11 August 2007

Optimistic intertwingling

By Andrew Boswell

The musician Utah Phillips said "The earth is not dying - it is being killed - and the people who are killing it have names and addresses". A man who knows this more than most is best-selling environmental writer, Paul Hawken, who has been telling governments and business this hard truth for decades.

Yet he admits his new book Blessed Unrest is "inadvertently optimistic, I didn't intend it; optimism discovered me". Odd for a veteran of many battles with free-market fundamentalism and its consequences: environmental destruction, widening global social injustice and the destruction of indigenous people's natural resources, community and culture.

Cover of Blessed Unrest by Paul HawkenSubtitled How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming, the book is the story of groups emerging across the planet working towards ecological sustainability and social justice.

Hawken is awed by the scale and speed of this movement's growth, and recounts how, for years, he has tried to estimate the number of such groups, with his research ever raising his counts upwards.

He now believes that there are between one and two million such groups, and is emphatic that they comprise not a 'movement of movements', but a single, powerful, non-ideological movement for the first time on earth. Diversity is its strength, but the movement as whole is converging in addressing interlinked, global, systemic problems.

Vietnamese Zen Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh writes "the sound of the rising tide, you can not help hearing it if you have an attentive ear". And Hawken's book is a "deep listening" on this phenomenon that remains largely under the radar of politicians and the media.

His attentive ear brings to life this 'great underground' current of humanity that can be traced back to healers, priestesses, philosophers, monks, poets and artists. He meticulously explores its roots in women's suffrage, abolition, Gandhi's non-violence, Rachel Carson's Silent Spring and the civil rights movement, all the time making his reader aware of the wider interplay between environmentalism, social justice and indigenous rights.

In the global South, environmentalism is the movement of the poor and peasants lead campaigns against corporate hegemony for land reform and rights, food security, trade rights. Hawken rightly challenges northern environmentalists that "the only way we are going to put out the (environmental) fire is to get on the social justice bus and heal our wounds, because in the end, there is only one bus". Northern governments must heed these words too - climate change policies like the EU Biofuels directive that encourage deforestation, social disruption and resentment in the South are unacceptable.

Hawken paints his vision of the movement with two biological metaphors. First, he is capturing the taxonomic family network of this unnamed movement at the website wiserearth.org. Like 19th century botanical classifications, this links all the organisations and enables them to recognise, connect and collaborate in different ways. It also captures its decentralised diversity – "there is no centre, there is no one spokeperson". Cheap audio-visual conferencing and internet tools are enabling groups to intertwine, morph and come together much more powerfully – what Hawken calls 'intertwingling'.

The second metaphor is the movement as humanity's immune response that identifies what is not life affirming, and seeks to contain, neutralise or eliminate it. A whole chapter explores the potential and challenges of the movement through this allegory.

As Hawken warns "it's going to be the stroke of midnight for the rest of our lives in this century", and wrong moves now risk many centuries of chaotic climatic instability, and unsustainable pressures for land, water and resources. Meanwhile the increasing gap between rich and poor, world wide refugees now measured in hundreds of millions, and threats to the very future of indigenous peoples' culture, land, water and resources could lead to prolonged famine killing literally billions. James Lovelock has even concluded climate warming is a fatal 'fever' for the earth, Gaia.

This week, the antigenic BAA have ridiculed themselves in the face of climate campers gathering at Heathrow. This microcosm of the movement is demonstrating today that bottom-up community power can immunise top-down privilege power.

Events like Heathrow, and Seattle before, gives promise to Hawken's infectious optimism for the movement developing into the robust, global immune response needed to avert catastrophe. Daily, the movement's diversity is superseding the uniform and dominating ideologies of the past, and its inclusivity is drawing in many, including some corporates.

Hawken's book is a great way to find out more about this intertwingling movement that is growing rapidly from two centuries of social action, and millennia of human indigenous knowledge.