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The Long Green (Revisted)

greenfields.jpgOne of the best lecture series online is the Long Term Thinking Series hosted by the Long Now Foundation, an organization I and others have mentioned a great deal here. For me it's personal and professional having been profoundly influenced by its founders -- especially Stewart Brand, Peter Schwartz, and Kevin Kelly -- whom I got to work with during my GBN days. As the website puts it,

the purpose of the series is to build a coherent, compelling body of ideas about long-term thinking, to help nudge civilization toward Long Now's goal of making long-term thinking automatic and common instead of difficult and rare.

I've listened to most of the lectures and highly recommend them. Just last night I heard Paul Hawken's talk called the "Long Green" (October 15, 2004). I've always enjoyed hearing Paul's often caustic, clever and passionate descriptions of the state of the world and its problematic relationship to our ecology. He definitely pulls no punches. I distinctly remember a conversation with him where he convinced me that the vinyl industry was evil. It's hard not to admire him for his convictions and incredible boundary-spanning knowledge of ecology, indigenous peoples, history, and social justice.

While I've heard him quite a bit before, for this talk, the tone is quite different. As Paul states in the beginning, this is new content and territory for him -- and thus a work in progress. The idea for the talk started with Stewart Brand observing that the environmental movement has taught us a great deal about long term thinking. This is because the environment functions on long lead and long lag times, where cause and effect are hard to see because they emerge across different spatial and temporal scales, and are thus decoupled from our social and political systems, which is why we miss key ecological signals of change (we few exceptions.) Within this context, he wanted Paul to reflect on the past, present and future of the environmental movement.

I know most people don't have time to sit and listen to the whole lecture (or read this long review for that matter). But I felt that talk was important enough to summarize, together with my additions and thoughts, so pardon me if I blur the line of strict reportage. Jamais Cascio also reported on this talk shortly after it was delivered and is much more succinct, so you can check out his highlights as well.


Above all else I found these ideas very helpful in articulating more clearly this "bottom up" movement of civic action and social entrepreneurship, this Second Superpower thesis and scenario I've -- and many others in the Worldchanging community -- have been perceiving (and not so dimly.) Indeed, this is exactly why we're here: as we've said in our tagline, another world is already. Paul Hawken is just adding another powerful voice and his resources to making sure that we see it.

End of the World Scenarios

We're awash in n-time scenarios these days, starts Paul. Both Abrahamic religions -- Christianity and Islam -- have in their scriptures strong visions of Armageddon and the end of the world. And while Hindus see time as being cyclical, they also have what they call the Kaligua phase (sp?) where the world heads into a downward spiral of destruction. Interestingly enough, the Kaligua gets the "prophetic nod" in its quirky list of indicators predicting the on-set of this phase, including things like: food becoming tasteless (check), young girls becoming mothers (check), old men becoming youthful (viagra, check), and this list goes on! Perversely amusing.

We're awash in these apocalyptic visions because fundamentalist factions of these religions believe (and/or employ for their power plays ) a belief that the time for reckoning is nigh. Like perfect mirrors of each other -- or using Paul's metaphor, like isomorphs -- both believe the other is the culprit. The Christian Right in the US, and a view strongly represented within the Administration, has it that with Al Qaeda as his army Osama bin Laden is as close as we're going to get as the Antichrist. Whereas the fundamentalist Islamic sects believe that Osama is the Mahdi, their new prophet, who is going to chase out the infidels from the Middle East and recapture the lost territory of Andalusia.

The green movement, by contrast, are very much of this world. They are the stay behinds and by choice. They are the people who don't want the world to end. They don't want to leave. But they are also not happy with the landlords of the planet and their upkeep of the place. These are people who have a deep sense of continuity with this place we call Earth. These people believe that the best way to ensure a better future for their offspring -- and the offspring they'll never see in generations to come -- is by taking care of one's habitat. Empirical evidence throughout human history and evolution seems to support this case in spades. Just read Jared Diamond's latest book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,for how this works.

