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Worldchanging Interview: Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken Shares His Thoughts with Worldchanging About Optimism, Doomers and What's Next


by Kamal Patel

From the 2009 Sustainable Industries: Economic Forum. Seattle, Washington.

To the sustainability and the social justice crowd, environmentalist, entrepreneur and author, Paul Hawken, requires little introduction. He has written six books, including "Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution," a book Bill Clinton calls 'the fifth most important book in the world today.'

Hawken was this year's Sustainable Industries: Economic Forum keynote speaker. During the event, Hawken asked the 300 plus sustainably-minded business leaders, entrepreneurs and political heads to truly look at the data: dangerous levels of atmospheric CO2, peak oil, peak soil - peak everything. Despite this, he said he remains optimistic. He focused much of his talk on solutions such as innovative solar design and collaborations, like linking green banking with affordable, green housing, food and transportation.

I was given the opportunity to sit with Hawken, and ask him a few questions about his thoughts on optimism, doomers and what's next.

At the end of the Beginning chapter of "Blessed Unrest," you say you didn't intend it, but optimism had found you. To our readers who may have not found optimism yet, or vice versa, could you talk a little about what you had discovered in writing "Blessed Unrest" and how optimism found you?

What I discovered was people, themselves. And really just the number, and the breath, and depth of the ingenuity and authenticity in which people really applied themselves to being problem solvers and alleviate suffering, to addressing the ills of the world, and innovating and re-imagining what was possible. And they are organizing around different ways and different issues around different cultures and different manners. And when you stand back and you really get to see, if you will, not visually, not directly, but see it in a conceptual way, how large and diverse this movement is, then you just have to either laugh, or grin or smile.

That's why I did the appendix for "Blessed Unrest." It wasn't just the number of people, it's what they were doing. If everyone was just trying to save panda bears and dolphins we would be in big trouble. But they aren't choosing just the sentimental, charismatic species. Of course people are doing that and that's what gets the money. But the fact is that there is a level of granulation in terms of policy and issues that was to me, the most sophisticated map of the coming world that I have ever seen. And I didn't make it, I drew it out of the 100s of thousands of NGO's and non-profit organizations. I was blown away by what I found, and saying, my God humanity has a hold on this. We have a handle on this, we really do.

Now then, you know what we pay attention to instead? All the institutional obstacles, and the resistance, and corruption, and financial chicanery, and on and on and on. And you look at that and you want to just jump off a bridge. And because you just see that, humans seem self serving, greedy, short sighted and violent. And if you just look at that, you just drink that potion, its toxic.

Personally, I was a pessimist. It wasn't until I learned about the idea of natural capitalism and heard your speech at Bioneers about "Blessed Unrest", did I connect with optimism. I must admit, that the word capitalism wasn't the easiest word to fit with my understandings of fairness in the world much alone optimism. I've heard you say that you used the word capitalism on purpose. What can you say about people who struggle with the concept or word, capitalism. And could you maybe help them better understand what you mean by "Natural Capitalism?"

Three years before the book came out, I had written an article called "Natural Capitalism," and coined the term. And what I was writing about was Natural Capital, and that was (coined) by E. F. Schumacher. And what he was trying to say, as an economist, was (take a) look at this form of capital -- living systems and ecosystems services, what we call resources. We don't put this on the balance sheet of the world. We count it as zero, until we cut it down, extract it, mine it, kill it. And then it has value. But before we do that, it has zero value. That's crazy. It has more value before we touch it.

So, then it goes to Herman Daly, and what Herman Daly was saying is that the limiting factor to human prosperity to the world wasn't human productivity, but the productivity of our resources because we are in a resource restrained world caused by our industrial systems taking so much, so often and for so long. Therefore, when you have an economy and you see what the limiting factors are to development, then you work on maximizing what is limiting. And what is limiting to us isn't people, we have lots of people, too many some may say.

So my reason for writing the piece in Mother Jones, which was written in '96 and published in '97 (and the book in '99), was to say what kind of economy would it be if we were to maximize the production of natural capital, rather than maximizing the capital of people? When you maximize the productivity of people, you use less people. Well we have more people than there are jobs. Basically we are using less and less of what we have more of, and with natural capital, using more and more of what we have less of. And we are using more of it (natural capital) to make people more productive, to use less people. So this is upside down and backwards, we should be using more and more people to use less and less natural capital.

