A Wiser Earth?
World's largest movement has no leader but 100M employees
Rhett A. Butler, mongabay.com
June 11, 2007
Visionary Paul Hawken discusses WiserEarth and new book
Speaking Friday at a talk sponsored by the Long Now Foundation, Paul Hawken, co-founder of garden supply store Smith & Hawken and today recognized as a leader in eco-minded business and green design, spoke about two of his latest projects: Blessed Unrest, his new book tracing the emergence and growth of this still unnamed movement, and WiserEarth.org, an online community that embodies concepts explored in his book by networking more than 100,000 environmental and justice organizations.
Origins in his houseboat closet
Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming
by Paul Hawken
As Hawken dug through the literature he quickly realized that the movement is the largest the world has ever seen, surpassing any religion, political party, or economic theory. However even more striking than its size, is how it differs from other movements--it has no leader, no location, and no ideology. The movement is not forming a centralized ideology or command structure; it is based on ideas and problem-solving. The movement is not aggregating power to itself, instead its strength comes from its distributed and bottom-up nature. It seeks nothing less than to change the relationship between people and people and the environment, shifting from a world created by privilege and power to one created by community.
"We have a movement that doesn't have any of the earmarks of a movement," he said.
Unlike other "-isms" that tend to fracture away from a central ideology ("every '-ism' has become a schism," he said), this movement is coming together and gaining strength from a divided base. Hawken said it may be a case of humanity is doing something collectively that can't be understood individually.
Hawken compared the movement to the immune system, with an incomprehensibly complex array of systems working towards a general objective. For the immune system, the objective is maintaining the health of an organism; for the movement the goal is maintaining the well being of the planet and its inhabitants.
WiserEarth: Bringing it all together
Hawken said that despite the diversity of organizations that make up the movement, there is surprisingly little contradiction in the value statements of participants. He said that ideas and solutions permeate organizations involved in the movement, while the movement is permeating society rather than trying to take it over and divide it. No one's running the show -- a trait that makes the movement an enduring, self-perpetuating force.
A child of the anti-slavery movement
Hawken touched on the origins of the movement which he traced back to the Abolitionists in 1787.
"Here we have 12 people meeting in a print shop in 1787 announcing to the world that they were going to end slavery," he said.
This was the first time a secular group got together to organize themselves to end suffering of people they didn't know, would never meet, and would see no material benefit from helping, Hawken explained. Now we do this all the time.
Hawken looked at earlier influences for the movement, from religious figures in ancient times; to its growth from civil obedience through Ralph Waldo Emerson, Gandhi, Rosa Parks; to today, where the increasing use of technology is helping the movement expand. Hawken said that cell phones, texting, and the Internet are enabling people to connect in ways never before imaginable. He cited a spontaneous texting campaign by one million Chinese citizens to block the construction of a polluting chemical plant as an example of the rapid transformation.
Room for growth
Taking questions from the audience, Hawken said we're nowhere near approaching the upper limit of the movement. He noted that while duplication grows as the movement increases in size, there is probably room for 5-7 million organizations.
"We see people getting more and more innovative in how they organize," he said. "Even without a lot of money, they can still effective."
Hawken said he sees groups that obviously don't have access to grants, still making an important difference in some of the world's most remote areas.
Hawkins estimated that there are a minimum of 100 million full-time employees working on the movement's issues worldwide.
Concluding the talk with a question on how the movement is changing corporations, Hawken said that the things that separated us--organizations, individuals, corporations, governments--are becoming unimportant. He pointed to Wal-mart commitment to environment as a "real deal" example, noting that America's largest retailer turned to some of the world's best NGGs for advice in educating itself on how to reduce the impact of its operations on the environment.
"What you are seeing now is a real breaking out," he said. "[The movement] is no longer silent."
Hawken said that cities are leading the way.
"Cities are the ecological arcs of the 21st century," he stated. "[Cities] are where we have the lowest impact on Earth... [We are] redesigning cities so they can be places where humans flourish after a very difficult transition in early 20th century."
About Paul Hawken
Paul Hawken has authored six books including The Next Economy, Growing a Business, The Ecology of Commerce, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming. His books have been published in 27 languages and have sold over 2 million copies.
Hawken founded Erewhon Trading Company, a natural-foods wholesaler, in the 1960s; co-founded the Smith & Hawken, a garden supply company, in the 1970s; founded or co-founded Metacode and Groxis, software companies; and currently heads the Pax Group, an innovative industrial design company developing technologies based on biomimetic principles.
Hawken heads the Natural Capital Institute (NCI), a sustainability think tank based in Sausalito, California.