Paul Hawken: A Global Democratic Movement Is About to Pop


Richard Moore

       "It crossed my mind that perhaps I was seeing something
        organic, if not biologic. Rather than a movement in the
        conventional sense, is it a collective response to threat?
        Is it splintered for reasons that are innate to its

Original source URL:

A Global Democratic Movement Is About to Pop
By Paul Hawken, Orion Magazine
Posted on May 1, 2007, Printed on May 1, 2007

I have given nearly one thousand talks about the environment in the past fifteen
years, and after every speech a smaller crowd gathered to talk, ask questions, 
and exchange business cards. The people offering their cards were working on the
most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, 
water, hunger, conservation, human rights, and more. They were from the 
nonprofit and nongovernmental world, also known as civil society. They looked 
after rivers and bays, educated consumers about sustainable agriculture, 
retrofitted houses with solar panels, lobbied state legislatures about 
pollution, fought against corporate-weighted trade policies, worked to green 
inner cities, or taught children about the environment. Quite simply, they were 
trying to safeguard nature and ensure justice.

After being on the road for a week or two, I would return with a couple hundred 
cards stuffed into various pockets. I would lay them out on the table in my 
kitchen, read the names, look at the logos, envisage the missions, and marvel at
what groups do on behalf of others. Later, I would put them into drawers or 
paper bags, keepsakes of the journey. I couldn't throw them away.

Over the years the cards mounted into the thousands, and whenever I glanced at 
the bags in my closet, I kept coming back to one question: did anyone know how 
many groups there were? At first, this was a matter of curiosity, but it slowly 
grew into a hunch that something larger was afoot, a significant social movement
that was eluding the radar of mainstream culture.

I began to count. I looked at government records for different countries and, 
using various methods to approximate the number of environmental and social 
justice groups from tax census data, I initially estimated that there were 
thirty thousand environmental organizations strung around the globe; when I 
added social justice and indigenous organizations, the number exceeded one 
hundred thousand. I then researched past social movements to see if there were 
any equal in scale and scope, but I couldn't find anything.

The more I probed, the more I unearthed, and the numbers continued to climb. In 
trying to pick up a stone, I found the exposed tip of a geological formation. I 
discovered lists, indexes, and small databases specific to certain sectors or 
geographic areas, but no set of data came close to describing the movement's 
breadth. Extrapolating from the records being accessed, I realized that the 
initial estimate of a hundred thousand organizations was off by at least a 
factor of ten. I now believe there are over one million organizations working 
toward ecological sustainability and social justice. Maybe two.

By conventional definition, this is not a movement. Movements have leaders and 
ideologies. You join movements, study tracts, and identify yourself with a 
group. You read the biography of the founder(s) or listen to them perorate on 
tape or in person. Movements have followers, but this movement doesn't work that
way. It is dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent. There is no manifesto 
or doctrine, no authority to check with.

I sought a name for it, but there isn't one.

Historically, social movements have arisen primarily because of injustice, 
inequalities, and corruption. Those woes remain legion, but a new condition 
exists that has no precedent: the planet has a life-threatening disease that is 
marked by massive ecological degradation and rapid climate change. It crossed my
mind that perhaps I was seeing something organic, if not biologic. Rather than a
movement in the conventional sense, is it a collective response to threat? Is it
splintered for reasons that are innate to its purpose? Or is it simply 
disorganized? More questions followed. How does it function? How fast is it 
growing? How is it connected? Why is it largely ignored?

After spending years researching this phenomenon, including creating with my 
colleagues a global database of these organizations, I have come to these 
conclusions: this is the largest social movement in all of history, no one knows
its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye.

What does meet the eye is compelling: tens of millions of ordinary and 
not-so-ordinary people willing to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds
in order to restore some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world.

Clayton Thomas-Muller speaks to a community gathering of the Cree nation about 
waste sites on their native land in Northern Alberta, toxic lakes so big you can
see them from outer space. Shi Lihong, founder of Wild China Films, makes 
documentaries with her husband on migrants displaced by construction of large 
dams. Rosalina Tuyuc Velásquez, a member of the Maya-Kaqchikel people, fights 
for full accountability for tens of thousands of people killed by death squads 
in Guatemala. Rodrigo Baggio retrieves discarded computers from New York, 
London, and Toronto and installs them in the favelas of Brazil, where he and his
staff teach computer skills to poor children. Biologist Janine Benyus speaks to 
twelve hundred executives at a business forum in Queensland about biologically 
inspired industrial development. Paul Sykes, a volunteer for the National 
Audubon Society, completes his fifty-second Christmas Bird Count in Little 
Creek, Virginia, joining fifty thousand other people who tally 70 million birds 
on one day. Sumita Dasgupta leads students, engineers, journalists, farmers, and
Adivasis (tribal people) on a ten-day trek through Gujarat exploring the rebirth
of ancient rainwater harvesting and catchment systems that bring life back to 
drought-prone areas of India. Silas Kpanan'Ayoung Siakor, who exposed links 
between the genocidal policies of former president Charles Taylor and illegal 
logging in Liberia, now creates certified, sustainable timber policies.

