May 10, 2007
News & Opinion: Excerpt from Blessed Unrest
This excerpt is taken from Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming by Paul Hawken. Blessed Unrest is about a worldwide movement to re-imagine and improve humanity's relationship with the environment and one another. Paul Hawken is an environmentalist and author who has spent more than a decade researching organizations dedicated to restoring the environment and fostering social justice.
Over the past fifteen years I have given nearly one thousand talks about the environment, and every time I have done so I have felt like a tightrope performer struggling to maintain perfect balance. To be sure, people are curious to know what is happening to their world, but no speaker wants to leave an auditorium depressed, however dark and frightening a tomorrow is predicted by the science that studies the rate of environmental loss. To be sanguine about the future, however, requires a plausible basis for constructive action: you cannot describe possibilities for that future unless the present problem is accurately defined. Bridging the chasm between the two was always a challenge, but audiences kindly ignored my intellectual vertigo and over time provided a rare perspective instead. After every speech a smaller crowd would gather to talk, ask questions, and exchange business cards. These people were typically working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights. They came from the nonprofit and nongovernmental world, also known as civil society; they looked after rivers and bays, educated consumers about sustainable agriculture, retrofitted houses with solar panels, lobbied state legislatures about pollution, fought against corporate-weighted trade policies, worked to green inner cities, and taught children about the environment. Quite simply, they had dedicated themselves to trying to safeguard nature and ensure justice. Although this was the 1990s, and the media largely ignored them, in those small meetings I had a chance to listen to their concerns. They were students, grandmothers, teenagers, tribe members, businesspeople, architects, teachers, retired professors, and worried mothers and fathers. Because I was itinerant, and the organizations they represented were rooted in their communities, over the years I began to grasp the diversity of these groups and their cumulative number. My interlocutors had a lot to say. They were informed, imaginative, and vital, and offered ideas, information, and insight. To a great extent Blessed Unrest is their gift to me.
My new friends would thrust articles and books into my hands, tuck small gifts into my knapsack, or pass along proposals for green companies. A Native American taught me that the division between ecology and human rights was an artificial one, that the environmental and social justice movements addressed two sides of a single larger dilemma. The way we harm the earth affects all people, and how we treat one another is reflected in how we treat the earth. As my talks began to mirror my deeper understanding, the hands offering business cards grew more diverse. I would get from five to thirty such cards per speech, and after being on the road for a week or two would return home with a few hundred of them stuffed into various pockets. I would lay them out on the table in my kitchen, read the names, look at the logos, envisage the missions, and marvel at the scope and diversity of what groups were doing on behalf of others. Later, I would store them in drawers or paper bags as keepsakes of the journey. Over the course of years the number of cards mounted into the thousands, and whenever I glanced at them, I came back to one question: Did anyone truly appreciate how many groups and organizations were engaged in progressive causes? At first, this was a matter of curiosity on my part, but it slowly grew into a hunch that something larger was afoot, a significant social movement that was eluding the radar of mainstream culture.
So, curious, I began to count. I looked at government records for different countries and, using various methods to approximate the number of environmental and social justice groups from tax census data, I initially estimated a total of 30,000 environmental organizations around the globe; when I added social justice and indigenous peoples' rights organizations, the number exceeded 100,000. I then researched to see if there had ever been any equals to this movement in scale or scope, but I couldn't find anything, past or present. The more I probed, the more I unearthed, and the numbers continued to climb, as I discovered lists, indexes, and small databases specific to certain sectors or geographic areas. In trying to pick up a stone, I found the exposed tip of a much larger geological formation. I soon realized that my initial estimate of 100,000 organizations was off by at least a factor of ten, and I now believe there are over one--and maybe even two--million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social justice.
By any conventional definition, this vast collection of committed individuals does not constitute a movement. Movements have leaders and ideologies. People join movements, study their tracts, and identify themselves with a group. They read the biography of the founder(s) or listen to them perorate on tape or in person. Movements, in short, have followers. This movement, however, doesn't fit the standard model. It is dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent. It has no manifesto or doctrine, no overriding authority to check with. It is taking shape in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, companies, deserts, fisheries, slums--and yes, even fancy New York hotels. One of its distinctive features is that it is tentatively emerging as a global humanitarian movement arising from the bottom up. Historically social movements have arisen primarily in response to injustice, inequities, and corruption. Those woes still remain legion, joined by a new condition that has no precedent: the planet has a life-threatening disease, marked by massive ecological degradation and rapid climate change. As I counted the vast number of organizations it crossed my mind that perhaps I was witnessing the growth of something organic, if not biologic. Rather than a movement in the conventional sense, could it be an instinctive, collective response to threat? Is it atomized for reasons that are innate to its purpose? How does it function? How fast is it growing? How is it connected? Why is it largely ignored? Does it have a history? Can it successfully address the issues that governments are failing to do: energy, jobs, conservation, poverty, and global warming? Will it become centralized, or will it continue to be dispersed and cede its power to ideologies and fundamentalism?
I sought a name for the movement, but none exists. I met people who wanted to structure or organize it--a difficult task, since it would easily be the most complex association of human beings ever assembled. Many outside the movement critique it as powerless, but that assessment does not stop its growth. When describing it to politicians, academics, and businesspeople, I found that many believe they are already familiar with this movement, how it works, what it consists of, and its approximate size. They base their conclusion on media reports about Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, Oxfam, or other venerable institutions. They may be directly acquainted with a few smaller organizations and may even sit on the board of a local group. For them and others the movement is small, known, and circumscribed, a new type of charity, with a sprinkling of ragtag activists who occasionally give it a bad name. People inside the movement can also underestimate it, basing their judgment on only the organizations they are linked to, even though their networks can only encompass a fraction of the whole. But after spending years researching this phenomenon, including creating with my colleagues a global database of its constituent organizations, I have come to these conclusions: this is the largest social movement in all of human history. No one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye.
What does meet the eye is compelling: coherent, organic, self-organized congregations involving tens of millions of people dedicated to change. When asked at colleges if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren't pessimistic, you don't have the correct data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren't optimistic, you haven't got a heart. What I see are ordinary and some not-so-ordinary individuals willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in an attempt to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. In the not-so-ordinary category, contrast ex-president Bill Clinton and sitting president George W. Bush. As I write this, Bush is on TV snarled in a skein of untruths as he tries to keep the lid on a nightmarish war fed by inept and misguided ambition; simultaneously the Clinton Global Initiative (which is a nongovernmental organization) met in New York and raised $7.3 billion in three days to combat global warming, injustice, intolerance, and poverty. Of the two initiatives, war and peace, which addresses root causes? Which has momentum? Which does not offend the world? Which is open to new ideas? The poet Adrienne Rich wrote, “My heart is moved by all I cannot save. So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.