Speaking to a room full of civic and business leaders at the Commonwealth Club in 1992, Paul Hawken coolly told them, “Either we see business as a restorative undertaking, or we businesspeople will march the entire human race to the undertaker.” Amid disapproving murmurs, he went on: “I doubt very much that the chief executives of the Fortune 500 corporations can name five edible plants, five native grasses, or five migratory birds within walking distance of their homes . . . yet it is with the hands and minds of these CEOs that the environmental battle is being waged and lost.” By the time Hawken finished his speech, many in the audience had left the room.
It’s no surprise that Hawken’s speech caused a stir; the relationship between business and the environment is an uneasy one at best. But if there is one person who can help to usher in a new age of sustainable business, it’s Hawken. Best known as cofounder of Smith & Hawken, distributor of high-quality gardening supplies, Hawken has become a leader in the struggle to make environmental principles work in the business world. His career is proof that successful businesses can be designed with heart, mindfulness, and grace.
A longtime activist and advocate for human rights, Hawken worked in 1965 as press coordinator for Martin Luther King Jr.’s staff in Selma, Alabama, and as a staff photographer for the Congress of Racial Equality in New Orleans. A year later, he became frustrated by the unavailability of healthy, whole foods in cities. To remedy the situation, he created Erewhon Trading Company, one of the first natural-foods companies in the United States. Under his guidance, Erewhon grew from a small health-food store to a thriving distribution company and food producer. Within a few years, the business had two stone mills, two rail cars, and contracts with farmers in thirty-eight states to supply its stores and more than three thousand wholesale accounts.
In 1979, Hawken cofounded Smith & Hawken to provide top-of-the-line gardening and horticultural implements — from rubber boots to picks, hoes, and forks. The company grew into a popular mail-order catalog and retail chain.
As the head of two successful companies, Hawken sought to balance the need to make a profit with his commitment to environmental sustainability and human rights. Drawing upon his firsthand experiences, he wrote the best-selling book Growing a Business (Simon & Schuster), which also became a seventeen-part PBS miniseries broadcast in more than 115 countries. By profiling fifteen socially responsible business owners, Growing a Business helped map the slippery terrain of mindful enterprise for a new breed of entrepreneurs who wish to do good in the world.
Hawken’s next book, The Ecology of Commerce (Harper-Collins), was a watershed text for the sustainable-business movement. In it, Hawken argues that the business community has no choice but to confront the biological reality in which we live, and on which we depend. “Rather than a management problem,” he writes, “we have a design problem, a flaw that runs through all business.” The problem, he says, is a lack of imagination in every level of business, from production to packaging. Reflecting on his experience with Smith & Hawken, which he left in 1991, he explains, “The recycled toner cartridges, the sustainably harvested woods, the replanted trees, the soy-based inks . . . were all well and good, but basically we were in the junk-mail business. All the recycling in the world would not change the fact that doing business in the latter part of the twentieth century is an energy-intensive endeavor that gulps down resources.”
His most recent book, Natural Capitalism (Little, Brown & Company), cowritten with Amory and Hunter Lovins, pushes for “natural capital” to be factored into our industrial practices. Natural capital includes grasslands, savannas, climate, wetlands, oceans, and rain forests. Although the authors insist they do not want to put a price on these systems, “it is clear,” they write, “that behaving as though they are valueless has brought us to the verge of disaster.”
From his office in Sausalito, California, Hawken continues to work with companies and educational institutions as a consultant on sustainability issues. Named one of Utne Reader’s “one hundred visionaries who could change our lives,” he delivers dozens of talks around the world each year. He has also founded two software companies, writes extensively, and is actively engaged in anti-globalization efforts, such as the Seattle protests against the World Trade Organization.
I met with Hawken on his houseboat in the summer of 2001, several months prior to the events of September 11. He’d just gotten home from a business trip and was preparing to leave for an extended meditation retreat in New Mexico. As afternoon slipped into dusk, we sat at his table overlooking the bay, watching pelicans dive outside the window. He’d written two of his books at that table, he told me. He is soft-spoken, and his years of Buddhist meditation practice are reflected in his uncommon clarity and focus.
Lertzman: How did your move into business happen? Did you approach “growing a business” as a way of changing the system, or as a creative act?
