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.
[pagebreak]Q: Could you talk about your thoughts on the correlation between EPD [Environmental Product Declarations] of materials and GMOs with food, and the need for transparency? –Megan White, Webcor Builders
Hawken: The chemical industry has had a hall pass since its inception with respect to transparency and public safety. Chemicals were innocent until proven guilty. In the materials industry, with respect to interiors of the built environment, and in the food industry coming out of WWII, we became crash dummies for the chemical industry. There have been tens of millions of incidents of toxicity, poisoning, death and disease in the US over the past few decades. Each incident has been treated as a one-off situation rather than part of a pattern. We make chemicals by subjecting molecules, minerals and elements, from both the shallow and heavy end of the elemental table, to extreme heat, vacuum, pressure, and unusual reagents and catalysts. We force them. When we do this we create a variety of substances, all of them unknown to life. This is because we are creating molecular configurations that cannot be created in the natural world. There is almost no forceful recombination of chemicals in nature, save for volcanoes. Why we are surprised that the five million chemicals invented over the past 100 years — when inhaled, drunk, absorbed, or eaten by living organisms — cause problems, I do not know. Simply stated, organisms are encountering substances that have never been seen before, and it causes confusion. Is it a neuro-transmitter, a hormone, a threat? Should it mobilize the immune system, or should the body try to integrate the mysterious compound? The carcinogenic impact of DES was because the woman’s body thought DES was estrogen.The most important hormone in the world is estrogen, and estradiol is the most critical of the hormone’s three forms. The total of all estradiol in the world within 7.1 billion people is about 125 pounds. Remember, estrogen is in all sexes, not just women, and is the precursor to testosterone. The function of estradiol impacts over 400 bodily and nervous system functions.
There are approximately 46 billion pounds of chemicals that mimic or interfere with hormones made and placed into our water, food, air, and household products. The desire for educated people to at least know what is in their materials, to have an ingredient list, is a force that cannot be stopped. Even though Prop 37, a poorly written proposition that would have required GMO labeling, narrowly lost in California, the writing is on the wall, and anyone in the food industry who thinks that it will not soon be required is kidding himself or herself. As for the chemical industry, the protestations of the food and seed industry as to GMO safety are not well-founded as yet. However the science plays out, we have to remember that the company that created the GMO revolution in food in 1982 is the same company that brought us saccharin, PCBs, DDT, Agent Orange, and Roundup. In every instance, it vigorously supported the safety and harmlessness of each of these products and was proven wrong, and is in court to this day sorting out its liabilities. Monsanto has the credibility of a lentil when it comes to offering assurances about the safety of GMOs. The fact that it sponsors university research along with other seed companies is similar to the “tobacco science” that was deployed by the tobacco industry. It may be that GMOs will be proven safe. I do not believe so given the evidence. But it has not been proven as yet, and in the meantime citizens have a right to know.
Q: Thank you – very inspiring. Given carbon in the atmosphere, aren’t we simply rearranging the chairs on the Titanic? –Anonymous
Hawken: Yes. That is precisely what we are doing now. Rearranging might be too kind. We are hardly shifting their position on the boat at all.
[pagebreak]Q: Seeing as the U.S. military’s force structure and strategic doctrine is ineffective against sub-national terrorist forces, what do we need to do to transform the 1,000 U.S. military bases outside our country into eco-universities and green enterprise incubators? –Kevin Danaher, SF Environment.
Hawken: There are 700 to 800 military bases and outposts in 146 countries, from the smallest 12 person attachés to the Ramstein base in Germany where 54,000 military personnel are stationed. It is telling that the recent NAS study for the CIA is urging the US military to prepare for severe disruption and unrest due to climate change. The report states, “It is prudent to expect that over the course of a decade some climate events — including single events, conjunctions of events occurring simultaneously or in sequence in particular locations, and events affecting globally integrated systems that provide for human well-being — will produce consequences that exceed the capacity of the affected societies or global system to manage and that have global security implications serious enough to compel international response.”
