerate. There’s nothing you can do about it. It’s the default mode of life. And we are life. We really are. It’s our default mode.

It’s really important that we see that and that it’s happening, that movement to regenerate. With all our ignorance, like we’ve woken up and what happened, definitely people are startled by a newfound literacy of where we are, because they’ve been lulled asleep by things and advertising and TV and all that stuff. But one by one people pass over and they wake up and that awakening is before us. That is what this is here for. None of us will be the same person we are today when we make this transition. 

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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