A Brief Intellectual History of the Environmental Movement

Paul then gives a quick tour de force of the history of the environmental movement, albeit through a US-centric and Western-bent lens. (As he points out, Japan, China and India have had their movements too.) He focuses on the early years. Those seminal pioneers in the mid and late 1800s and early 1900s. He mentions the Luddite movement in Industrializing Britain, the ideas of Ruskin, Thoreau, John Muir, Teddy Roosevelt, the founding of the Sierra Club, and the tremendous public backlash to the cutting of the "Mother of the Forest" tree in Yosemite before it was a national park.

In tracing the genealogy of these ideas, he highlights a number of tensions that persist to this day within the "mega fauna of environmental organizations". For instance, the philosophical divide between Emerson's vision in "On Nature" which makes the connection between self and nature, and Marsh's view in "Man and Nature" which describes the interdependence between man and society but clearly keeps man on top of the pecking order. Emersonian organizations tend to be smaller, poorly funded, but are faster acting and more activist oriented and progressive. Friends and the Earth is an example. Marshian organizations are larger, well funded, more conservative and mainly rich white people, often with a hunting background. The Natural Conservancy and Environmental Defense Fund are examples of this group.

The legacy of this is that the Marshians are dominating the interest group power structures still. And while this may be changing, however slowly, policy makers and economists still insist on putting the environment as a subset of the economy, instead of placing the economy firmly within the broader circle of the environment. They do so even when faced with inescapable fact that without a healthy environment no economy can function, something that the Chinese leaders for instance know only too well. Who would have thunk that the Communists would become ecologists before the Capitalists?

Unlike other movements, the environmental movement is partly based on science. This doesn't mean emotions and other ways of knowing don't play a role, like indigenous practices, although there are certainly tensions there. The strategy of focusing on charismatic animals like dolphins and panda bears played a big role in making the movement more mainstream, but at the cost of less telegenic keystone species.

Like any other movement, however, it has specialized over time. Eventually this becomes counter productive, getting in the way of interconnection. Hence we see the environmental movement cutting off and ignoring other time-based disciplines such as anthropology, archeology, and historical preservationists.

After speeding through the 20th century, mentioning Carson's "Rites of Spring" and Dana Meadows, Paul Hawken wryly notes that not one Native American is mentioned in his list of notable thinkers and activists. To illustrate his point, he tells a sickening story of the now extinct Yamana or Yaghan people in Patagonia, a people who Magellan dubbed "beasts from hell" when he first spotted them on shore. Of course, years later, after we hunted and killed them to extinction, it was discovered that the Yamana people have one of the most rich and complex languages on the planet with far more verbs than English. This was a "local science" to quote Stewart Brand, with much knowledge embedded in it. For instance, the Yamana word for depression literally meant a crab whose shell is molting but is struggling to shed it. Paul's point is that for the Yamana people nature, the self, society were never separated as they have been in Western culture.

The Movement Without A Name

So, Paul concludes: environmentalism emerged from great alienation and separation. Today, the environment movement has effectively gone, he argues. It has morphed into something else, something that is a subset of a much larger movement. Social justice and environmentalism are coming together, for instance. People are not seeing the problem as just a resource flow issue, but also a quality of life and diversity problem. As we get a more sophisticated way of seeing the world, we're starting to see connections between poverty, disease, and private sector patterns towards resources. So this is a movement that spans a mind-boggling array of issues -- everything from indigenous rights, to immigration, to ecotoxcity, to emissions controls, to alternative healthcare, to restoration ecology, etc. It's becoming clear that these issues are connected in a deep structural way. And, to quote exactly, this has something to do with "humanity’s collective immune response to resist and heal political disease, economic infection, and ecological corruption caused by ideologies."

Yes, wow! That's powerful language and the description resonates deeply. David T. Suzuki and Holly Dressel make a similar case in their excellent, "Good News for a Change: How Everyday People are Helping the Planet."

