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Issue No. 112-a (October 2007) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Is there an invisible and exceptionally life-loving political movement in our midst?

In the very early 1980s, along with some other members of the New World Alliance, I attended a “consultation” with then-California-Governor Jerry Brown at Paul Hawken’s house in Palo Alto. (Hawken was then, as now, a consultant and writer on sustainable business practices. Brown hasn’t changed much either.)

The weekend-long “consultation” was enjoyable on many levels, but Hawken was deeply opposed to the Alliance’s attempt to create a central political organization (however representative) and develop a coherent political platform (however responsive) for what was then called the transformational movement.

I was convinced we could have just as great an impact on the national political debate as Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority (for one thing, we were just as numerous as the politicized fundamentalists), but Paul was convinced our efforts or any such efforts were not in keeping with the radically decentralized spirit of transformational political change.

Alas, many transformationalists agreed with him. And 25 years of conservative national politics followed.

Now, finally, Hawken has put his arguments into print, in a book called Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (Viking, 2007). He claims to have developed his perspective in talks with the current generation of activists, but clearly he’s held it all along.

Here is the gist of it:

I now believe there are over one -- and maybe even two -- million organizations working toward ecological sustainability and social justice.

By any conventional definition, this vast collection of committed individuals does not constitute a movement. Movements have leaders and ideologies. People join movements, study their tracts, and identify themselves with a group. . . . This movement, however, doesn’t fit the standard model. It is dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent. It has no manifesto or doctrine, no overriding authority to check with. It is taking shape in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, companies, deserts, fisheries, slums -- and yes, even fancy New York hotels. . . . Rather than a movement in the conventional sense, could it be an instinctive, collective response to threat? Is it atomized for reasons that are innate to its purpose? . . . .

I sought a name for the movement, but none exists. I met people who wanted to structure or organize it -- a difficult task, since it would easily be the most complex association of human beings ever assembled. Many outside the movement critique it as powerless, but that assessment does not stop its growth.

If these passages warm your heart, then you’ll find Hawken’s book informative and inspiring. I have to admit that it leaves me cold though, for basically two reasons.

The antiglobalist movement in drag

First of all, it is not true that Hawken’s movement is invisible or nameless. It is what’s often been called the antiglobalist or global-justice movement, and it has been written about at awesome length by people across the political spectrum. It even has an ideology, often described as neosocialist or neopopulist.

Although Hawken may not care to identify the movement, his descriptions of it place it squarely in the antiglobalist camp. Read through the book and you’ll find it associated with opposition to the World Trade Organization, opposition to genetic engineering, opposition to nuclear power, opposition to the "industrial capitalist system," and opposition to taking military action to help other nations establish democracy. There’s even a defense of the concept of “slow” (this from an author who’s spent four decades darting around the universe) and a defense of the old industrial Luddites, complete with a wink-wink, nod-nod at their occasional use of violence. That sounds exactly like the movement I described and critiqued HERE and HERE.

Another reason to see Hawken’s movement as the antiglobalist movement is that Hawken himself keeps seeing the world in black and white, e.g. in terms of good guys and bad guys. Sort of the way the Sixties generation used to see the world back in the day.

For example, people like Henry David Thoreau, Mahatma Gandhi, Rachel Carson, David Brower, Martin Luther King Jr., and Ralph Nader are presented as one-dimensional stick-figure heroes. I wonder how persuasive that will be to the current generation of thoughtful Americans who’ve been raised on complicating books like Erik Erikson’s Gandhi’s Truth and David Garrow’s Bearing the Cross (on King).

At the same time, John D. Rockefeller is presented as the epitome of evil. I wonder how Hawken’s cartoonish version of Rockefeller will strike the kinds of young, educated Americans who’ve been exposed to books like Harvard business historian Richard Tedlow’s Giants of Enterprise, which treats our business titans in a more balanced way.

I suspect they'll think it says more about Hawken and his movement than about our world.

An imaginary movement in applesauce

The second reason Hawken’s book leaves me cold is that -- to the extent it does aspire to include more than the antiglobalist movement under its rubric -- it is pure applesauce. It is so vague as to be meaningless.

Passages like these run rampant through the text:

  • "We are educated to believe that salvation is found in the doctrines of a single system."
  • "The most effective solutions are both local and systemic."
  • "Life is the most fundamental human right."
  • "Democracy [is] a reimagination of public governance emerging from place, culture, and people."
  • "What will guide us is a living intelligence that creates miracles every second."

I have no idea what such passages mean. Perhaps they are deeply meaningful to acolytes of the movement Hawken describes; perhaps I should never have attended law school.  But how do they translate into public policy?

The book is notoriously short on policy solutions. At one point we are told that a ton of social change organizations agree at the level of principles and values. But so what? If you go to a sufficiently high level of abstraction, all groups would agree on everything. (Diversity! Community! Life! Democracy! Miracles!) Politics is about getting and protecting and giving, not about constructing pretty word-pictures.