The military is rapidly moving to reduce its carbon dependence for strategic reasons. Were there to be an understanding that we are at a key threshold in the world, a time where we can not only work to eliminate the next war but all wars to come, the US military could be transformed into an agent of unparalleled good. I was in Kosovo with the press when the NATO-led KFOR (Kosovo Force) drove out the remaining Serbian resistance and became the peacekeepers. What impressed me so much about the American military contingent was its ethics and integrity. The people of Kosovo got a tutorial in good manners, clarity of communication, and most importantly of all, they learned and experienced that there could be a military (police) force that was incorruptible. It was a revelation over and again to the Kosovars. They had never in their life dealt with people in authority who were honest.
Q: What is your vision of how we can use the principles of nature to change our systems of governing? –Anonymous
Hawken: That is a great question. I do not have an answer, save for one: Decision-making needs to be co-located with the flow and sources of information toward which the decision is directed. That is how nature works. Today we have decision makers in corporations and government far removed from the flow of information they are addressing and from the impact their decisions subsequently cause. This is a recipe for dysfunction and harm. It is not governance, it is control.
Q: If there is no difference between the two major U.S. political parties on sustainability, why is Al Gore still campaigning for the Democrats? Also, aren’t there other important differences between the parties? –Anonymous
Hawken: There are critical differences between the parties. But there is no difference with respect to what they are offering in crucial areas. Both want to grow the military, increase drilling for oil, and expand fracking for natural gas. Both want to grow the economy and create more stuff, waste, carbon, and more jobs. I only agree with them about jobs.
Q: You’re talking about a change in consciousness. How do we really change our cultural reference system that prioritizes accumulating material goods and status? –Lewis Buchner, DIRTT
Hawken: There is only one way, by changing yourself, by changing what makes you happy, your aspirations, your needs and wants. You cannot change someone’s consciousness. If we could, it wouldn’t be consciousness would it?
Q: It seems that religion has taken the position that global warming and disaster are ‘God’s will.’ How do you counter the argument that there is nothing we can do about it? –Anonymous
Hawken: I think that is but a small fraction of religion, peculiar to Christian fundamentalists in the US. Mainstream religion throughout the world takes a different view, one that equates our dilemma as human beings dishonoring the sacred creations of the divine, of God, of the Goddess, of the Divine Mother, Jehovah, Allah, etc.
[pagebreak]Q: Much of what drives economic decision-making is short-term ROI and market perceptions. How can we exist in this vicious economic cycle? –Dan Inguglia, SF Waldorf School
Hawken: We can’t. We cannot fix long-term problem with short-term thinking. We cannot fix anything if we think our purpose in life is to accumulate, which is the fundamental source of short-term thinking. It is also the core wound of civilization. It is the source of conflict, suffering, war, and hate.
Q: Reflections on finance? Banking? Investing? –Anonymous
Hawken: It is time to bring our money home. And if we do not share wealth with our communities, our communities will share their poverty with us. If we want to create jobs, a community needs to control its wealth, and use it to renew, restore, and rebuild its city or region. Instead of fashioning an economy that would respect and co-evolve with ecological limits, for the past forty years we stimulated economic growth and jobs by growing money and credit. That is like putting Roundup on plants. Herbicides are hormones. They do not kill plants. They make them grow so fast they outstrip their capacity to take up nutrients…and then they die.
This hormonal monetary and credit growth era is now a debt emergency of monumental proportion. If there were a solution to the crisis, it would have been done by now. The best minds in the world have been hard at it since 2008 and it is only getting worse. There is no solution except default or inflation. The world banking system is insolvent as are most OECD countries, including the US, Japan, China, the UK, France, Italy, and Spain.
Ersatz money creates a phony economy, sham growth, unscrupulous politics, income polarization, and bogus prosperity. While we have no control over the value of currency, we can control its flow. That is critically important because it is only by regionalizing capital flows that you can create sustainability and maintain resiliency, redundancy, capacity, job creation, and some semblance of food, energy, and materials security. Sustainability isn’t somewhere else out there in the cold night. It is right here, in the person sitting next to you.
We need a credit-to-credit system. Credit comes from the Latin past participle credere, to believe or to trust. We need to recycle our trust, to be place trust in each other’s hands. We cannot do that when our money is shipped to London every night. We need State Banks, like in North Dakota, where all state funds are deposited, where bank loans go only to companies, institutions, and initiatives that benefit the state, and where profits go back to the taxpayers. We need to do that on a regional and city level as well. Banking is not that complicated.