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Thoughts on Paul Hawken and Blessed Unrest by Ben Brucato, September, 2009:

One Big Movement

In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken discusses the history of ideas and action of “a broad nonideological movement” that “has come into being that does not invoke the masses’ fantasized will but rather engages citizens’ localized needs” (18). This movement offers “thousands of practical and useful [ideas]” and “processes, concerns, and compassion” and is “eminently pragmatic” (ibid.).

The movement that Hawken is dealing with “has three basic roots: environmental activism, social justice initiatives, and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization, all of which have become intertwined” (12). He explores dozens, if not hundreds, of examples of environmental destruction, human rights abuses and the decimation of aboriginal culture, some with passing comments and others with great elaboration. However, we see few mentions of particular organizations or coalitions of organizations mobilizing against a particular offender or groups of offenders with a particular single-issue campaign or as part of a broad reform or revolutionary movement. The avoidance of particulars of the movement while being particular about what they oppose is deliberate. The more he veils the conglomeration of thousands of organizations and corporations comprised by hundreds of thousands of individuals, the easier it is for him to suggest they are part of one great whole. We should, as Hawken suggests, see that “the movement’s key contribution is the rejection of one big idea,” (18) but that this is one big movement.

Typically the goals in the study of social movements are to analyze what change or changes are desired; who is to create those changes; how those changes would be made and among whom or within which structures; and the tactics the movement will use to achieve their goal or goals. Hawken’s choice to attempt to avoid such discussions and instead to provide a vague outline of non-particular groups surrounding dozens of loosely related campaigns leaves him to discuss what would better be described as a “collective principle” than “a movement.” And the collective principles that are shared among this burgeoning mass are that:

1) “Life is the most fundamental human right” (68), and that social justice and environmentalism are two sides of the same coin (59)

2) Profits and goods should be deprioritized in relation to people and nature (62, 67)

3) It is assumed that the destruction of nature and violation of human rights is happening at an accelerating pace, and there is an impending crisis which requires “the majority of the people on earth to sustain the environment” (12)

To Hawken, this movement is “a significant portion of humanity” who may have “found a new series of adaptive traits and stories more alluring than the ideological fundamentalisms that have causes us so much suffering” (25). Such a definition of a “movement” may leave political scientists and sociologists who make it their life’s work to study movement phenomena aghast, something Hawken would likely worry little about.

What I will examine in the following brief sections covers in what the movement is rooted, what the movement looks like (and what it doesn’t look like), and the historical circumstances and philosophical underpinnings that paved the way for its conglomeration. While Hawken purports to avoid ideology, I will deductively suggest that through prioritization of influences and concepts, and the exclusion or distancing from certain elements, he has provided a much clearer outline of a worldview – or ideology – than he would let on to.

What The Movement Is Not

“Global civilization,” Hawken argues, “is endangered by […] isms” (17). “What unifies it is ideas, not ideologies” (16). He wants to ensure the reader that this one big movement is not utopian, “which itself is just another ism” (18). “Leaders have used ideologies […] to prop up their regimes, recruit their armies, and defend their policies” (16). This movement is not part of the “big three – capitalism, socialism, and communism” (16) or of a near infinite list of other ideologies ranging from those held by religious denominations to political parties.

The movement also encompasses some from whom Hawken would like to distance himself and the movement. These are the “sophomoric, callow, and atavistic” criminals who “misstep” and “breed fanaticism.” Admittedly, these “small, splinter ‘liberation’ groups” receive asymmetrical coverage in the mass media (19). These charges are spared from the Luddites of England (60-61), who destroyed factories and equipment in the early nineteenth-century. Hawken writes well over a hundred pages in Blessed Unrest writing about hundreds of examples of the destruction of the natural world and human rights abuses, but only mentioning one contemporary action against them: the burning of 125 SUVs at a car dealership. He brings up this instance critically, to separate the rest of this movement from this “fringe,” and does so without identifying the responsible group – the Earth Liberation Front. We are also to be sure Hawken and this movement would prefer that eco-primitivist author and activist, John Zerzan, and his “handful of followers,” the anarchist and primitivist militants, stay away from this movement and their activities (127).

So this is a non-utopian, non-Communist, non-fanatical, non-anarchists movement that is not sophomoric or atavistic. This movement is not permitted to engage in destruction of property, unless they did it two hundred years ago.

What the Movement Is

All critiques of ideology considered, both Hawken and this movement does not represent the anti-ism ism of nihilism. While presenting a non-ideological representation of the movement, however, we see clearly that this movement is not mired in meaninglessness. Furthermore, Hawken assures us that the movement is pragmatic (18). “If the movement in all its diversity has a common dream, it is process – in a word, democracy […].” We are to believe that pragmatism and democracy are not isms or part of an ideological thrust.