Hawken: My move into business was entirely accidental. It came about when I changed my diet from industrial to organic. I spent a whole day every Saturday going from ethnic grocery store, to Seventh-Day Adventist grain mill, to Oriental market, gathering food for the week. It seemed an obvious solution to put it all under one roof. I created my first natural-foods business in the sixties because I wanted to be the customer, not the owner. I have succeeded in business only when that was true.
Being in business has always been a little tense for me. I feel the ironies and internal contradictions because I have also been a critic of business. Bear in mind, I grew up in Berkeley, one of only two American communist cities at the time. For me, putting on an apron, counting the money in the register, and stuffing it all into a Cordura nylon bag for the bank’s night deposit was like walking on the moon.
When I started my first company, I was clueless. I had never studied anything about business. Not even a pamphlet. I just launched. For me, it was a tool to get something done in the world, to give people choices about food, and to give farmers the chance to produce food using biological methods as opposed to toxic ones. That the natural-foods industry has ended up being devoured by big corporations just means it is time to start again, only this time we need to focus not just on the quality of the food, but on the quality of the organization, its roots and locality.
Lertzman: We hear a lot about “green business” these days, but it’s hard to know how deep the reform goes. Is it for real or just “greenwashing,” where businesses give the appearance of being environmentally responsible?
Hawken: Some businesses think that if they stop polluting so much, buy recycled paper, plant some trees, reduce overall waste, and use native plants to landscape their corporate campuses, they become green. These practices are laudable, but they don’t get down to the fundamental issues of how industrial output in our society is out of control — and, more fundamentally, how the thinking that informs economic growth is both absurd and astonishingly ineffective. They also don’t get to the key problems of how worldwide growth is marginalizing the environment and leading to wholesale deracination of cultures, villages, and families. When you see the underlying problems, it leads to issues that aren’t on the corporate radar screen: population, women’s rights, workers’ rights, sovereignty, social justice, community rights, international trade rules, the corporate corruption of governments. These issues reveal a world that is in real chaos with respect to its values, priorities, and principles.
Lertzman: The reality you describe is overwhelming and rather dismal.
Hawken: It may sound hopeless on the face of it, but it’s not. It will be hopeless, though, if we aren’t willing to look at problems directly. We are like the man who goes to the doctor because he is a little short of breath and finds that his unhealthy diet and lack of exercise have led to diabetes, kidney problems, high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, bad breath, indigestion, poor sleep, anxiety, and psoriasis. This industrial world can be changed, but it means listening to the doctor’s orders and getting a real diagnosis. A pill won’t work, and many in business are just looking for a pill. Of course, some aren’t even admitting that there’s a problem.
The way to overcome people’s resistance to seeing the problem is by talking about possibilities and solutions. From that vantage point, people can adjust their focus and see the damage we have done and are doing. Human beings need to create; we are born that way. Most of the damage being done is a result of misdirected creative impulses badly applied and greatly abetted by ignorance.
Lertzman: Are we at a point where our concept of business is being reinvented, reimagined?
Hawken: We are in a period of reimagining big business precisely because it has so little imagination. Look at what happened at the Hague meetings on climate change in 2000. Four countries whose governments are dominated by corporate interests — the U.S., Australia, Canada, and Japan — managed to reduce a conversation about the fate of the world and the future of energy into concepts like “restrictions” and “protecting our way of life.” These four countries, which were acting as surrogates for mining, oil, gas, and car companies, managed to stop a worldwide environmental agreement dead in its tracks. The meeting brought into clear focus the incapacity of business to deal with the exigencies of global life.
Business, in its optimal state, can do extraordinary things. The world is full of small miracles brought to us by designers, engineers, and even salespeople. But the aggregate activity of commerce is destroying life on earth. We are all to blame, to be sure, but we are hugely abetted by the scale and structure of modern business, which has more power than it can possibly handle.
Lertzman: The title of your last book, Natural Capitalism, written with Amory and Hunter Lovins, seems an oxymoron. What does it mean?
Hawken: Those who haven’t read the book often assume the title refers to a variant of capitalism, when in fact, it doesn’t refer to capitalism at all, but to the concept of “natural capital.” It’s a very important distinction.
The term “natural capital” was coined by economist E.F. Schumacher in Small Is Beautiful to represent the natural resources that economists, governments, and corporations leave off the balance sheets. Natural capital includes the vital, life-supporting services that flow from living ecosystems: pollination, flood prevention, topsoil formation, oxygen production, waste metabolism, and so on. Capitalism is a profoundly unnatural system that obliterates natural and human capital because it is focused on capital in the traditional sense: money and the means of production.
