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When Unrest Is a Blessing

I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.
-- Adrienne Rich

In any democracy, inequality is a sin. The greater the inequality, the greater the sin.

And the greater the sin, the greater the unrest.

Environmentalist Paul Hawken called it "Blessed Unrest," which is the title of his 2007 book. The phrase comes from dance diva Martha Graham, who once wrote:

There is vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique. ...[There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer, divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive.

Hawken's subtitle is even more intriguing: "How the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming."

The Occupy Wall Street protests springing up around the globe are just one manifestation of that movement.

Back in the '90s, as Hawken gave talks around the country, he noticed a pattern. Those in attendance would hand him business cards from the nonprofit, non-governmental organizations they represented, dedicated to social justice or the ecology.

He began to realize those were "two sides of a single, larger dilemma. The way we harm the earth affects all people, and how we treat one another is reflected in how we treat the earth."

His card collection eventually grew into the thousands, and he estimated that there must be over 100,000 such organizations. Further research raised that estimate to more than a million groups worldwide comprising "tens of millions of people dedicated to change." He describes it as "a global humanitarian movement arising from the bottom up ... in response to injustice, inequities and corruption."

It is, he says, "the largest social movement in all of human history. No one knows its scope."

No one knows because the movement has no name, no leader and no ideology. It is decentralized, which is its greatest weakness — and its greatest strength. The Internet and social media have enabled this "blessed unrest" to survive and even thrive, as we've seen with the Arab Spring uprisings of the past year — and now with Occupy Wall Street.

A vast, interconnected network is forming.

Status quo suck-ups (anyone who fundamentally opposes change or is too timid to demand it) criticize protests like Occupy Wall Street because it threatens their complacency. They sit back and smugly (or nervously) predict its failure.

But becoming a political force is not the measure of its success. The movement, Hawken says, consists of those "who speak for the planet, for other species, for interdependence, a life that courses under and through and around empires."

"Rather than a movement in the conventional sense," he asks, "could it be an instinctive, collective response to threat? Is it atomized for reasons that are innate to its purpose? How does it function? How fast is it growing? How is it connected? Why is it largely ignored? Does it have a history? Can it successfully address the issues that governments are failing to: energy, jobs, conservation, poverty and global warming?"

Hawken explores those questions in Blessed Unrest.

"Inspiration," he writes, "is not garnered from the recitation of what is flawed; it resides, rather, in humanity's willingness to restore, redress, reform, rebuild, recover, re-imagine and reconsider. ... When asked at colleges if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren't pessimistic, you don't have the correct data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren't optimistic, you haven't got a heart. What I see are ordinary and not-so-ordinary individuals willing to confront despair, power and incalculable odds in an attempt to restore some semblance of grace, justice and beauty to this world."

This protest is not an isolated phenomenon. Think of all the people you know in Oak Park and River Forest who belong, without knowing it, to the Largest Movement in the World. There are as many points of entry as there are human beings.

"I believe this movement will prevail," Hawken wrote in 2007. "I don't think it will defeat, conquer, or create harm to someone else. Quite the opposite. ... I mean the thinking that informs the movement's goals will reign. It will soon suffuse most institutions, but before then, it will change a sufficient number of people so as to begin the reversal of centuries of frenzied, self-destructive behavior."

In other words, this is unrest we should bless.

Is Occupy Wall Street a turning point for this movement? No, it's another step along the road, with many more steps to come.

But it's a step in the right direction.

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