Wired News Q&A: Green Guru Paul Hawken

agosto 27, 2007

 paul_hawken_250x.jpgin Natural Capitalism, which Bill Clinton called one of the five most important books in the world today. And PBS turned his tome Growing a Business into a 17-part TV series.His latest book, nearly 10 years in the making, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, is an exploration of the fragmented world of environmental and social justice organizations, from giant multinational NGOs to four-person internet-based activist groups. Hawken’s theory is that these organizations, taken collectively, represent the largest social movement in the history of the world. Though fragmented, he says it’s highly effective.With no leader, center, organizing system or ideology, the movement Hawken identifies in Blessed Unrest grows organically, crossing borders, class and ethnic differences. It’s driven mostly by the desire for a common good. Trying to organize the movement, as well as documenting it, Hawken has created WiserEarth, a collection of wikis that serve as an umbrella for the millions of organizations he has identified and provide a platform for discussion and information sharing.Wired News: Describe how your bags full of business cards inspired the book.Paul Hawken: In the early ’90s, I had been giving a hundred speeches or more a year on the environment. Afterwards people would come up and exchange cards. I would stuff them into my backpack or pockets and when I got home I would lay them out, look at them, and put them in a drawer. One day my housekeeper, seeing that the drawer was overflowing, placed them into a gold Bergdorf-Goodman bag in the closet. When that bag got full, I began to ask myself how many groups there were in the world working on environmental and social issues. I quickly discovered that no one knew. So I began to count.WN: You were asked in 1999 if the WTO protests in Seattle represented a return to the 1960s. And you said one difference was that the nature of leadership had changed.Hawken: It’s difficult for people in the United States to see that there is a massive global movement afoot — what I’m calling the largest social movement in human history — because it gets no coverage here at all. A small in-group of charismatic leaders does not represent this movement nor does the movement have a central office or name. Because there are tens of thousands of leaders of the movement it can be seen as toothless.Understandable conclusion, but another way to look at it is that we are seeing an entirely new form of leadership that is networked, place-based and task specific. This is one of the reasons the police were so frustrated during the WTO protests in Seattle. There was no head to cut off, offices to raid, computers to seize or leader to arrest. At the 1968 Democratic Convention, the Chicago Seven were arrested and charged with conspiracy and inciting to riot. Very romantic. In Seattle, they would have had to arrest the Seattle Seventeen Thousand.WN: How do the environmental visionaries you write about — Emerson, Thoreau, David Brower — figure in today’s amorphous, sprawling, global eco-social-political movement?Hawken: It is an unwieldy and diverse movement, but then, too, so are the cells in your body when seen up close. We look at the movement up close and call it amorphous, but we’re unable to step back and see that it might have deeper organizational patterns and functions.My guess is that this movement is humanity’s immune response to political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation, but the idea that it arose since Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring just isn’t true. This movement has roots that it is unaware of, cultural memes that have persevered over centuries. I guess what I’m saying is that if you’re going to be part of the largest social movement in history, it’s helpful to know your intellectual genetics and spiritual predecessors.WN: Can you say more about Carson? The reaction to 1962’s Silent Spring set the stage for how multinationals react to environmental and social justice issues today.Hawken: Rachel Carson was the first person who used science and nature as a basis to question the rights of business. You almost have to say it again to get the meaning. She did not do it overtly, but in elucidating the persistent long-term damage of a new family of pesticides made from chlorinated hydrocarbons, she questioned the assumption that business has greater rights than the environment.When business realized how responsive the public was to her logic, they went after her with extraordinary vengeance, perfecting techniques that are used to this day, like greenwashing — the creation of industry front groups funded by corporations, the use of paid scientists to attack academic scientists, the manipulation of the media to sow doubt in people’s minds about complex issues. The person behind the defaming of Rachel Carson, E. Bruce Harrison, was the same person who helped create the Global Climate Coalition, a so-called nonprofit funded by Chevron, Exxon, General Motors, the American Petroleum Institute and other companies. Its purpose was to undermine the adoption of the Kyoto Protocol and any other legislation or policy that would limit greenhouse gas emissions.WN: