digital edition

Renaissance Man

November 2010

Interview by Jane Kolleeny

Environmentalist, entrepreneur, and author Paul Hawken’s work includes starting ecological businesses, writing about the impact of commerce on living systems, and consulting with heads of state and CEOs on economic development and environmental policy. He has been featured in numerous media outlets, authored articles, op-eds, and papers, and written seven books, including four bestsellers.

Paul Hawken is giving the closing plenary at Greenbuild 2010 in Chicago.
Photo © Barbara Ries
Paul Hawken is giving the closing plenary at Greenbuild 2010 in Chicago.

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GreenSource: What was the key trigger that led to your longstanding interest in sustainability?

Paul Hawken: Being outside was probably the biggest influence. I grew up in a time where kids could wander off and get lost and no one got worried. So I did. Once you fall in love with what nature offers and presents, you become keenly aware of loss and harm, development and sprawl, pollution and clear cutting. It is like your family is being attacked, rather than the environment being something you read about.

GS: In what ways is this interest personal and in what ways professional?

PH: I wouldn’t know how to distinguish between the two. You express yourself differently as a professional to be sure, but one’s interest is the same. I ride my bike to work, eat out of my garden, only buy food from farms employing biological agriculture, run my house off of solar, etc. My professional life has identical characteristics and goals only they are expressed in larger themes and in the creation of technology. For example, for the past two years I have been working with Janine Benyus, the author of Biomimicry

GS: How do you distinguish a viable trend from fashion?

PH: Actually, I try not to write about trends or fashions. I try to be aware of them, but I do not consider the response to environmental degradation and social justice a trend. Climate change, resources, population, water, women’s rights—these will define the 21st century and beyond. How we deal with them will determine the quality of our lives, the prospect for war or peace, and the future of our civilization. What I write about is the dynamics, relationships, and potential outcomes given what is present today.

GS: You have made a case for the connection between environmental and social issues —could you describe the link?

PH: A culture that marginalizes the environment marginalizes people. The injustice that affects the most people today is unemployment. The only way to attain full employment is to value everything, all that is alive in nature including every human being. As soon as you discount, ignore, or diminish life, you sow the seeds of economic dysfunction where income is polarized, assets are concentrated, and losers far outnumber winners, among whom are people, plants, places, and creatures. If we look at our cities, the degraded environment, our shabby schools, the underpaid teachers, our impoverished soils, the state of our healthcare system, and other indicators of genuine well-being and progress, they are all severely lacking. So the question may not be can everyone be employed. The question is: how did we create an economic system that tells us it is cheaper to destroy the earth and waste certain people than to honor both. Because those are the economic signals we act on every day, unconsciously or not. How did we become the only species without full employment? How is it, when there is so much work to be done, so much restoration and healing, that 17 percent of Americans are un- or underemployed? How is it that we are not up in arms about this, that there isn’t a national uproar? Can we design an economic system that offers abundant employment of family wage jobs? Easily. But that would require a country that wanted justice and fairness, where people would sacrifice their unending desires for the true needs of the whole.

GS: What do you see on the horizon for our global society with regard to climate change and sustainability?

PH: I see a series of wake-up calls. This year’s weather is rather extraordinary, and it is having big impacts on food and water. Right now these are extreme weather events, almost always spoken of in isolation. But they are part of a larger system and I do not know when the public will see weather as the outgrowth of a climatic system rather than an annual anomaly. Essentially, society is divided into two groups. Those who understand the problem and are addressing it, and those who do not see or fully understand the issues yet. That is normal, that kind of diffusion. One would want the rate of comprehension to catch up, but we are not there yet.

GS: What ’s your final message for our readers?

PH: Humans are always in trouble. But beyond the great sweeps of war and power, there arise people of great artistry, intelligence, and sweetness. The trouble we are in now is a gift that we can receive or shun. We cannot be the same people we are today and save life on earth. We are all being asked to change, to transform. This may sound a little incandescent to some, but it includes engineers who work towards sustainability, the geniuses who are creating truly clean technology, the architects who are planning our cities, and the designers who are reimagining everything. The troubles this time around are civilizational, and they are unleashing stunning creativity, genius, and pluck. Lucky us.

This article appeared in the November 2010 print issue of GreenSource Magazine.

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