So when it came to titling it for the magazine, we called it Natural Capital -- "ism." It had nothing to do with capitalism, as such. It was actually meant to tweak the Mother Jones readers. And some of them were really mad, and my editor was fired for it. And was fired by people who had not really read the article. They felt like it was just about granola capitalism, or we were justifying capitalism. And it had nothing to do with capitalism, and it still doesn't. Now Amory (Lovins) and Hunter (Lovins) interpret it that way. But as a coiner of the term, and as one of the two authors of the book, I can tell you that "Natural Capitalism" is in no way meant to imply or be a justification or bull work to capitalist systems, which I think, are basically pathological.

I believe in commerce, I believe in entrepreneurship, I believe in business, I mean I want to make it really clear. But capitalism? No. I don't hold trump with that at all. It was meant to be a double entendre. A pun, a pun.

Continuing along this line of pessimism vs optimism, I'd like to explore ideologues. In David Holmgren's book, "Future Scenarios," he talks about four different scenarios that could happen as we hit the peak of the Industrial Ascent: The 'Techno Explosion,' or continued growth of industry and current day capitalism; 'Techno Stability,' which is a seamless transition into sustainable consumption and a massive change towards renewable energy; 'Energy Descent,' a future brought on by a reduction of economic activity and complexity, as well as population as fossil fuels deplete; and lastly 'Collapse,' subscribed to by peak oil-ers and doomsayers who talk about our unpreparedness to the peaking industrial age and a massive die off. Could you please speak about your thoughts on Holmgren's future scenarios as well as if these, sometimes contrasting ideologues, are finding common ground?

I do a lot of scenario work with Peter Schwarz at Stanford Research Institute, and wrote a book with him. One thing you discover with scenarios is you figure out what's not going to happen. In other words, they never happen. What happens instead, is almost more surprising and unpredictable. How so many smart people can have so much info and so much data and so many resources, and come up with scenarios that are never true, is one of the fascinating things. Its not a slam, I'm just saying that its one the fascinating things about change. Which is, change is fundamentally unpredictable. And because it involves people, makings choices and human behavior, on a minute by minute bases, we are dealing with an organism here, human civilization, that is innately unpredictable. Even though there are tendencies and the sweep of history, and things we can go back on when we say this is what people do when they are starving, this is what people do when they do that, when you are talking about these scenarios you are basically reaching from science fiction to basically apocalypse. The only thing I can say about the future is that its really going to surprise us. And so you can put those on the board and say well, in 20 years from now or 30 or even 10 -- where are we in those? It will probably be all four in certain ways. It wont be one. There would be parts of the world that may be in the worst. There would be parts in the third one, by choice, and islands of the first. You just don't know. I don't think it will be one size fits all.

And the things is, the rate of social technology and other technology, and the rate of technological breakthrough right now, is stupefying. And the rate of the way new information is coming along and being made available and accessed, to that rate of real time feed back due to Twitter and other things, is trying to be incorporated into political decisions and commercial decisions, and so forth. You saw the H1N1 virus now is being Twittered and tracked, and boom boom boom, it's better than anything we had every had in terms of NHS or with CDC, of whats happening, where and who had been admitted, and this and that. And so we are entering into a time, and this is what I was trying to say in the speech, that no one can know, it's really unknown. And that's the exciting part. And for people who don't like that, its anxiety producing.

This is where leadership will be important. I don't mean charismatic leaders, but I mean in terms of a community basis, neighborhood basis, friendship basis. We don't need a few great leaders in the world, we need about a million leaders in this world. It's a really exciting time.

And we do have a clock ticking, the ppm clock on the upper stratosphere, no question about that. But, I'll just say, with the new SIG technology or solar technology, if you were to run all the news presses of the world -- and they were printing SIG solar panels for five and half days -- you could (meet) all the energy (needs) in the world.

What I'm saying, is that there are resources, and abilities that we have here, that are phenomenal. The fact that they are not being enlivened yet is because people don't think there is a reason to. And should they, and when they do, change can happen in a way that is really astonishing.

With the seemingly agreed upon idea of Peak Everything, what do you think about the future of globalism and organizations like the WTO?