These eight, who may never meet and know one another, are part of a coalescence 
comprising hundreds of thousands of organizations with no center, codified 
beliefs, or charismatic leader. The movement grows and spreads in every city and
country. Virtually every tribe, culture, language, and religion is part of it, 
from Mongolians to Uzbeks to Tamils. It is comprised of families in India, 
students in Australia, farmers in France, the landless in Brazil, the bananeras 
of Honduras, the "poors" of Durban, villagers in Irian Jaya, indigenous tribes 
of Bolivia, and housewives in Japan. Its leaders are farmers, zoologists, 
shoemakers, and poets.

The movement can't be divided because it is atomized -- small pieces loosely 
joined. It forms, gathers, and dissipates quickly. Many inside and out dismiss 
it as powerless, but it has been known to bring down governments, companies, and
leaders through witnessing, informing, and massing.

The movement has three basic roots: the environmental and social justice 
movements, and indigenous cultures' resistance to globalization -- all of which 
are intertwining. It arises spontaneously from different economic sectors, 
cultures, regions, and cohorts, resulting in a global, classless, diverse, and 
embedded movement, spreading worldwide without exception. In a world grown too 
complex for constrictive ideologies, the very word movement may be too small, 
for it is the largest coming together of citizens in history.

There are research institutes, community development agencies, village- and 
citizen-based organizations, corporations, networks, faith-based groups, trusts,
and foundations. They defend against corrupt politics and climate change, 
corporate predation and the death of the oceans, governmental indifference and 
pandemic poverty, industrial forestry and farming, depletion of soil and water.

Describing the breadth of the movement is like trying to hold the ocean in your 
hand. It is that large. When a part rises above the waterline, the iceberg 
beneath usually remains unseen. When Wangari Maathai won the Nobel Peace Prize, 
the wire service stories didn't mention the network of six thousand different 
women's groups in Africa planting trees. When we hear about a chemical spill in 
a river, it is never mentioned that more than four thousand organizations in 
North America have adopted a river, creek, or stream. We read that organic 
agriculture is the fastest-growing sector of farming in America, Japan, Mexico, 
and Europe, but no connection is made to the more than three thousand 
organizations that educate farmers, customers, and legislators about sustainable

This is the first time in history that a large social movement is not bound 
together by an "ism." What binds it together is ideas, not ideologies. This 
unnamed movement's big contribution is the absence of one big idea; in its stead
it offers thousands of practical and useful ideas. In place of isms are 
processes, concerns, and compassion. The movement demonstrates a pliable, 
resonant, and generous side of humanity.

And it is impossible to pin down. Generalities are largely inaccurate. It is 
nonviolent, and grassroots; it has no bombs, armies, or helicopters. A 
charismatic male vertebrate is not in charge. The movement does not agree on 
everything nor will it ever, because that would be an ideology. But it shares a 
basic set of fundamental understandings about the Earth, how it functions, and 
the necessity of fairness and equity for all people partaking of the planet's 
life-giving systems.

The promise of this unnamed movement is to offer solutions to what appear to be 
insoluble dilemmas: poverty, global climate change, terrorism, ecological 
degradation, polarization of income, loss of culture. It is not burdened with a 
syndrome of trying to save the world; it is trying to remake the world.

There is fierceness here. There is no other explanation for the raw courage and 
heart seen over and again in the people who march, speak, create, resist, and 
build. It is the fierceness of what it means to know we are human and want to 

This movement is relentless and unafraid. It cannot be mollified, pacified, or 
suppressed. There can be no Berlin Wall moment, no treaty-signing, no morning to
awaken when the superpowers agree to stand down. The movement will continue to 
take myriad forms. It will not rest. There will be no Marx, Alexander, or 
Kennedy. No book can explain it, no person can represent it, no words can 
encompass it, because the movement is the breathing, sentient testament of the 
living world.

And I believe it will prevail. I don't mean defeat, conquer, or cause harm to 
someone else. And I don't tender the claim in an oracular sense. I mean the 
thinking that informs the movement's goal -- to create a just society conducive 
to life on Earth -- will reign. It will soon suffuse and permeate most 
institutions. But before then, it will change a sufficient number of people so 
as to begin the reversal of centuries of frenzied self-destruction.

Inspiration is not garnered from litanies of what is flawed; it resides in 
humanity's willingness to restore, redress, reform, recover, reimagine, and 
reconsider. Healing the wounds of the Earth and its people does not require 
saintliness or a political party. It is not a liberal or conservative activity. 
It is a sacred act.

Paul Hawken is an entrepreneur and social activist living in California. His 
article in this issue is adapted from Blessed Unrest, to be published by Viking 
Press and used by permission.

© 2007 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
Reprint Notice:

This article appears in the May/June 2007 issue of Orion magazine, 187 Main 
Street, Great Barrington, MA 01230, 888/909-6568, ($35/year for 6 issues). 
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