Paul argues that this is the largest movement in the world and growing. There are at least 130,000 groups at minimum, but they could be off by a factor or 2 or 4 in measuring this. A half million groups could easily exist today. These are self-healing, civic groups -- some large, some small -- and they are in every country around the world. There are so many groups that even leaders like Paul can't keep track of them, although he is trying to study them at his new organization, The Natural Capitalism Institute, which is a direct offshoot of his book, "Natural Capitalism" which he coauthored with Amory and Hunter Lovins and "The Ecology of Commerce". What's clear is that this is bigger than anything else around. Bigger than Al Qaeda, bigger than the Catholic Church, bigger than the Neoconservative agenda.

(Another cross-reference: David Bornstein makes a similar case in How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideasmaking parallels to when the gild system broke apart of the end of the Middle Ages and thus lowering the barriers to entry for entrepreneurship. A similar phase is happening now in the civil society space.)

Of course, the trouble is this movement can't be named yet; it's too early, so much so, that he cautions against categorizing too much. And Paul points out, this is not too unusual in the grand scheme of things. For instance, it wasn't until 1876 when Spengler named the Industrial Age, which had been going on for 175 years before that without any difficulties.

Mainstream Myopia

A good question is why is this not more visible to the mainstream? While it's clearly visible to Worldchangers, part of the problem is that this is so new and historically unprecedented that it's beyond the mental maps of most mainstream players. As cognitive science research has proven, large groups of people routinely fail to perceive things that are unfamiliar, even if they are plainly evident.

Another reason why this movement isn't being detected is that it's very distributed, non ideological (or has many ideologies), and has no clear hierarchical leaders. This movement also doesn't seek power but rather seeks to dismantle the current power structures. (Perhaps a bit naive here but I see his point.) Some in this movement believe the type of political power today is unnecessary and should be illegal. This is what makes this movement so different and unique: no movement has emerged without a codified ideology and without a central system at its core. By contrast, the 20th century was dominated by big ideologies -- capitalism, socialism, fascism --which demanded unreflective loyalty in our beliefs and preyed on our inner sensibilities. These "isms" all told us that salvation was found in a single system, whereas everything we've learn from nature and ecology tells us that health and stability comes through diversity.

Of the parts that are seen -- say the World Social Forum-- they are labeled by the media as fringe elements, ex-hippies, liberals, anti-corporate, no logo, etc. While all of this may be true, this means this movement is consistently misunderstood. While the mainstream often points out that this movement couldn't possibly amount to much because they are a ramshackle of interests and groups, what they don't see is the shared underlying values that informs this group. They also don't understand the power of bottom-up, self-organizing dynamics. Paul argues that this group is going to win at the end of the day because it has better technologies, better ideas, and is unstoppable because of the vitality and joy driving this movement. This is the Long Green -- and it will be the dominant force of 21st century.

Rough Waters Ahead

Paul ends up very gloomy in the Q&A, which isn't unusual (and probably not unwarranted either). He has a scientific mind and a big heart for the planet and its' peoples. As he puts it, if you look at the data and you're not pessimistic, you're NOT looking at the data clearly. He argues were heading into an age of tremendous resource constraints and with corresponding depopulation. Citing the study on rapid climate change which Peter Schwartz helped lead where the best case scenario was still a nasty one for this century, Paul believes that climate change will be the ultimate driver of frugality and attention.

Most poignantly, Paul believes that in the next century we will become homeless. We'll see such changes in our climate that we won’t be able to recognize the places in which we live in. Our homes will be beyond our recognition. Having said that, Paul makes a beautiful distinction. While he can’t really be optimistic on the future based on current trends, he can be hopeful when he looks at the humans involved. We all have an amazing capacity to heal, he said, both within ourselves and our surroundings. With millions and millions of people trying to restore this place that we love, this may catalyze the perceptual change we need. Amen to that. Thanks Paul for these words.