I think we are peaking. I don't see peak as associated with doom and gloom, by the way. But I think we are peaking and its a rolling peak and the peaks play upon each other, of course. Peaking oil and peaking fossil energy causes the inability to afford other types of commodities. The energy required to get them is greater than the energy released or value released or you get a peak production.

In terms of the WTO, I think some consumerism is over. I see export economies basically having peaked. Exports will still happen and I see the WTO as sort of being residual. But it really is related to energetics, which is when energy becomes more expensive. It doesn't make sense to make things elsewhere.

The logistics of the modern industrial system is definitely going to be challenged. The problem I think we face there is what we faced in '08 when we had a sharp drop off of manufacturing when people panicked and people stopped buying. That just throws it, and a lot of manufacturing went offline, and it's hard to start it up again. All the more reason it's important to make the transition in terms of localization. Make local bigger, make it broader, go into areas where you wouldn't even imagine, like making things like cars and transportation and making clothes again. There is no reason why the Northwest shouldn't be completely self sufficient. Really, it has everything, there's not one thing missing and thus becoming exemplary in its own way. Doesn't mean there isn't going to be apples and blackberries or salmon coming out of here. There still will be imports, exports. There still will be cinnamon and pepper from India and things like that, but the most important exports would be culture and ideas, and music and literature.

You were talking a little bit about collaborations downstairs. I heard a great word the other day, coop-etition. Any new "radical collaborations" you've been seeing in the business world that excites you?

I wouldn't suggest radical ones, I would just suggest more of them. I think that we need the end run around conventional business. Business associations tend to take the lowest common denominator and parlay it into a congress. And I think we need to start to organize in ways where we want the highest denominator in change and policy, taxation and subsidies. We need a different business lobby than the one that gets there now.

We (NGOs, non profits, sustainable businesses, etc) need to, like I say, get above our horizon, to be seen, to be heard and to know we exist. It goes back to "Blessed Unrest," it's one thing to have 2 million organizations, but its kind of time to have them come together, too, and stop being heroes. You gotta work together.

Whats next for you? Are you in the midst of another book?

Nah, I'm just working on my solar technology. I'd rather fail at something important than succeed at something trivial. It really is important. There's some 516 million people with no electricity in places like India. We have a clear goal, we know where we are going with our product. The thing about it is, it can be made in Africa, by Africans, with African materials, for African people. Instead of it being made and shipped in containers from China. So that people can make their own stuff. Made in Haiti for Haitians. It can be made in Nairobi for Kenyans. It can be made in our townships, so people feel like they have something. That's a green job: non toxic, low input, high skill, their own distribution, their own implementation. I don't care if they sell for cost, it's up to that region. They can make it even less expensive if they want. But our goal is to have the cheapest electricity for the poor. We think other people want it too, but it will be the cheapest electricity.

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Thank you both Mr. Patel and Mr. Hawken,

I needed that!

Ciao for now,

paul t. horan

P. S. = If anyone reading this lives or works in the Malibu, CA area then let's please team up and help organize a cool, local event 4 weeks from tomorrow. (paulthoran via twitter w/ patience please, since I tweet slowly)

P. P. S. = With respect for Mr. Hawken's comment on exporting and importing "... culture and ideas, and music and literature.", I'm trusting some folks may find some value in circulating this creative writing prompt:

"Imagine you're an ecosystem, nurtured by 'THANKS!!!' from the future ..."

Hopefully, the above 17 syllable gift might also prompt some creative actions beyond just writing along with some creative ideas and some life affirming feelings, too.

Posted by: paul t. horan on 25 Sep 09

Think Global, Act Local is the way to go...and while we're at it, aren't we among the few animals who shit in water? Even hippos have sense to wade onto land for their ablutions. For every forward step, technology takes us two back (Have we lost the Industrial Revolution?) Sure, water toilets were a good idea to combat disease, when there were few of us and lots of water. But, shitting in potable water? Doesn't that make you sick? Recycle, people. At one time, in China, one did a dinner hosts a complementary favor by leaving one's 'night soil' at their place. Now, in the so-called developing world, instead of thinking water toilets for the poor, think creatively and turn it back to food.