The pragmatism held by this movement would suggest that revolutionary change is not likely, so we must – pragmatically – work within the confines of the existing political and economic infrastructures. We are not to present challenge to the power of existing structures, bodies or individuals, but expect them to behave with wisdom and respect for all people and the environment. The power of corporations and the dependence on technologies are assumed, and they should be continued in the future, except with environmental awareness.

So, this is a pragmatic, reformist, pro-democracy movement that trusts the virtues of technology and is skeptical of capitalism, socialism and communism, and abhors fanaticism and anti-statists. These considerations, place this movement squarely within the tradition of modern liberalism – an ism which, by the way, Hawken never mentions critically or otherwise.

Who Are the “Honored Individuals” in this Movement & What are They Doing?

In Blessed Unrest, we hear much of NGO’s and of extremely wealthy entrepreneurs such as Interface CEO, Ray Anderson, as deeply important to the movement, but only passing condemnation of the Earth Liberation Front and Earth First!, who do not conveniently work within the current destructive economy and political system like Hawken’s darlings of the movement.

Hawken’s Natural Capital Institute and many speaking engagements, at “Natural Product” expositions, and with green capitalists entrepreneurs shines light on what he considers to be “a movement.” Anyone who believes that ecology needs to be central to their future endeavors is a member. Businesses trying to make dollars in an environmentally conscious market, that drive their cars that have replaced high carbon output from fossil fuels with batteries (with short life-spans that are filled with toxins that take centuries to biodegrade). Guilt-ridden, yet wise investors are the core of this movement, not tree-spikers and monkey-wrenchers. The heroes that will one day be celebrated are CEOs of green business, and people who request politely that Congress not be so influenced by corporations – never mind that this movement Hawken esteems is apparently led and exemplified by the owners of corporations themselves. And, one day, “we’ll celebrate” these polite and noble individuals with “a name on a building or foundation” (67).

Pessimism and Optimism

In Blessed Unrest, Paul Hawken paints a grim picture of the world, ravaged by an insatiable appetite for progress, wealth and land. Throughout the text, he ping-pongs between pessimistic descriptions at-length or in-brief of environmental destruction and optimistic excitement brought about by a growing mainstream movement for environmental protection. In this section, I will contrast some of Hawken’s pessimistic and optimistic reflections. In this account, I will briefly address some points of agreement and contention.

For Hawken, a large degree of the destruction of indigenous communities and the natural world – as well as violations of humans rights and social justice – are rooted in laissez-faire capitalism, otherwise referred to in the text as “free-market ideology,” and by the bulk of concerned political scientists, sociologists and other social theorists: neoliberalism (referring, primarily to market liberalization).

The irony of America’s overheated emphasis on free-market ideology is how miserably it has failed its most ardent proponent. The United States has the worst social record of any developed country in the world, and it is worse than that of many developing countries. By almost any measure of well-being, the United States brings up the rear: It is number one in prison population; first in teen pregnancies, drug use, child hunger, poverty, illiteracy, obesity, diabetes, use of antidepressants, income disparity, violence, firearms death, military spending, hazardous waste production, recorded rapes, and the poor quality of its schools. (118)

The drive for progress in a culture that has been manufactured to exist purely in production-consumption terms, is that we gauge progress in terms on accumulation. For the ruling class, this comes in the form of imperialism – the control of ever-more territory, resources and labor – and for the middle class in the Western world, especially the United States, this means the American Dream – the 2.3 kids, the 5 bedroom house in the suburbs, the new SUV, the big-screen TV, and all the happiness you can buy. But this consumptive lifestyle, Hawken believes, comes at a price:

You cannot live within the carrying capacity of a region if, like Columbus, you don’t know where you are. Most of the developed world lacks this knowledge. We have little understanding of where our water and food come from, the impacts of our cars and homes, the activities undertaken by others around the globe to support our lifestyle, and the effects we have on the environment and its people. (100)

Hawken finds hope in a global movement for environmental preservation and social justice – what he describes as the Earth’s immune system. This movement is comprised of “community development agencies, village- and citizen-based groups, corporations, research institutes, associations, networks, faith-based groups, trusts, and foundations” (146). This is a broad movement, but what is curious is that Hawken does not include grass-roots direct action groups like Earth First! and the Earth Liberation Front, nationalist indigenous guerilla movements like the Shining Path and the EZLN, or the thousands of anonymous monkey-wrenchers all over the world. Even those who predominantly operate within the protest movement are just a “stereotype” and “constitute the tiniest sliver of the work being undertaken by the movement” (146). If Hawken would shed his pacifist fundamentalism and allow the Earth and indigenous communities to be defended by any tactics deemed to be effective – especially by third world inhabitants who may not have the luxury of carefully planned civil disobedience and spending time in jail (or giving their lives) to prove a point – he would be able to welcome ever more committed and dedicated defenders of the Earth and liberators of exploited people among the ranks of the movement.