Lertzman: If capitalism cannot be “natural,” then how can businesses be sustainable?
Hawken: Business and capitalism are not the same thing. When you talk about capitalism, you are on a whole other level. Business and enterprise preceded capitalism by a few thousand years.
Is capitalism necessarily exploitative? As it is defined and practiced, absolutely. Is it possible to restructure and redefine it such that it wouldn’t be? Yes, but then it wouldn’t be capitalism anymore. There is a notion that an economic system in line with ecology and human needs will suppress innovation, create unemployment, be too costly, and so forth. That is what the unimaginative declare because they have no idea what they would do in a system that wasn’t based on acquisitiveness, aversion, and delusion. People have to change their values in order for the system to change.
Lertzman: Does the fate of our planet rest upon business’s capacity to become “imaginative,” or does it depend more upon community and individual efforts to enforce regulations and encourage healthy, ecologically sensitive practices?
Hawken: The answer is not “either/or” or even “both,” but “all.” Every node in the system will have to change. Human society is a subsystem of Mother Earth. As the earth changes, every aspect of society is transformed. It is happening before our eyes. Most of the changes cause suffering. This is the problem, but also the starting point for intervention: how do we relieve suffering?
Another way to look at the population issue is to ask ourselves: How do we make a planet that truly welcomes every new being? How do we create a world where children do not suffer? If we take that as a starting point, then obvious answers arise. Of course business must change, but if we start from that point of view, then we will fall into a morass of arguments, compromises, rules, and rationalizations, because business is not the purpose of society, and it’s certainly not our purpose on earth. Businesses can serve humanity, alleviate suffering, and nurture life, but those that do are far too rare.
Lertzman: Can you provide examples of businesses that are nurturing? Is it a matter of what kind of businesses they are, or rather how they are run?
Hawken: It is both. There is Judy Wicks’ White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, and then there is McDonald’s. Both are restaurants, but one helps the community, while the other extracts resources from it, paying pitiful wages in return. Discerning which is which is not rocket science. In our heart of hearts, we all know a good business when we see one.
We might ask ourselves whether fast food should even exist. It is an inherently unsustainable and destructive industry because it organizes food chains into low-cost monocultures, while eroding human health at the same time. “Slow food,” the resurgence of local cuisine, and biological agriculture are the other side of the spectrum.
In general, smaller is better. It is possible for a business to be sustainable on a large scale, but few will ever accomplish it, because the underlying assumptions that inform large corporations are based on dominance and power over markets and others. Sustainable businesses can be run in any number of ways, but they all involve a level of transparency and authenticity that contrasts sharply with the image put out by corporate public-relations departments. Giant institutions are very strong, but also inherently vulnerable because of their size. They create elaborate methods of deceiving themselves and others as a means of protection. Most small enterprises, on the other hand, perish without direct and unstinting honesty.
Human beings need to create; we are born that way. Most of the damage being done is a result of misdirected creative impulses badly applied and greatly abetted by ignorance.
Lertzman: To many environmentalists, working with corporations is too much of a compromise.
Hawken: Working with corporations is not a compromise if you stay true to your values and principles. If you are in their thrall, that’s different. David Brower, the founder of Friends of the Earth, was never opposed to working with corporations or negotiating, as long as the other party ended up doing the right thing, which David defined very clearly. What cannot be compromised are nature — wilderness, biodiversity, climatic integrity — and justice.
There are 100 million businesses in the world; ten thousand of them are big companies, and about a thousand are huge corporations that control the destiny of humankind. Those thousand need to be dealt with in every possible way. You can’t speak truth to power if you are sitting in Starbucks fulminating about what’s wrong. And you certainly can’t educate people that way.
It is also critical to make a distinction between corporations and the people inside them. Those people are us: our sisters, uncles, daughters, fathers, and neighbors. The corporation is a strange hybrid organism — neither human nor institution — that we don’t fully understand, because it’s very different than anything seen before on earth.
Lertzman: When you work with people coming from traditional corporate backgrounds, what concepts of sustainability do they find hardest to grasp?
Hawken: The key to sustainability is the capacity to see the relationship between human beings and nature as a whole system, within which are subsystems, such as commerce. In essence, it’s systems thinking. Most businesses make money because they are narrowly focused. Generalist businesses do not last. Businesses “thrive” by having narrow definitions of responsibility as well. But that narrowness is what is killing us.