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I believe that this dichotomy of green athiests vs. ignorant fundamentalists has some truth to it but is ultimately naive and betrays a lack of understanding of the true possibilities of good faith put into practice. I am a Christian, and although I retain a belief in some form of ultimate apocalypse, I believe it is my duty to do as much as is humanly possible to improve my surroundings here and now, doing everything I can to relieve suffering in the world and promote sustainable living conditions. I believe that any religion that cannot improve the real world and the people that live in it is of no real value. This is what I believe true religion (not just Christianity) teaches, but it has been continuously misunderstood by unbelievers and zealots alike.

Posted by: Carl Youngblood on 7 Feb 05

Carl, but do you consider yourself a fundamentalist?

I think that Paul was talking about those that will interpret literally their sources without using their judgement, or interpret them in the way that best fits their pre-existing idealogy while ignoring scientific evidence out of self-interest, not the more reality-based religious people like you seem to be.

But what do I know. I'm one of those "green atheists" :)

Posted by: Mikhail Capone on 7 Feb 05

'Green atheists?'

I was under the impression that greens were generally spiritual and/or members of liberal/tolerant religious denominations. And, provided that what Paul said is even partly accurate, it sounds like green ideas will spread into mainstream religions in the future.

And as far as the term 'fundamentalist' goes, I think Mikhail has the correct interpretation.

Posted by: Bolo on 7 Feb 05

I think the "old guard" of environmentalism tends to have a couple of substantial mind blocks.

The first is a divisionary mindset which tends to conceptualize groupings as having oppositional elements - which may be true on a certain level, but which may ignore common interests and energies. One could look at fundamentalist devotees of monotheistic religions as clashing with non-deist greens, yet greens often behave with a Christian mindset and approach of sin, trying to please some unseen judge (which could be an internal conscience or a sense of Nature as judge etc) by gradually become more "pure" in thought and especially deed. In either case, the believers seem to be missing the more likely function of the concept of sin, which is simply to provide a pragmatic guide on how best to function in the world. Take the example of adultery - this may not be something that makes God angry, but rather something that destroys one's community and can lead to violence etc. In that sense, it's not a good idea to do it, from a practical, personal level. Environmentalism hasn't gained as much traction as the main Western religions because the "sins" conceived by environmentalists don't usually have direct, personal meaning for people (eg, climate change doesn't directly feed back and link to each personal action).

The second is one which tends to look at "solutions" which call for "sacrifice" and "rethinking". Anyone who's ever tried to practice a "sustainable lifestyle" knows exactly what I'm saying. There's basically no end to the extra effort one needs to make, and to constantly have to think and resist the default settings of one's culture. It's more effort, and flies in the face of default settings, to say "no bag please" or ask for a ceramic cup instead of a paper one at a coffee shop. So, to practice a conceptualized lifestyle which seeks some kind of environmental purity, one needs to constantly get into struggles with people who are accustomed to different patterns of action.

You let that sink in for a minute then realize that maybe these individualized efforts to "save the Earth" are an ongoing process of fighting the habits of one's culture, the "societal flow", and in that sense are in direct opposition to how things work in "nature" - ie, with the least resistance. From this perspective, the conformists in a culture are acting most "naturally", in the sense that their behavior mimics nature, even if it may end up harming it.

Sacrifice and More (Constant) Thought are in direct opposition to the way that nature works, ie, an ongoing process of doing more and more with less and less. This is also known as increasing efficiency, and it is the same principle which drives capitalism (value is created by doing more with the same, the same with less, or more with less). It's also the same principle as laziness, which is usually equally derided as capitalism is by traditional social change agents. The pursuit of Mastery is also the same process -- using less and less physical and mental effort to achieve greater output, to the point of achiving a "no thought" state when the physical action is completely internalized as a habit.