Hawken believes that “globalization does have potentially positive effects,” such as “dissolution of exclusionary political borders, increased transparency of political actors, connectivity among people around the world, and in general a wealth of new opportunities in employment, education, and income” (118). In fact, he argues, much of the success of the movement has been its ability to coordinate internationally among various first world NGOs and activists in the third world.

In contrast to the value of neoliberalism, Hawken posits that “What makes life worthwhile and enables civilizations to endure are all the elements and qualities that have poor returns under commercial metrics: universities, temples, poetry, choirs, parks, literature, language, museums, terraced fields, long marriages, line dancing, and art” (134). That these elements of culture prevail in a world that apparently places profit above all else is evidence that there is a heart beating in the chests of first world citizens, a heart that can be tapped – or has been tapped to build consciousness and concern for the Earth and all its inhabitants.

Hawken is optimistic about our abilities to transform our communities, developing fully sustainable infrastructure. “Living within the biological constraints of the earth may be the most civilized activity a person can pursue, because it enables our successors to do the same” (100). Except, in my mind, this is not “civilized” activity, but rather counter-civilization in thinking! The lessons of sustainable living, both for Hawken – and to me – are gleaned by looking at the indigenous communities. However, Hawken is primarily concerned with these communities’ perceptions, ideology and worldview with regard to nature, whereas I would suggest that be extended beyond the realm of thought into learning from their actions, community organization and actual infrastructure based on what E.F. Schumacher referred to as “appropriate technology.” Hawken, however, has faith in the complexity of the modern world, suggesting “There is no reason that we cannot build an exquisitely designed economy that matches biology in its diversity, and integrates complexity rather than extinguishing it” (100). This is an important distinction between his view of sustainability and that of most indigenous communities: it is a difference of complexity vs. simplicity, of tribalism vs. globalism.

Unlike Hawken, I do not believe that “Indigenous people do want the conveniences of modern life – electricity, antibiotics, the Internet” (96), because, unlike Hawken, I believe these come “at the expense of losing their birthright” (ibid.). The repeated lessons of modernization and development are that these conveniences are traded for exploitation of labor, land and resources, and that exchange leaves in its wake only devastation, albeit with short-term, temporary conveniences – if the transnational corporations are feeling generous. Hawken admits that many have resisted on such grounds (in contradiction to his above statement), stating “Most indigenous people have withstood the pressure and enticements to sell out and join the mainstream because they know the land is not theirs, and they have seen what happens when corporations ‘own’ nature” (102-103). Moreover, I don’t believe these conveniences offset the widespread social and psychological damage done in the Western world that has championed modernism. Sociologist Georg Simmel addressed these effects over a century ago in “The Metropolis and Modern Life” better than I could in the space provided (or in any space) – and better than most have since!

Also in contrast to Hawken, I do not see hope in “Managers and executives in large corporations, from GE to Wal-Mart,” understanding “issues concerning the environment in a way that would have been radical in the nonprofit world not even ten years ago” (152). To me, these corporations realize that all paths to the future are green, and the only way for them to maintain power – and, as even Hawken instructs them, to be profitable – is to have a sustainability agenda. This “understanding” is not part of corporations creating a better world for all, but, rather is part of their developing better strategies to maintain power in a world that is crumbling under the pressure that they have placed upon it.

Hawken feels that critics of globalism lack “an alternative economic model that might address the plight of the world’s poor” (135), a seeming contradiction to his belief that indigenous communities know what’s best for them and their environment. In this case, I fully disagree with his assessment of critics of globalism, because I agree with him fully that the land and its natives are entirely capable of solving their own problems – in fact, I believe the only impediment to them doing so is the interference of global corporations, international banking and government institutions and well-intentioned philanthropic and religions assistance from across the globe.

Hawken demonstrates the wisdom of the sages and the cunning of the greatest of sociologists when he states that “Nearly everything humans hold valuable is slow to develop and slow to change” (134). Those cultures which have maintained their traditions, rituals and connection to the Earth – many resisting in spite of the overwhelming pressure of modernism – are not only our greatest teachers, but possibly our only hope for the future of our species.

Hawken is guarded in his optimism toward the movement, because “It is not easy to create a system that has no antecedent” (145). I agree that his movement has no antecedent, because it’s not a movement, but rather an emerging paradigm shift. However, the movement for tribal self-governance, for social justice in opposition to capitalism, for ecological balance, and for grass-roots revolutionary change has many predecessors, some of whom have enjoyed great successes in the past, and some of whom are winning today, against great odds. I lack the space to go into detail, but will point to the contemporary examples of the EZLN (“Zapatistas”) and the Republic of Lakota as two who are currently succeeding on all four fronts. The precedent of these and hundreds of other nationalist, anti-globalist movements are a tremendous source of optimism for me.