For example, we are burning down tropical forests and displacing and destroying traditional indigenous cultures in order to provide feedstock for cattle to make foodstuffs that cause heart disease. The rise in heart disease has led a growing biotech industry to prospect in the still-standing rain forests to find new compounds, which they will produce using recombinant organisms, to treat blocked arteries. The pharmaceutical industry uses golf-course-lined resorts in Arizona to wine and dine physicians as part of its marketing process. These junkets add to global warming because of increased use of carbon-based fuels for air travel, limousines, and golf carts. The air conditioners that cool the buildings are fed by coal-fired power plants such as Black Mesa, which foul and pollute the air, causing increases in asthma.
This is what happens when business is narrowly focused: it causes damage every step of the way. And this is how most everything in our economy works.
There is Judy Wicks’ White Dog Cafe in Philadelphia, and then there is McDonald’s. Both are restaurants, but one helps the community, while the other extracts resources from it. . . . Discerning which is which is not rocket science.
Lertzman: In a recent Boston Globe editorial on the energy crisis, you suggested that we have a shortage not of energy, but of wisdom.
Hawken: Sustainability is a matter of seeing the world with heart and recognizing its parts as inseparably complex. Most people are worried, anxious, tense, and insecure. They have a hard time seeing far into the future or deeply into the present because they feel threatened. This is what it has come to. Until sustainability connects with the depth of people’s suffering, it will remain a white person’s movement from the global North.
Lertzman: How does a sustainable approach “connect with the depth of people’s suffering”?
Hawken: The fragmentation of experience and knowledge is a hallmark of modernity and the primary cause of unsustainability. What do people know of their place? Their survival does not depend on local science or intimacy with their bioregion.
An example may help: There were a people in Patagonia called the Yamana (Yahgán) who were first spotted by Ferdinand Magellan. (He called them “bestial.”) Hunter-gatherers in one of the world’s more difficult climates, the Yamana were hunted down to near extinction by bounty hunters, until there were only a few hundred left of their tribe. In the 1870s, an Anglican priest and amateur lexicographer started making a dictionary of their language. His dictionary, which lives on in the British Museum, contains thirty-two thousand words. Japanese, by comparison, has about forty thousand words, and it’s a written language. The Yamana language has more verbs than English. It is a language of place. It contains exquisite words to describe how humans interact with local living systems.
Their language is, even to this day, some of the world’s best observational science. From it, we can learn about a people who spoke a language in which science, self, place, the sacred, survival, and nature were not separate. This does not mean that these concepts were “integrated,” but that the Yamana never disaggregated the world into these concepts in the first place.
Today, people’s survival depends on abstractions contained in stock-market data, on professional skills that are independent of place, on monetary flows, and on kinships that are scattered geographically. By discussing sustainability in the abstract, we miss a key point: the exploitation of the environment is carried out by human beings in order to dominate other human beings. So at the heart of our ecological loss are the efforts of people, as a part of corporations, to form dominant relationships to other cultures and peoples.
The sciences of ecology and biology are critical, but the source of hope is justice and a sense of not needing to harm or have power over another. It starts with gender roles and extends through the family to the community and eventually the boardroom, governments, and international politics.
Lertzman: The hierarchical structures of our institutions can be oppressive and exploiting. Do our organizational structures need to change to collectives and co-ops?
Hawken: I think one needs to be careful about taking what works in one culture and extending it to the world, as if it were a cure or panacea. Perhaps a better way to come to this is through the idea of the commons. The commons is usually defined as an open tract of public land in a city or town, but we need to use the word in the broadest sense: from the village greens, to the culture, to the sky. Generally, people who organize around the commons have been able to create more just systems than those who organize around private property.
Recognizing that a resource is common to us all does not mean it needs to be collectivized. It does mean that the dynamics of the commons will shape the culture. We see this most readily in indigenous cultures. A culture that creates material wealth outside its commons — as do the industrial nations — will be hard-pressed to recognize limits or boundaries. Slowly here in the U.S., a number of issues — from sprawl, to factory farming, to overfishing, to toxic-waste dumps — have begun to bring communities back together through the recognition that people’s jobs, livelihood, children, and sense of place are threatened.