Yet, traditional change agents would have people constantly thinking about every little action, every little choice we make. If I flip on this light switch, how much coal is going to put toxic emissions into the air? If I drive to the movies, how much am I poisoning the Earth? Is this package recyclable? Is it made with recycled materials? How far away did it come from? How much waste was made getting it here? Was it produced in a way that harms the Earth? Harm the people producing it? Is it economically fair to all the people involved in the process of bringing the good to me? And so on. That sort of thing is endless and maddening and only leads to frustration that "I could be doing more" and often a hostility, resentment, or condescension towards our "less enlightened" fellow human beings who may act more wastefully by our narrow standards.

This attitude, in turn, can actually create reactionary momentum which far outweighs any marginal benefit of our "purer" actions (eg, inflexible attitudes about automobiles by bicycle fanatics actually encourages reactions from people to buy bigger vehicles than they might of simply to assert their sense of personal liberty).

That then begs the question about how this approach/mindset can possibly be "sustainable", since it has to eventually be a part of everyone's approach to life, not just "change agents", and in a human world of free will, people have to choose to approach life that way, not feel guilted into doing it. That simply doesn't work in the long term.

It's really essential that we are honest about the "unnaturalness" and "unsustainable" nature of these traditional approaches towards achieving ongoing harmony between humans and the rest of the natural world. And we very much need to honor our fellow human beings and stop treating them as "people to be taught". Religious fundamentalists have the same attitude, so it's inevitable that clashes will persist among us as long as we all cling to notions of who is enlightened and who is not.

Let's find common ground and be more true to what is natural.

Posted by: Joseph Willemssen on 8 Feb 05

Carl & Mikail -

Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of the Long Now and a good friend of Paul etc., is a devout Christian and was at the talk. He sees a lot of intense religious and spiritual activity within this movement. The question is are we sliding into another mono-theology that prevents critical thought and wise question-asking?

As Paul said in the Q&A, (do listen to the whole thing for the nuances, my reportage can't do justice to it), many of the best thinkers in the environmental movement professed a deep spiritual relationship to nature. That was his point about the Yamuna tribe story in Patagonia; these people never divorced the two.

"The sacred, reverence, and sanctity is always great," says Hawken. "But can we distinguish between the expression of the spirit and the institutional reality of religions?" Big questions I know, because religious groups do perform an important function --and teaching being one of them.

I also think these "end of the world" scenarios and myths exist in many traditions for a reason and not to be disparaged: they are there to help us rehearse a real possibility in the future and are a possible residue of our deep past. This makes sense if you think about the Earth's history, with mass extinctions and floods and asteroids hitting the planet. When we as a species were still skirting the last Ice Age, I'm sure these exogenous events were deeply imprinted upon our cultural DNA. Just a theory. I'm sure there is some scholarship out there on the topic.

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 8 Feb 05

Apocalyptic scenarios are typical of all monotheistic beliefs and ideologies. Running parallel and often unseen are the continuity stories. Michael Meade has a disc of stories - Holding the Tread of Life: A Human Response to the Unraveling of the World - - on which he remembers the one about the olde woman in the cave who daily weaves the cloth of life, gets up to fix her soup and her black dog unravels it. This continues day after day after day, the making and the unraveling together seeing us thru. He and Pinkola-Estes have some of the best stories to pass on as we tumble thru this. The Weston Price Foundation has the best cross-tribal understanding of food and its working for continuity, one-day-at-a-long-timelessness.

Posted by: Kim McDodge on 8 Feb 05

Thanks for these interesting comments. I especially enjoyed Joseph's detailed analysis of some of the less-frequently-considered effects of environmental advocacy. I believe he highlights one of the ultimate challenges of living: we must find a way to live in harmony with one another.

The challenge is that we must figure out a way to bring about the seemingly paradoxical outcome of getting people to overcome their own ignorance voluntarily. In fact, I believe that ignorance can only be overcome through voluntary means. Any attempts to force the process only hinder it. In spite of this difficult truth, it's ironic how change seems frequently to be triggered by the extraordinary acts of rare individuals who so transcend the status quo that others are confronted with the inadequacy of their own worldview. I believe that the only way we can bring about sustainable progress in the world is to try our best to be these kinds of individuals. It requires a great deal of sacrifice and courage.