Even the chapter entitled “The Rights of Business” -- Hawken’s principal area of expertise -- proffers no real policy solutions, other than a vague notion that businesses should “internalize their costs to society.” That, without more, is hardly worthy of dorm room conversation.

A 112-page Appendix, nearly one-third of the book, consists of an elaborate list of issues that nonprofit groups are working on. But what in the world does the Appendix establish? That groups are busy? It hardly establishes the fact of a movement.

(The groups themselves are not listed. Perhaps that would have raised uncomfortable questions about who is “in” and “out” in Hawken’s movement. Actually, you can discern this from the exclusion of certain issues. For example, under “Education” there is nothing pertaining to teacher quality (see our article on that controversial issue HERE), and under “Peace, War, and Security” there is nothing pertaining to mandatory national service (see our article HERE).)

Love vs. respect

If there is one overriding idea Hawken’s book leaves you with, it’s that the people who participate in his movement are better people than our parents -- whoops, I mean all others. They are more sensitive and even more loving. It is flagrant in the epigraph from which the Blessed Unrest title is taken:

[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 than the others -- Martha Graham to Agnes de Mille (italics added - ed.)

The greater sensitivity and lovingkindness of the denizens of Hawken’s movement is an undercurrent throughout the text. For example, at one point we are told that “the cri de coeur of environmentalists . . . can be summed up in a single word: life.” Elsewhere we are told that “Compassion and love of others are at the heart of all religions, and at the heart of this movement.”

I have spent 45 years in various social change movements, and I have learned -- against my fondest hopes and dreams -- to distrust this rhetoric. Whenever I hear it I know there’s a BIG shadow looming.

Some of the most unhinged groups in the Sixties used to prattle on about love. Some of the nastiest people I knew in the New Age movement were veritable founts of love and light. Even Hitler was big on love (see Prof. Randall Bytwerk’s German Propaganda Archive HERE -- “Trust and love unite the Fuhrer and the people,” etc.).

The shadows in Hawken’s book are easy to find. They fall on those he disagrees with politically. For example, Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia University professor and social democrat who has gone far out of his way to engage antiglobalists in sincere dialogue, is put down by Hawken as a “free-market guru.” Or, for example, here is the astonishingly ugly way Hawken characterizes the motives of Environmental Defense’s pioneering work with McDonald’s:

Harrison . . . realized early on that a number of large New York- and Washington-based environmental organizations depended on direct mail campaigns to maintain their finances. These organizations were prime targets to cut deals with miscreant corporations, which would enable both the company and the nonprofit to use minor corporate concessions to enhance their respective images. One example was the deal between Environmental Defense and McDonald’s that called for the fast-food chain to introduce recycled paper into its waste stream of French fry containers, tray liners, and napkins.

In personal life, I have managed to love. In political life, I find it the wiser course to aim for respect and dignity toward all, as Robert Fuller counsels in his fine new book, All Rise: Somebodies, Nobodies, and the Politics of Dignity (see our review of his prior book on the same theme HERE).

Love does not belong in the political arena. It is not meant to be a public currency.

At the same time, we cannot build a movement without extending respect and dignity to all. A real movement, that is . . . as opposed to a movement that exists within the covers of a book, and proclaims its great love out of one side of its mouth while spitting at liberal professors and radical-middle environmental organizations out of the other.

Beyond antiglobalism and sweet mirages

If you take Hawken’s book to be about the antiglobalist movement, then it is far less informative and forthcoming -- I am tempted to say “honest” -- than David Korten’s book The Great Turning, 2006 (reviewed by us HERE). If you take it to be what Hawken claims it to be -- a book about “the largest movement in the world,” and an “invisible” one, to boot -- then I am afraid it is about a mirage. As young participatory-journalist Matt Bai puts it in his book The Argument, 2007 (discussed by us HERE),

Successful political movements aren’t built on the common values that all Americans share, but on the arguments that lay out how, as a country, we can best live up to them. . . . It’s not enough to tell people that they ought to have health care and good schools and lots of jobs; they already know this. The point of a political movement is to explain why these things are lacking and to advance an argument about how we should adapt to the larger forces that led us here.

All real political movements need ideologies -- platforms -- strategies -- national leaders, even. I tried telling that to Paul Hawken 25 years ago. He didn’t listen, and now the transformational movement is gone and the love-drenched, ideology-free movement he trumpets exists entirely in his own mind.

Only the Bushes and Clintons are reaping the benefits.



Paul Hawken’s best book is Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, 1999 (reviewed by us HERE). He sounds like a different person there. A delightful introduction to his thoughtful-but-spiritual side is Hawken, The Magic of Findhorn, 1975.

There is a Blessed Unrest Web site HERE.


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