Lertzman: It sounds as if you are suggesting that, as human health and the health of our ecosystem worsen, we are being forced to consider the commons as the only viable means of resolving the complex issues we face. Yet most people refuse or are unable to acknowledge the problems. Look at the rise in SUV ownership, for example, which poses a serious threat to the commons.
Hawken: I would never suggest that any solution is the “only” means of solving a problem. If we are dwelling within a system that is degrading life on earth, then every node of the system requires attention. This is heartening because it means that farmers, teachers, mechanics, parents, architects, and people in every other vocation have a role to play. We are not talking about change from on high. We are not talking about charismatic white males leading a sustainability revolution. This is change from the margins, from the understory.
Embedded in your question is the idea that there is some omega point from which large-scale change will occur, but this concept of change is emblematic of the thinking that created the system we are living in. And if we think of SUV owners as careless, nonthinking despoilers of the commons, we are further in the hole, because then we are marginalizing — if not demonizing — our fellow human beings. Not a strong basis for change. This world is riddled with ignorance. You can blame people who knock things over in the dark, or you can begin to light candles. You’re only at fault if you know about the problem and choose to do nothing.
Lertzman: It’s very easy to fall into the demonizing trap. The progressive movement is rife with such good/bad thinking: companies are bad, capitalism is bad, globalization is bad. How can we not fall into this trap?
Hawken: We can look at ourselves. Is my heart good or bad? It is a question of self-knowledge and acceptance. Nothing is black and white, so buying into polemics, be they left or right, is a kind of indulgence. Real grass-roots change is messy, because it is necessarily inclusive. It has grit.
Real change is like Buddhist practice; it’s a matter of attending to what is in front of you: your house, your community, your clothing, your food, your speech, your way of life, your livelihood. It can be stimulated and enhanced by changes in power, regulations, and leadership, and I strongly support political engagement and citizen activism. But leading a life within biological and ecological constraints is first a personal choice, not a collective or political one. I have never known any other effective way to change what is around you other than to start small and, in the Gandhian sense, be the change you want to see. When I and many others started what is now the organic-food movement in the sixties, we didn’t ask permission, do a marketing survey, or obtain definitions from the USDA. We grew food, ground it, bagged it, and ate it. The real changes occurring worldwide largely go unnoticed.
Lertzman: Can we train people to perceive the systems you describe?
Hawken: I don’t believe you can train anybody, especially people in business. You can only present and embody ideas. I try to help people understand the idea that valuing and conserving our stock of natural capital can lead to astonishing breakthroughs in processes, products, and design. Again, people move toward possibility. Once they see that we can actually improve the quality of life for everyone on earth by using radically less “life,” they get excited. Not just businesspeople, but students, especially, are keen on it, as are cities, government ministries, and other institutions. When Natural Capitalism came out in China last July, the mayor of Shanghai bought seven hundred copies for every administrative department in the city.
Lertzman: You say we need new “mental models” and maps. Why?
Hawken: Changed mental maps or models allow us to find the point of greatest leverage. The late Dana Meadows was great at identifying where to intervene in a system in order to have the most leverage. Downstream is obviously the least effective.
People generally don’t even know they have mental models. In the U.S., we assume that twentieth-century capitalism is ordained, part of the natural order, an act of God questioned only by subversives and fools. What we don’t see is that the present economic system is upside down and backward. We participate in a system that serves the few and oppresses, deadens, and exploits the many. We live in a world where decent work, peacefulness, and frugality are punished, while greed, vanity, and violence are honored. We point to pharmaceuticals, the Internet, and sanitation as proof positive that Western civilization is on the right track, all the while ignoring that we are witnessing a global holocaust of life.
One way you can tell people have a strong ideological bias based on an old mental model is when they casually accept labels as a way of demeaning or lessening others. “Left” is such a label. “Green” is another, and “socialist” is yet another. I believe the prevailing economic model usurps language and meaning, nullifying vision, reason, and perception. As Eduardo Galeano says, you would think that Darwin wrote his books in order to honor predatory capitalism. We see Darwin’s writings through a lens that is passed on and enforced by the dominant institutions. We are in the process of clear-cutting human nature and strip-mining culture for the sake of money, because we are blind. The corporate capitalist system is a fabrication, an invention of the human mind, a thin veil some think is solid.
Lertzman: In your book The Next Economy, written in 1983, you wrote that we did not have an economic problem or an environmental problem, but a design problem. Why “design”?