I don't mean sacrifice in the sense of prudish self-denial of the kind that Joseph said would inspire others to buy even larger SUVs, but sacrifice in the sense of spending one's time in the service of others, many of whom do not fully understand or appreciate it. I mean sacrifice in the sense of being misunderstood and continuing to show kindness. I mean sacrifice in the sense of treating others in a way that perhaps they don't deserve but in a way that we would like to be treated. People who act this way are, in my experience, the only ones I have seen who are truly capable of inspiring others to improve.

Posted by: Carl Youngblood on 8 Feb 05

Thanks everyone for your enriching comments.

Just to cross reference, see my essay called "adversarial politics" which talks about the self-defeating dynamic that any movement will experience if they take on adversarial tactics.

Also Alex Steffen has written some interesting critiques of the environmental movement. See "Reframing the Planet" for his latest riff on that:

Posted by: NIcole Boyer on 8 Feb 05

A bit of a nit: "Both Abrahamic religions -- Christianity and Islam -- have in their scriptures "

"Both"? There are three - where do you think Abraham came from? The sentence should read "two out of the three Abrahamic religions . . . ."

Unless you think Judaism is also apocalyptic, in which case the sentence should read "the three Abrahamic religions . . . .. "

This widespread cliche about "anti-environmentalist fundamentalism" is not only a cartoonish cliche, but false to the complexity of the actual theology on the topic. When I read this I tend to assume that the author is not sophisticated enough to offer anything insightful and I tune out. Just FYI.

Posted by: Yehudit on 8 Feb 05

Yehudit, the fundamentalist Christians I grew up among believed they had a divine mandate to "fill the earth and subdue it". Environmentalism, as a rejection of this mandate, was thus counter to God's will, and landed on the list of liberal sins along with abortion, homosexuality, divorce, and working mothers. Maybe it is a cartoonish cliché, but it's a cliché that is basically true as far as my experience goes.

I don't know what you mean by "the actual theology on the subject". Who decides what the actual theology is? All I can do is observe that some groups of Christians interpret the Bible this way, and some groups interpret it that way, and they each think they're right.

Posted by: Mars Saxman on 8 Feb 05

Mars, I'm going to start with some comments as a Christian and then extend them.

I think you are talking about a local (and nearly extinct) manifestation of Christian practice. It is an attempt to engineer a more righteous life by avoiding certain activities as inherently sinful. (I said "local" as the list you grew up may be different to the one I grew up with in NZ: environmentalism was seen as righteous). My understanding of the monastic movements is that harmony with the land they are stewards of is seen as part of their mission.

Schaeffer once wrote that if you remove these rules and look at the principles, that is to love God fully and your neighbour as yourself, the thinking through is frightening. And humbling.

It is easier to think legalistically: If I keep these rules I will be OK. Jesus argued from these principles (and the Gospels most Rabbis agreed with him). Yet both religions at times have moved into legalism.

There is a tendency in "old school" environmentalism, taught to me at school and now to my children, to again be legalistic. Recycle, consume carefully, plant trees, do not use chemicals or GE foods. Avoid unclean (nuclear) power.

These actions are probably good, but our knowlege of the effects of these actions is incomplete. In NZ we are burying recycled plastic in landfills because we can't use it. We need to think beyond the simple rules to why we are doing what we do.

It may be that church history may have some lessons for "atheistic greens"!


Posted by: chris gale on 8 Feb 05


Not all Christians are that way. We mostly believe that God made us stewards - caretakers - of the earth. That would mean taking care of it and managing - not destroying or pillaging - its resources. Please don't let a few extremists speak for the whole religion. Here's some good examples of the Christian conservationist view:

Posted by: Scott McWilliams on 9 Feb 05



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