Posted by: aMan BLOOM on 26 Sep 09

Thanks for this interview. Given the grim data and rigged politics that subject most of us to gloomy thoughts these days, I think it is hugely important to keep in mind the work of people like Paul who showcase the thinking and activism that could help us pull back from the brink. It's always great to plug in for a shot of his wisdom. BUT . . .

I'm the publisher of Mother Jones, am now and was back in 1997 when we proudly published Natural Capitalism, and I just have to correct the record: no editor of Mother Jones was fired because of that article. Period. That's ridiculous. Not only did we publish it (and read it), but back in the day before one could shoot pdfs around the planet for almost nothing, we distributed tens of thousands of printed reprints of that story to colleges for use in economics and environment classes. We brag about that story in every list of Mother Jones' Greatest Hits. I can't believe Clinton rated the resulting book only number five on his "most important books" list. (I guess if he'd rated it higher, he would have actually had to do more . . .)

Paul isn't wrong when he says there was controversy when the package was published, but it was of a kind that I think most Worldchangers would understand. My recollection is that many readers said, basically, "Yeah, the idea of getting the value of natural capital and labor appropriately reflected in markets would be fantastic, but have you noticed that corporate oligarchs completely control our politics? And they are doing great under unnatural capitalism. Until we deal with that, Mother Jones, this is just so much nice theory." And I don't think any of us, including Paul, would deny that they have a point.

Fact is, we need both -- the vision of where we want to go AND the gumption, organizing smarts and work ethic (not to mention investigative reporting) to take on the oligarchs. The work of Paul, Amory, Hunter, Herman Daly and so many unsung others to help us understand how we can bring our economic system into harmony with natural systems gives us a roadmap for how to change and standards to evaluate whether what the political system is offering is worth the hot air. But we also need, in short order, to focus serious energy on taking political power back from corporations. In a world in which both left and right are attuned to conflating market systems with multinational capitalism, it sounds funny to say, but we've got to get self-interested, short-term-thinking corporate power rolled back or we will never see the explosion of positive change that is possible from properly priced markets. And we will never implement the changes that the planet is demanding. This is going to take a fight.

Is the atmosphere of chicanery, corruption and greed around our big institutions "toxic," as Paul says? Yes. So we should draw strength and emotional oxygen for our way ahead from the grassroots ingenuity and problem solving that Paul has done so much to spotlight. I'm just saying, pack your gas mask.

Posted by: Jay Harris on 26 Sep 09

When you maximize the productivity of people, you use less people. Well we have more people than there are jobs. Basically we are using less and less of what we have more of, and with natural capital, using more and more of what we have less of.
I couldn't agree more, as to the direction in which we need to move. What I don't see is how we can accomplish it. How do we escape from the "race to the bottom" that is implicit in (the natural form of) capitalism (as opposed to (natural capital)-ism)?

Consider two functionally equivalent items, one made through high productivity capital-intensive methods, and the other made locally through sustainable but labor-intensive methods. If the latter costs twice (or 50% more or even 20% more) than the former, how to we get everybody to go for the latter?

It seems to me that the only possibilities are import tariffs and tax policies structured to favor labor-intensive products, or elimination of the market system altogether in favor of a planned economy. The former would be deeply unpopular and would be opposed, both with those whose wealth depends on the productivity of capital and by the consumer-voters who want goods to be as cheap as possible. It hasn't a ghost of a chance (that I can see) of being implemented. The latter is unworkable, and has even less chance.

Two other approaches are (IMO) non-starters. A popular meme is that the end of cheap energy will save us, by making transport expensive. People who believe that don't understand (again, IMO) how abundant energy actually is, or how efficient long-distance transport actually is -- or could become. The other non-starter is "voluntary simplicity". It's a great idea and I'm all for it, but it's very unlikely to be embraced widely enough to make a difference. (If it were, it would be possible to implement the necessary tariff and tax policies over the screaming objections of those who control 90% of the country's wealth and who essentially own both the communications media and the government itself.)

In the absence of a credible strategy for dealing with these issues, I find it hard to see a basis for optimism.

Posted by: Roger Arnold on 27 Sep 09

I just wanted to add that Paul is also the visionary behind the website ( which is about helping to build the connective tissue between the people and organizations that make up the movement. Worth checking out for a dose of optimism by reading some of the profiles of the 1,000s of people and organizations out there who are reimagining what is possible.

Posted by: Camilla Burg on 28 Sep 09

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