Hawken: I use the word design because it’s a concept that slips through corporate defenses. The Ojibwa tribe made “dream catchers,” devices that allowed the good dreams to pass through and the bad to be caught. Businesses have an opposite device, something that excludes the good dreams and lets the bad ones in. Good design is about letting imagination, delight, and innovation stream through. Most people, if given the choice, move toward good design and new possibilities. Design knows no ideology, so it is not seen as threatening.
Saying we have a design problem was my way of saying that there is a problem of seeing — that if we as a society could change the way we perceive the world, then solutions would cascade forth. And so they have. There are some extraordinary people out there with some radical and elegant solutions. The question is why, with the solutions so abundantly arrayed, are we even more destructive now than we were a decade ago?
Lertzman: That seems not only tragic, but also ironic.
Hawken: The irony is that we have the means to completely transform every sector of the economy, from agriculture, to healthcare, to energy, but our efforts are being blocked by a corporate oligarchy that holds the power in this country and around the world. We are so numb in this country, so anesthetized, that most Americans don’t realize that, in the last presidential election, we witnessed a palace coup complete with puppet dictator backed by a rich cabal.
Lertzman: Are you concerned that corporations latch on to the word sustainability and let it lull them into thinking they are ecologically sensitive?
Hawken: First, let me say something about the word sustainability: it is not a great term. And even if it were, it is a boring concept. What we need to do is restore the world, not maintain equilibrium. But yes, many corporations are doing as you suggest, using the concept of sustainability as a means to maintain a sense of legitimacy. For those corporations, being “green” is a way of not changing. I remember hearing a spokesperson for DuPont describe how they were embracing radical resource productivity by introducing powder coatings for SUVs. Apparently, there was a 75 percent reduction in material and energy costs. It’s times like that when I sense how deep the malaise in our thinking is.
Recently, a prominent environmental organization asked me to address its funders. When introducing me, the head of the organization said I would tell them the “good news” about corporate sustainability. I was taken aback and, unfortunately, had to somewhat embarrass my host by saying that, when it comes to large multinational corporations, there is not much good news.
The real good news is that there are some seventy thousand small businesses in this country whose whole raison d’être is to create a humane and ecological economy. Some big NGOs get excited when William Clay Ford talks about making Ford Motor Company “green,” but the real work is occurring in the margins, where undercapitalized businesses really do make a difference. I have thought of writing a book, a thin volume, called Corporate Sustainability. Like “natural capitalism,” the title is an oxymoron on its face. The purpose of the book would be to describe what real corporate sustainability would look like. It would be radically different than what passes for “green” corporations. I don’t know if any multinational company would pursue real sustainability, but at least we could reclaim the language.
If we think of SUV owners as careless, nonthinking despoilers . . . we are marginalizing — if not demonizing — our fellow human beings. . . . You can blame people who knock things over in the dark, or you can begin to light candles.
Lertzman: If the term “sustainability” doesn’t have meaning anymore, why not get rid of it altogether?
Hawken: Language is created by the culture. To wrest it away isn’t possible.
Today, the fluency with which we describe our relationship to life has been debased. The environmental and social-justice movements are attempting to enlarge the vocabulary, to create a vastly expanded sense of the possibilities for humankind. Milan Kundera said that “the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” It is also the struggle of language against efforts to silence it, of intelligence against the confinement of the sound bite, of human decency against the convoluted lies of corporate public-relations offices.
Lertzman: Do you see the recent anti-globalization protests as part of this struggle?
Hawken: The protests are called “anti-globalization,” but, in my mind, they are about something broader than the term conveys. For the past decade, culminating most visibly with the protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle, a global uprising has been emerging. Little noticed and largely discounted by the media, it has been portrayed by pundits as a simple-minded rejection of progress and globalization. It is far more. It is an argument against the corporatization of the world’s commons, a resistance to the growing loss of sovereignty, dignity, and self-determination. These are not minor complaints raised by marginal segments of society but central issues that will determine our future. What we are witnessing may be no less than the first global revolution, a nascent worldwide movement that will force every international institution and national government to either change or perish.
