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Worldchanging Interview: Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben

This article was written by Jon Lebkowsky in September 2007. We're republishing it here as part of our month-long editorial retrospective.

Paul%20Hawken%20and%20Bill%20McKibben.jpg Creating sustainable systems means transforming how we think about the world and its different economies -- of money, nature, agriculture, and more. Essentially it means rethinking our priorities. But how do we create these new frameworks, and translate them into community action?

These urgent questions are at the centers of two inspiring recent books: "Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming" (Viking, May 2007) by Paul Hawken, and "Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future" (Times Books, March 2007) by Bill McKibben. These authors have an obvious synergy, so I asked them to join me, along with Randy Jewart (of Austin Green Art), in a discussion to share with Worldchanging's readers.

This conversation took place in email over the first half of September, 2007. If you find it compelling, take action: buy both books in case lots, read them together, and organize groups for discussion and action.

Jon: In comparing your recent books, "Outside" Magazine, referred to you both as "two of sustainability's most visionary champions." Do you see an inherent connection with each other's work? Do you have any formal joint projects?

Bill: Over the years I've followed many of the intellectual paths that Paul has blazed – "Deep Economy," my most recent book, builds on the foundation of thinking that Paul erected years ago. His most recent, and perhaps most important, book, "Blessed Unrest," gives voice to the rising worldwide movement for a planet that's just and durable and worth living on.

My own activist work in recent years, on one issue (global warming) in one country (this one) is a tiny part of that huge movement he's helped to chronicle and build. He's been a great assist with our Step It Up project, and I think his database may prove absolutely essential if we're ever able to take this fight around the world, which is where it needs to go.

Paul: My original book in this field, "The Ecology of Commerce," was written during the two years following the publication of Bill's "The End of Nature," which came out in 1990. I don't believe the importance of his work can be overstated because it was the first widely read book that chronicled how we had crossed an irrevocable line in our relationship with nature. Although there had been earlier notable writings in this vein, "Overshoot" by William Robert Catton (1982) and "Ecology and the Politics of Scarcity" by William Ophuls (1977), Bill's book had an inclusive and lyrical style that vaulted it into the public sphere. The idea that the genie had been let out of the lamp entered public debate. The previous bestseller in this genre was Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" in 1962, another book of monumental importance. It was attacked because the parable of a "silent spring" seemed ludicrous to many scientists. Bill's writing was impeccable and caused heated argument but was not attacked in that way. It legitimized a debate about our future, which is now in full flower. The influence it had on my work at that time is inestimable. It marked the pathways on how to engage the public with respect to the salient issues of our lifetime. I followed his path.

Today, the staffs from WiserEarth and Step It Up work together; we are doing whatever we can to support their effort to make climate an international nexus of citizen action.

Randy: Paul alludes to a certain style Bill employs that was essential to the appeal of "The End of Nature." It was William McDonough's voice and mode of speech that changed my passive engagement with environmentalism into action four years ago when I heard him on New Dimensions radio. You both have unique and perhaps even healing voices -- I'd call Bill's tone in "Deep Economy" "engaged neighborly," and Paul's in "Blessed Unrest," "inexorably graceful."

If language and communication media determine how we relate to each other in community to a large extent, how do we change the way we talk to foster trust, connectedness and sustainability? How do you see your own communications within the mass media information age contentious soundbite frenzy that surrounds us? Do you have recommendations for activists and green organizations regarding communication and fostering this full-flowering debate? (At Austin Green Art we firmly believe in the power and import of visual and performing art to foster a unique kind of dialogue about these issues.)

Bill: Maybe one answer is that the kind of calm and unforced rhetoric that engages people comes out of large amounts of reporting. People can tell if you've earned your conclusions. For instance, you're right to describe both the grace and the inexorability of Paul's writing -- and one of the effects of the long appendix in "Blessed Unrest" is to give the book a kind of overwhelming authority. It allows him to write the rest of it without raising his voice, I'd say.

Paul: Money and economics are among the most talked about and least understood facets of human civilization. Just as most people speak without giving a lot of thought to what they say, most of us open our wallets in the same way.

Jon: Your work suggests that you both come from a realization that, in order to make a plausible and viable human future, we have to transform the way people think, especially about economics. What are some strategies for facilitating that transformation?

Paul: In the Terma tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, this period is called Dü Tha, or the Age of Dregs, and during this time it was predicted that people would have lost their spiritual moorings and be attracted to illusory ways of creating happiness. Much of the damage we see in the world is this craving for fulfillment directed through our pocketbook. By directing people's attention to these flows, which Bill did so well in "Deep Economy," it lifts money into a more conscious realm of intention.

Money is an invention, and while economics is not a science in my opinion, both are malleable. The world we live in is one "we" made up. It is only one possibility; economics and capital flows can be used to imagine a completely different way for people to relate to each other and their place

I believe one of the challenges writers face is how to bring the "language of sustainability" in from the cold. The issues we face on an environmental level arise from science and the challenges we face on a social level are similarly consigned to disciplines that are not mainstream. You can't talk about entropic pollution and cultural deracination on "Oprah," so the task is to create narratives and stories that engage, the draw people in from where they stand and think.