You quote John Maynard Keynes: “We live under the illusion of freedom but are “slaves to some defunct economist.” Can you explain why you consider contemporary global economics to be immoral, destructive and impractical?Hawken: I don’t use the word immoral. I think good people can do things that cause harm on a cumulative level, and then be unaware or look the other way, and I have certainly been one of them. I think there are several fundamentalist movements about in the world, not just Islamic or Christian fundamentalism. One of them is economic fundamentalism, the idea that unfettered global markets will do a better job in addressing social and economic needs than regulated markets.Business has spent decades corrupting government using lobbyists and money, ensuring that government became more responsive to bags of money than to social needs and the environment. It is these bags of money that created our economic policy, not debates in the halls of academia.WN: So what’s the answer? Power remains centralized in these multinationals and in the federal government.Hawken: I would like to see a lot of power revert to states and city-states because I think that’s where the action is now. Just as economic globalization has been the biggest game in the world, we are moving into an era where economic localization is going to be the biggest game in our towns and regions. Governing, whether in business, government or non-profits, is observably more effective when decisions and information are co-located, an insight first made by Friederich Hayek. This is why the internet is so crucial to both the movement and governance — it can provide the transparency that has been missing in large-scale systems.WN: You spend a chapter discussing the difference between systems and networks. How does that apply to your concept of this movement?Hawken: I estimate that there are over 1 million organizations in the world addressing the salient issues of our time: poverty, water, climate, oceans, injustice, cities, energy, food security, democracy, women’s rights, etc. Our living systems are failing and degrading, and human systems are under greater duress and stress.… (T)his is the fastest growing movement in the world, and because of communication technologies including texting, cell phones and the internet, it is rapidly connecting up in ways that are both plebian and brilliant, creating a network of activity, transparency and communication that’s unparalleled.What goes unreported is (these groups’) innovation, design, engineering and social technologies. This is a movement of ideas.… It’s an iterative, evolutionary movement. It’s tens of thousands of ideas with respect to water, buildings, cities, poverty, women, education, climate and carbon neutrality and how all of these relate to people, economics, livelihoods, children and growth. The sum of these ideas point toward a different world than the one we live in now.WN: How does the architecture of WiserEarth.org differ from that of Wikipedia?Hawken: Wiser is an open-source platform that is editable like a wiki, but underneath is a taxonomy and underneath that are tags and keywords. It is an editable relational database, although not as sophisticated as Danny Hillis’ Freebase.com. We call ourselves Web 1.5 because we believe that the taxonomy, which links all the people, organizations, jobs, events and resources, enhances the search capabilities. But we also believe that everything should be editable including the structure itself.WN: Do you have a metaphor or a description of how the internet can serve the movement?Hawken: I think this is a movement that doesn’t know it is a movement, and that would be fine if the issues being addressed weren’t so pressing. We want to help change that but it is not our purpose to become another hub or pivot point.WiserEarth is trying to create an information commons if you will, a baseline series of templates for organizations, groups, people, and resources, which can be re-purposed and used by any other organization. We are designing it so that other organizations can sit on top of our data and pull it up, and hopefully at the same time, refreshing and adding to it. Robert Metcalfe 101 — the more people that use it the more valuable it becomes. What we are not trying to do is create another “green social networking” site with ads for bamboo shirts.WN: Any anecdotal evidence that it is having an impact?Hawken: As we speak, Wiser is 12 weeks old. We are going about this in a deliberate way…. We are working with users so that the site co-evolves with its base, and they are in over 90 countries. We do not expect a big impact for at least a year or more.I sometimes ask an audience how many of them used Wikipedia in its first three years, Jan. 2001 to Jan. 2004, and few if any raise their hand. Then I ask how many use it now. Virtually all raise their hand. In order to have an impact, Wiser will have to become used by many organizations all over the world. We see ourselves as a service organization, not a digital nonprofit phenomenon. We are in active collaboration with over a dozen organizations that are or will write code that will both repurpose and enhance Wiser. We succeed only if they do.

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