The words uprising and revolution seem threatening, with their similarity to the Marxist cant of the past. But what distinguishes this revolution from Marxist-Leninism and other protofascist movements is the absence of a centralized leadership, a singular ideology, or a hierarchical form of organization. It is an absolutely new and different social movement. No institution or government is prepared for it. It is broad, deep, and growing rapidly. It is composed of families in India, mothers in the U.S., farmers in France, the landless in Brazil, the poor in Bolivia, the Zapatistas in Chiapas, tribes in Central America, housewives in Japan, and tree-sitters in northern California. The movement requires little money and grows in remote locations as well as major population centers. Its heroes are farmers, shoemakers, and poets. Its best-known spokespeople are people of color from the global South.
Time is irrelevant. We are all in this together, 6 billion of us and growing, and we have enough time to do what we need to do, even if we can’t discern the future.
Lertzman: When did you start to realize that corporatization was becoming the key political issue of our era? Did it become clear to you at the WTO protests in Seattle, or had it begun long before that?
Hawken: Corporatization was evident during the Vietnam War, a conflict in which our foreign policy was controlled by the military-industrial complex, just as Eisenhower had foretold. I believe corporatization has been the key political issue since the conquistadors. Corporations were created to enable the exploitation of the New World by profit-seeking commercial entities who needed to limit their liability in order to protect their families. Bear in mind that the American colonies rose up not against the tyranny of a crazed King George, but against the rule of his chartered corporations.
In essence, America was created to end corporate abuse. That we have become what we feared is ironic, and would be merely of historical interest were it not for the fact that corporate activity today threatens life itself. The WTO demonstrations have a long historical lineage. They only seemed surprising because the media today are ahistorical, as is our culture. Marx was wrong. Religion is not the opiate of the masses. The drug of choice is the materialism flowing from corporations.
Lertzman: How did participating in the Seattle protests affect you personally?
Hawken: Before that, I saw business and corporations as something that could be reformed within a framework that was at least consonant with the worldview of commerce. I no longer believe that to be true. The movement brought to light that business cannot continue in anything akin to its present form without causing a breakdown in civil society and ecological integrity.
Lertzman: Did the magnitude of the protests surprise you?
Hawken: Seattle was surprising in terms of magnitude, but not in terms of police violence. I had been a part of the civil-rights and antiwar movements and had seen out-of-control police and facile political explanations before. What struck me most about Seattle were the extraordinary distortions in the media coverage. I wrote a piece about the protests that was published in The Sun and twelve other magazines, but I wrote it originally as a long e-mail to counter the propaganda in the mainstream media. I had never fully understood Noam Chomsky’s theory about “manufacturing consent” until I read the Sunday paper following the protests.
Lertzman: Do you see this “uprising” as indicative of major shifts to come in how we practice and perceive business?
Hawken: I’ve spent a decade observing and speaking to corporations that profess a desire to use more sustainable practices. So far, the people within these companies have been unable to fundamentally change their corporate policies to support true ecological or social justice. The only exceptions have been people like Ray Anderson, the CEO and founder of Interface, and Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop, both of whom own controlling interest in their companies. Otherwise, the corporation has a “life” of its own, and that life is not about human or ecological integrity. The collective behavior of the world’s corporations is destroying life on earth.
That last phrase sounds like a teaser for a B-movie, but either you say it and do something, or you begin to ponder what the requiem should be. I prefer the former.
Lertzman: There are strong themes of aesthetics, elegance, and simplicity in your work. Your use of language is very visual and imagistic.
Hawken: I was raised by a father who was a frustrated photographer and artist. As a teenager, I grew up around folk singers, sculptors, and photographers who would sometimes hang out until the wee hours, drinking, singing, or getting morose. I emerged inebriated by art and with a wonderfully warped view of the world. I assumed the world was riddled with poets and singers, and that real men could dance and cry. From that perspective, I thought of businessmen as the social equivalent of runts who got the short straw.
Actor and activist Peter Coyote says problem solving is different for the artist, because it starts from a broad perspective and works its way down, without ever losing a sense of connectedness. Politicians and economists do the opposite: start with the problem and hope they do good things for the whole.
I have never lost my love for the visual. In fact, you could say my whole life’s work is basically about trying to change how people see the world. It is not about changing how they think, which is intrusive to me. It is about seeing. Once you see the world as interconnected — even if it’s just a glimpse — you will never be the same. Your thinking will evolve and transform. I will be forever grateful to my father and his friends for that.
Lertzman: So in order to create a harmonious world for all living things, we have to look and feel and perceive in ways we haven’t before.