Bill makes a great point about raising one's voice. If the data are truly there, then writing needs to have am embedded patience so that it draws the reader in. It is best done if it honors the reader's intelligence and learning curve, and that means it is not about being "right" but about being of service in what you write. This is what Bill's writing does, and there are only a few at his level (Barry Lopez, Rebecca Solnit, and Richard Nelson come to mind). With these authors, their voice and presence is strong, but you are never strong-armed by their knowledge. What each does so well is to create a means for the culture to look at its shadow. This is almost shamanic work in my opinion.

Randy:I think Step It Up was a compelling structural use of online networking to communicate and message a national, unified agenda that actually ended up allowing 1400 communities to decide what was the appropriate realtime manifestation of that national agenda. It's actually similar to the way Austin Green Art structures it's thematic community artmaking events. We decide a theme and prepare materials and an armature and then turn artistic control over to the community. It's always surprising and amazing what folks do with their pixel of the puzzle.

How do we create more of those kinds of projects?

Bill: This is the interesting junction at the moment. We have global problems that need a global political response, and we have a technology (the 'net) that allows local political action to count in a way it couldn't before. That's lucky, and it's something we need to figure out how to take full advantage of soon. We're just publishing a little book based on our experience with Step It Up called "Fight Global Warming Now" that is about community organizing in an internet age. It's exciting, because the ad hoc is much more possible than it used to be.

Jon: You've both written excellent recent books that could inspire new, sustainable thinking, and there are quite a few writings, organizations, networks etc. that are focusing on ecology and sustainability. Even the suits are into it -- especially those who realize that alternative energy is no longer just nice, but necessary. There's real business opportunity in clean energy; the city of Austin, where Randy and I live, is gearing up to be a hub of that sector, and we have a mayor who's a climate change activist, who's saying the city infrastructure will be carbon neutral by 2020.

But it still feels very fragmented to me, and I'm not sure there's a real change in economic thinking. If you're recycling, and you swap your SUV for a Prius, that's not enough, if you haven't transformed your thinking in much deeper ways. How do we go deeper? How do we have those conversations, and extend them to more and more people? How do we inspire solutions?

Paul: You ask timeless questions: how to connect people so that they listen to each other.

Despite the fact that my team and I created WiserEarth as a means to better connect a movement, I am leery of digital simulacrums that substitute for connection and community. I believe that people who cannot connect in person with their own neighborhood, church, or community, do not make for connected digital citizens. The web is an adjunct, a tool, but it is not a proxy for the nuanced and granular experiences we have as people face to face.

This "movement" addresses the salient and increasingly myriad issues of our time. It is fragmented because it arises mostly in place, one locale at a time. I agree that there is an absence of clear thinking about the import and gravity of climate and other issues. This leads to fairly anemic solutions. However, in other countries, especially in Europe -- I am thinking of the UK, Sweden, and other nations -- the activity is quite significant.

The United States is a confused place, traumatized by war, confused by its media, underserved by its health care system, insecure economically, arrogant in its policies, and unsure of its identity. The country as a whole is internalizing the inner climate of so many, and this gnawing rise of anomie is eating away at the core.

The gift of the multiple crises we face is that in order to address them successfully, we will have to fundamentally change who we are. Some say people don't change, but they do when they have to. And part of that change is the capacity to listen, to put aside those things that separate us as unimportant, and honor the core values that unite us.

Bill: What Paul says is absolutely right. I'd just add that the most important conversations go on in the context of taking real action -- of doing, in our case, the political organizing work that needs to get done. As you start to do it, much gets clearer.

Jon: I agree that online discussions should supplement, rather than replace, face to face interactions. However I see them as a way to extend our conversations, just as writing and publishing a book is a way to extend our thinking, so that we reach more, and more remote, people than we could ever meet in physical space, let alone make contact intimately enough to convey our deeper thoughts.

In a discussion about my own "extreme democracy" work a few days ago, we were discussing the problem of political organizing -- specifically, of achieving democratic consensus -- in a context where there's real diversity. People of diverse backgrounds and cultures will tend to bring different meanings to the table; the same word may not mean the same thing to everyone, and this makes for confusion and misunderstanding.

There are organizations and movements dedicated to the kind of dialogue and deliberation that can be effective in achieving something like a common understanding and a framework for democratic participation. On the other hand, we have urgent problems to fix, and the process of dialogue and deliberation can take time. How might we balance the urgent need for solutions with the time required to facilitate broad, truly informed participation?

Paul: It is true that the digital realm creates extensibility, but it also creates ephemerality. Even though blogs and postings seem digitally preserved, they disappear fast while at the same time attention span is dramatically reduced. There is a difference between words prepared for a book and those for a blog. On the other hand, it is great to see more people writing and the quality of writing on the web is good.

Dialogue is time-consuming, but I am reminded of the Japanese, who require what we would consider to be inordinate amounts of time to come to a consensus decision. Once that process is completed, they are able to move much more quickly than their counterparts in the West. Take Toyota vs. GM as a comparison. In terms of innovation and execution, Toyota wins hands down.

All of this suggests a conunudrum. We probably have to slow down in order to address the urgent issues of our time.

Images and credits: Left, Paul Hawken (© Paul Hawken); right, Bill McKibben (© Nancie Battaglia).

Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben on Blessed Unrest and Deep Economics is part of our month long retrospective leading up to our anniversary on October 1. For the next four weeks, we'll celebrate five years of solutions-based, forward-thinking and innovative journalism by publishing the best of the Worldchanging archives.

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