Paul Hawken responds
Paul Hawken inspired the crowd at the November 1 Sustainable Industries Economic Forum. If you missed the event, you can watch Hawken’s talk in its entirety here. The audience enjoyed a lively Q&A session, though we regret not having time to answer more questions. In this season of giving thanks, we are grateful Hawken took time to thoughtfully respond to the following questions submitted by forum attendees. You are invited to continue the conversation in the comments section below.
Q: We have so many smart people all over the world. How do we, or can we, motivate or create incentives for these smart people … to find solutions that change the system instead of inventing the next app or web site the world does not really need? –Annika Hoeltje, Presidio Graduate School
Hawken: Motivation has two sources. The primary source is your own experience. Passion, dedication, and aspiration arise from our inner life. Yet our inner life is influenced by our experience in the world. Thus the second source of motivation and incentives is the work, writings, talks, movements, and actions of others. The understanding of how to change our relationship to each other, the earth and the future occurs one-by-one. For whatever reason, we see the world differently and we can never unsee it. When people see the world as a system, they understand sustainability. If they see the world as pieces, parts and silos, they do not.
Q: Why are we losing the public perception battle on climate change? The election [was] almost silent on the topic. How do we break through the short-term, self-oriented attitudes of people? –Vince Siciliano, President, New Resource Bank
Hawken: Climate change is an enormously challenging concept. For those wedded to the status quo, there could not be a more disturbing prospect. To introduce a scientific concept to a society that is the most scientifically illiterate of any industrial nation, a well-grounded hypothesis that says our lives going forward will never be the same, nor will the lives of the next 200 generations — that is not easy. We should not be surprised that the oil, coal and gas industry through advertising, lobbying, political donations, and disinformation has clawed its way back, playing upon people’s fears, the need to hope, and our innate ability to deny. Breakthrough happens one person at a time.
The way to create systemic change is to work at as many of the nodes of the system as possible, and that includes stakeholder pressure on management, government, religion, and education. Large-scale systemic change — so-called phase transitions — occurs when the underlying context or conditions of a system change relatively quickly (or even abruptly as is potentially possible). The industrial/political/economic system resists change because it is constructed to do so, constructed to change slowly (take our government, for example). It works on a different chronology; slow time is what Stewart Brand called it. In a time of rapid change, and specifically in the case of a planet where you have rapid deterioration of life support systems, what is needed is rapid failure. What I mean by that is that we need to find new and different ways to do things. That requires rapid iteration, the ability to try many things and welcome failure so as to find the most adaptive means as quickly as possible. All our institutions are designed for slow success, not rapid failure, so they are risk-averse.
In The Ecology of Commerce I wrote that what we have is a design problem, and that if we approach our problems as design constraints within which we need to construct a different system, it is more fun, it releases the heaviness of the facts, and liberates the imagination, allowing us to determine what solutions can be implemented in reasonable time frames given that the atmosphere and oceans work on their own clocks, not ours.
Q: In your opinion, within a globalized economy with a growing trend towards localization of food and manufacturing and distributive energy to leverage regional renewable resources, what do governmental frameworks look like at local, state and federal levels? –Anonymous
Hawken: The three levels look very different. On the national level, differences in people’s beliefs are being used to divide us. That happens at state levels as well, but not to the same extent. On the municipal and local level, what unites us is more important than what divides us so you generally see a functional body politic. For activists, it is critical to pressure at the highest levels, but it is even more critical to implement change on the local level. The 2012 elections are emblematic of that. Finally, women crashed the gate and began to take their rightful place in Congress and the Senate. States passed laws that defied federal laws on marijuana or went ahead of the federal government with respect to same-sex marriage.