Hawken: Harmony is an awkward word, and probably inappropriate when applied to nature and society. The natural world is sacred, but also wild, intricate, and unruly. It is not always harmonious. I am interested in what is possible, and, on the other side of things, how we curtail options and foreclose the spirit. I am interested in dissonance, chaos, disorder, and confusion as much as in the paradisiacal. I am fascinated with ignorance, particularly my own. And I am agog that a civilization as biocidal as ours can also create Mahler’s Second Symphony.
Lertzman: How can you not become depressed in the face of such enormous problems?
Hawken: What makes this work so fascinating is its scope, and how all roads eventually lead to heart and spirit. Why get depressed? Why not get depressed? Either way works. The human condition is as it was described twenty-five hundred years ago. The question is not how to save the earth, but how to alleviate suffering.
Lertzman: You address dozens of audiences a year. What are the most urgent questions that people pose? Are there common themes, no matter where you go in the world?
Hawken: If there is an underlying thread, it is the need for hope: a hope that has its feet on the ground, that is credible. People want to know: Is there enough time? Will we make it? I’m sure those questions have been asked endlessly in history, but I don’t think they have ever been asked so persistently and by such diverse groups. And the number of people who are willing to give voice to this common fear is growing.
Lertzman: What is a hope that “has its feet on the ground”?
Hawken: What I mean is a hope that is plausible, given a thorough understanding of the world’s problems. I am not comfortable with mere desire or expectation; rather, I prefer something closer to the idea of faith.
Wendell Berry wrote in his poem “Mad Farmer” to “be joyful though you know all the facts.” When I speak to business and government audiences, they rarely, if ever, know all the facts. They usually think the problem is how to keep their nest clean. So it’s a matter of providing them with some framework, a biological and social survey of the state of the world. From there, you can point to new ways of seeing and doing.
Audiences that are literate with respect to the issues tend to cleave into three categories. The first are people who have worked a long time on a problem and have become hardened, if not cynical. They are the most difficult to reach. The second are people who are in despair about what they know and need some sense of hope in order to inform and impel their life and activities. The third are those who are profoundly committed to justice and restoration and need little encouragement. They need only food, housing, and a few good friends. These are the people, young and old, who form the picket lines, do the direct actions, chain themselves to trees and bulldozers, and speak truth to power on our streets and to our leaders. They are my idea of heroes and heroines. They give me hope.
Lertzman: How do you respond to the other question: Is there enough time for us to correct our destructive trends?
Hawken: I usually respond that time is irrelevant. We are all in this together, 6 billion of us and growing, and we have enough time to do what we need to do, even if we can’t discern the future. This doesn’t mean that, in the coming years, there won’t be grievous losses of people and place. There probably will be an increase in human suffering, and it will be tough to witness. We cannot know the future, not even a minute from now. What is critical is to be engaged in something that is worthy, to live a life that you will feel good about when you die, even if you die tomorrow. When you are engaged in this way, the issues of life and death and time become less important than the care and grace with which you serve.
David Whyte, the poet, tells corporate audiences a story about a spectral ghost that, as in Dickens’s Christmas Carol, takes a corporate manager to his future grave, scrapes off the moss, and reads the epitaph: “He made his mortgage payments.” Sooner or later, everyone on earth has to answer the question of mortality — which is always a question of whether we live a life of fear or a life of service.
Lertzman: I think having hope is particularly salient for young people today. How can we educate young people about what is happening in the world and not rob them of hope?
Hawken: You can’t rob people of hope if they’ve never had it. Many young people were immersed in an environmental cold shower when they were little and had no context for the troubling information they received. They were told about dying whales, global warming, polluted rivers, and clear-cut forests. The last place to start to educate a child about the environment is with the problems. You want to start with the mystery. You want them to know and love nature even though they lack rudimentary knowledge of ecology. They’ll learn about the problems soon enough, but in early schooling, they should play, have fun, and honor nature.
Children feel loss keenly, and they can see how absurd the present system is. Kevin Danaher of Global Exchange told an audience in Seattle during the WTO meetings that if they were confused about their priorities, ask a nine-year-old whether corporations should maximize profits or save the environment; increase CEO stock options or stop child starvation.
Children need a sense of wonder as a basis for understanding what is happening in the world. Such children will not be hopeless, because they will never relent, never give up, never stop working at what may appear to be the impossible task of restoring the earth.