Paul Hawken: Growing 'wiser'
Hawken’s most recent book, “Blessed Unrest,” was inspired by the numerous groups and people Hawken has met at various speaking engagements and rallies and by his experience at the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle. The book tracks the origins and growth of what Hawken calls a massive global movement with no name and no leader that is dedicated to restoring the environment and fostering social justice.
In 2002, Hawken also founded the Natural Capital Institute, a research group that focuses on socially responsible investing, global civil society and environmental funding opportunities. And Hawken is still a businessman, heading up PaxIT, PaxTurbine and PaxFan, three companies associated with Pax Scientific, a California-based company using natural models to design technologies for moving air and water [see “Natural Selection,” Sustainable Industries, June 2006].
In the midst of promoting the recently released “Blessed Unrest,” Hawken is busy working on the re-release of “The Ecology of Commerce.”
“‘The Ecology of Commerce,’ when published, was a pariah book,” Hawken explained in an email. “Writers at Forbes, BusinessWeek and other publications reviewed it, but editors killed the reviews. Although the business press reviewed my previous books, ‘The Next Economy’ and ‘Growing a Business,’ ‘The Ecology of Commerce’ was shunned. Nevertheless, it became a best seller. To give some measure of the change in the attitude of business, HarperCollins is now reprinting it as a Classic.”
Hawken hasn’t finished the rewrite but says he may only update the facts and leave the thesis alone: It still stands.
In between drafts, Sustainable Industries had the opportunity to talk to Hawken about the origins of greenwashing, consumerism disguised as conservation, and the role of corporations in the global movement toward environmental and social responsibility.
SI: What role do corporations play in the unnamed movement you describe in “Blessed Unrest”?
PH: There are several levels or layers of interaction delineated in “Blessed Unrest” with respect to corporations. The first is where I take another look at Rachel Carson’s work. History tends to focus on her attempts to draw public attention to chlorinated hydrocarbons, notably DDT, but usually overlooks the fact that greenwashing was created by corporations at that time. What also started at that time were pseudo-nonprofits funded by business and set up by PR firms that pretend to be citizen-based organizations. Both efforts were part of a massive corporate and governmental effort to defeat, discredit and even humiliate Carson. Why the big fuss? Her work unintentionally questioned the rights of business to create a product, and by implication whether a business had the right to exist at all. Until that time, no environmental writing had questioned the rights of business, which for centuries trumped the rights of people and nature.
Then there’s the interaction between NGOs and business. Although nonprofits have consistently been on the vanguard with respect to challenging corporate actions that are harmful to people and the environment, what is less reported is how willing they are to work with business if a company truly wants to change.
The third level is social justice. “Sustainable” means more than the environment; it also involves how we treat each other and how our companies and government create the conditions in which equity and fairness can emerge. How we treat people on this planet is perfectly reflected in how we treat the environment, and you cannot address one without addressing the other.
SI: What effect does the growing popularity of “green” have on this movement?
PH: The explosion of green products and companies reflects a change in people’s awareness and concerns. Business is moving rapidly, and sometimes absurdly, to address these demands, but the origins of this awareness did not come from business but from decades of work by nonprofits, teachers and activists. This educational work needs to continue because there remains a very incomplete understanding in the media and in business about the complexity of the problems we face.
A prime example of this is corn-based ethanol, which is one of the worst possible ways to address climate change. All it does is move us from peak oil to peak soil!
There is an explosion of true state-of-the-art technologies that promise extraordinary breakthroughs in our ability to reduce our energy and resource footprints, and these can’t be accomplished by any other agency than business. At the same time, it’s critical to understand that we cannot create a sustainable world unless there is also a dramatic decrease on the demand side of the equation — unless we understand that it’s not merely a process of substituting one type of energy or material for another, but a broadscale change in how humans live and relate to each other.
SI: How will massive charitable donations from a single organization, such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, affect the landscape of environmental and social activism?
PH: The Gates Foundation is taking over work that national governments should be doing. Their contributions are valiant and generous, but we have to ask ourselves why the governments of the world are not vaccinating the children of the world. The challenge facing the Gates Foundation is in integrating its work with sustainability in the deepest and broadest sense, and that begins with the foundation portfolio itself, which does not invest solely in socially and environmentally responsible companies. This is critical — businesses need feedback from the investment community in order to drive internal change.
SI: WiserEarth.org is expressly for nonprofits and NGOs — is there room or a need for a similar sort of community gathering place for for-profits addressing the central issues of our day?
PH: WISER means World Index of Social and Environmental Responsibility, and the first platform is WiserEarth.org for civil society organizations. The second site that is coming soon is WiserBusiness.org, and WiserGov.org will follow it. All three will be part of one site, integrated into regional, community and personal hubs because we need all legs of the stool to create a sustainable world.
SI: Are there any success stories you’ve come across that you’d point to as model organizations?
PH: I have thousands of those stories. You can see them on WiserEarth.org, but what astonishes me about this movement are the imagination, grit and diversity of its participants. I do not think that there are groups in the world who get more done with fewer resources than these organizations. For sure, there are failures, pettiness and unnecessary competition, and NGOs vary from country to country in how they function, but on the whole they have more pluck and courage than business because they sense what we have to lose as a civilization. Since no one will ever get rich, amass equity or become powerful doing this, it attracts people whose values and generosity surmount their wants.
I think there are many people — like Jeff Skoll who amassed his fortune at eBay (Nasdaq: EBAY) and is a major funder of social entrepreneurship and Bill Drayton of Ashoka, who originated social entrepreneur funding here in the United States — who believe that many of the most brilliant and innovative young people in the world are now moving into this sphere. Twenty years ago or less, you might not have been able to say that.