Grass Roots Rising: Paul Hawken's "Blessed Unrest"

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The New York Times Book Review

Grass Roots Rising: Paul Hawken's "Blessed Unrest"

by
Robert Sullivan

"Blessed Unrest" is about a movement that no one has noticed, not even the people involved. "The movement," as Paul Hawken calls it, is made up of an unknowable number of citizens and mostly ragtag organizations that come and go. But when you do see it, you understand it to include NGOs, nonprofit agencies and a seemingly disparate range of people who might describe themselves as environmental activists, as well as people who might not describe themselves as anything at all but are protesting labor injustices, monitoring estuaries, supporting local farming or defending native people from being robbed of the last forests. There are a few billionaires, working hard to give their wealth away, and there are even some Christian evangelicals, who have decided the earth is not theirs to trash, but the movement is mostly about shared beliefs, even if those beliefs are unproclaimed. "Life is the most fundamental human right," Hawken writes, "and all of the movements within the movement are dedicated to creating the conditions for life, conditions that include livelihood, food, security, peace, a stable environment and freedom from external tyranny."blessedunrest 1

Still confused? Skip to the 100-plus-page appendix, a list of movement-oriented concerns from child labor to "green banking" to climate change, reflecting years of post-lecture business-card collecting on the author's part. Hawken, the ecologically conscious founder of the gardening chain Smith & Hawken as well as a number of other enterprises involving things like sustainable agriculture and energy-saving technologies, makes the movement's disparateness seem not so disparate -- in its critique of markets, for example. "If there is a pervasive criticism of global capitalism that is shared by all actors in the movement, it is this observation: goods seem to have become more important, and are treated better, than people. What would a world look like if that emphasis were reversed?" The movement, most importantly, is very lowercase, its sensitivity being its great strength and, naturally, its tactical weakness. Do-gooding will always have a perception problem. Mountaintop-removal mining rarely risks seeming behind the times, even though it is; Amazonian tribesmen's marching on a World Trade Organization meeting seems futile and quixotic, even though it's not.

The rationale for the movement is sprinkled through the book like smelling salts. By the middle of the century, Hawken writes, resources per person on the globe will drop by half. Pesticide residues are prevalent in soft drinks in India. The World Bank helps pay for an oil pipeline through the Mindo Nabillo Cloudforest in Ecuador. Species extinction and poverty abound while profits soar. "The world's top 200 companies have twice the assets of 80 percent of the world's people, and that asset base is growing 50 times faster than the income of the world's majority," Hawken notes. According to Hawken, the movement's modus operandi is to work at the edges, on lower levels. The movement is an alternative to the old choice of Communism or capitalism, and the current one of freedom versus terror. "Instead of isms it offers processes, concerns and compassion," he writes. "The movement demonstrates a pliable, resonant and generous side of humanity. It does not aim for the utopian ... but is eminently pragmatic."

When you read about the movement, Hawken says, its members are usually described as anarchists or at least nut jobs - as was evident during the anti-W.T.O. demonstrations in Seattle in 1999, when a bumbling police force turned a protest into a riot, and the TV news crews focused on the relatively few ski-masked window breakers rather than the scores of scientists, conservationists and community service workers who were demonstrating. Hawken sees the roots of the movement in the dawn of abolitionism in 19th-century America and in Gandhi's Thoreau-inspired civil disobedience -- even though the abolitionists and Gandhi would probably say there had been a movement, also with a public relations problem, long before they showed up. The high point of the book is Hawken's excellent critique of the chemical industry's attack on Rachel Carson's "Silent Spring" in 1962, which shows that the corporate P.R. response to ecological criticism has not changed much. Carson (who kept private the cancer that was killing her) was billed as a hysterical "spinster" and a "fanatical defender of the cult of the balance of nature." One doctor, dismissing Carson's indictment of DDT and other chemicals, wrote that " 'Silent Spring,' which I read word for word with some trauma, kept reminding me of trying to win an argument with a woman. It can't be done."

Carson linked the health of the environment to public health, a genius stroke given that the green movement has often been susceptible to the kind of criticism directed at it by a California congressman: "I know you care about black bears, but do you care about black people?" "Blessed Unrest" attempts the next step: to link the environment to issues of social justice and even culture. The death of languages, he writes, is tantamount to a blow against human diversity -- diversity being the engine of a species' biology and, in turn, our ecosystem's health. "For the developed world," Hawken writes, "there is a choice to be made: to promote economic policies that despoil indigenous lands or to support cultures and the remaining biological sanctuaries."

"Blessed Unrest" is not a glass-half-full book. But Hawken does imply that the movement -- which he estimates at perhaps two million organizations strong -- is a sign of life stirring in the beaten-up bowels of the planet, part of the earth's own immunological response, as executed collectively (maybe even semiconsciously) by "social antibodies." Hawken, studiously avoiding the language of religion, ends up groping for a faith-free yet faith-based terminology to describe what connects people who put aside their own immediate material needs, if just for a second. "Sustainability, ensuring the future of life on earth, is an infinite game, the endless expression of generosity on behalf of all," he says. Hawken, it seems, is hoping for a miracle, which by definition is possible only because it's impossible. At the very least, knowing that other people are thinking along those lines makes such a thing seem a little more likely.

Robert Sullivan is the author of "Rats" and "Cross Country."

© 2007 The New York Times

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