Saturday, June 9, 2007

Paul Hawken Gathers Largest Social Movement in the History of Mankind

"We are not alone."
I went to another great lecture by the folks at the Long Now Foundation last night. Paul Hawken spoke to a standing-room-only crowd about the latest social group of over 100 million people and growing- the environmental and social justice movement.
I could rave on, but I'll let my pal Stewart Brand sum it up, since he's been doing this since before I (and my mother) were born:

"The title of Paul Hawken's talk, "The New Great Transformation," has two referents, he explained. Economist Karl Polanyi's 1944 book, THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION, said that the "market society" and modern nation state emerged together in Europe after 1700 and divided society in ways that have yet to be healed.

Karen Armstrong's 2006 book, THE GREAT TRANSFORMATION, explores "the Axial Age" between 800 and 200 BC when the world's great religions and philosophies first took shape. They were all initially social movements, she says, acting on revulsion against the violence and injustice of their times.

Both books describe conditions in which "the future is stolen and sold to the present," said Hawken--- a situation we are having to deal with yet again.

His new book, BLESSED UNREST, was inspired by the countless business cards that earnest environmentalists would hand him after his lectures all over the world. After a while he had 7,000, and he wondered, "How many environmental groups are there in the world?" He began actively building a now-public database,, which includes social justice and indigenous rights organizations because he found they indivisibly overlap in their values and activities.

The database now has 105,000 such organizations. The still-emerging taxonomy of their "areas of focus" has 414 categories, amounting to a "curriculum of the 21st century"--- Acid Rain, Living Wages, Tropical Moist Forests, Peacemaking, Democratic Reform, Sustainable Cities, Environmental Toxicology, Watershed Management, Human Trafficking, Mountaintop Removal, Pesticides, Climate Change, Refugees, Women's Safety, Eco-villages, Fair Trade... Extrapolating from carefully inventoried regions to those yet to be tallied, he estimates there are over 1,000,000 such organizations in the world, adding up to the largest and fastest growing Movement in history.

The phenomenon has been overlooked because it lacks the customary hallmarks of a movement--- no charismatic leaders, no grand theory or ideology, no "ism," no defining events. The new activist groups are about dispersing power rather than aggregating power. Their focus is on ideas rather than ideology--- ideologies are clung to, but ideas can be tried and tossed or improved. The point is to solve problems, usually from the bottom up. The movement can never be divided because it is already atomized.

What's going on? Hawken wondered if humanity might have some collective intelligence that we don't yet understand. The metaphor he finds most useful is the immune system, which is the most complex system in our body--- more complex than the entire Internet--- massive, distributed, subtle, ingenious, and effective. The opposite of a hierarchical army, its power is in the density of its network. It deals with problems not through frontal attack but complex negotiation and rapprochement.

Much of the new movement, Hawken said, was inspired, at root, by the slavery abolitionists and by the Transcendentalists Emerson and his student Thoreau. Emerson declared that "everything is connected," and Thoreau wound up going to jail (and making it cool) by taking that idea seriously in social-justice terms.

Now, as in the Axial Age, activism comes from acting on the realization that "all life is sacred."

My favorite part of the lecture was when Paul linked the different movements through time. He started out with Transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson and his lecture on Nature at Harvard. A young Henry David Thoreau was in attendance, and after graduation, Thoreau attached himself like a barnacle to the Emersons. Ralph's advice to David: write a journal. He did, and later his protest against unjust governance was published as a book titled "Civil Disobedience". It was that book which Mahatma Ghandi carried with him when he made his march for his people in India. Later, during the Civil Rights movement in the U.S. it was Rosa Parks who stood up to abuse as she rode the bus to classes on Civil Disobedience, where she and others like Dr. Martin Luther King JR. read about past agitators.
And it goes on and on. to where you and I are, right now.
It was great to sit there and feel connected to all the other people out there, all working towards one ideal- to look after future generations.

This lecture will be available soon for download, so check out the Long Now Website!

Visit Paul Hawken's website WiserEarth to check out our people, and register your organization!

1 comment:

  1. It is also important to stress that WiserEarth is striving to become a reflection of the movement itself: transparent, democratic and community driven. To accomplish that goal, WiserEarth needs dedicated users to use the current features and provide feedback on what features they would like to see. If the strength of the immune system depends on the quality of its connections, WiserEarth must provide the connecting features the community wants.