Hawken argues that “If you don’t believe in the Future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there to cry when the Clock [of the Long Now] finally runs down, ten thousand years from now, then I don’t see how you can have children” (154). For many years, precisely because of my own pessimism for the future of our species, I never wanted to have children. My growing understanding of the Universe has given me great hope. That is why I also agree with Hawken when he continues, “If you do have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection can never be accomplished by creatures whose imagination for perfecting it is limitless and free” (154-155).

I share in Hawken’s optimism, because, like him, I know that this “juggernaut of growing corporate power cannot last forever” (112). I do not believe this in a Hegelian or Marxist dialectical sense, but rather because the evidence of a coming natural and social cataclysm demonstrates that the path civilization is on, one forged by hundreds of years of ruling class direction and cohesion, is in violation of the will of the Earth and the Universe. In fact, their ideology of Transhumanism shows them to be in direct conflict with nature, to transcend the bounds of the human flesh, to become gods. The path of civilization is forged by those consciously acting in violation of the will of the Universe! This path will ultimately and certainly lead to their demise, and those tribal cultures who have remained on their own path will suffer little in the collapse of an aberrant civilization. (It is for this reason that many of them, and why I, oppose globalism and the interdependence of nations and tribes.)

I am optimistic because I know those forging the path we’re on will fail, and that the Earth and many of its inhabitants are resilient. I am confident that the Earth and most of its many species will survive and thrive, and it will do so in greater freedom, abundance and glory with the coming collapse of modern civilization. But as Derrick Jensen eloquently and completely argues, “The longer we wait for civilization to crash—or the longer we wait before we ourselves bring it down—the messier will be the crash, and the worse things will be for those humans and nonhumans who live during it, and for those who come after.”** That, to me, is the task that lies ahead – one which we can learn greatly from our sisters and brothers in indigenous communities all over the world who are resisting globalism and preserving their tribal structure and traditions.


It may be best to consider Blessed Unrest as far outside the cannon of social movement research, and instead to consider Hawken’s inquiry as an investigation into the early stages of a paradigm shift in Western thinking about the environment and the existing economy’s relationship to it. His perspective would have been much more successful with such an approach, but would have required some grounding in history and the sociology of knowledge and social change. This would not necessarily render the book in a purely academic tone and negate his role as a cheerleader for this emerging paradigm shift, but it would prevent some of the muddled logic found throughout the text.

The movement Hawken is describing is not a movement in the sense that most social movement researchers use the term. It could be argued that this is a broad social and political awakening to the impending universal realization that environmental problems must be resolved to ensure the continuation of the humanity. His analysis of the problem and of the task that lies ahead is generally incisive. This particular big movement’s environmentalism is not aimed at overthrowing a system of exploitation, but rather as saving that system. Hawken seems to undearstand this paradox, realizing the deep structural problems we face.

This movement is not necessarily invested in transforming a market rooted in production and consumption, but in transforming what we produce and how we produce it, and changing our priorities in how we consume. The movement is also not interested in ridding ourselves of structural and political components of society, but is instead trying to insert wisdom into the existing structure. This movement, as Hawken presents it, is aimed not at the destruction of capitalism or globalism, but at making the powerful architects of globalism and captains of industry behave in sustainable ways. This movement is not against “trade, per se,” but, rather, about trade that puts humans and the environment first – an interesting challenge, and one without any historic trends to ground faith in its possibility. But Hawken possesses such faith, deeply, and isn’t happy about the very loud, and very militant in the movement who do not share such faith. This faith is reflected throughout Blessed Unrest. This is where Hawken’s approach becomes most problematic: in who he chooses to condemn (i.e. John Zerzan), and who he chooses to uphold (i.e. Interface). In this light, this movement could be described not only as comprised nearly exclusively by non-revolutionary reformists, but by counter-revolutionaries. In short, these are the politics of the status quo – keep the ship afloat (through wisdom and respect for all life) – but don’t jump ship (the ship of modern civilization).

While Hawken pretends to not subscribe to any sort of –ism, and to allow the movement to “take all comers,” his history of the movement occupies much time and content with the telling of the stories of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., and displaying a reverence of pacifism – yet another ism held and revered by Hawken and this movement. This is why Hawken attempts to distance himself from – and feels it is unfortunate that the movement encompasses – elements that directly challenge the system of commerce and who are expressly revolutionary by describing them as “small,” “fringe,” and “fanatical.” Hawken is quick to separate himself and his nebulous movement of non-movers from those revolutionary eco-activists who aim at dismantling the structures that Hawken and his green entrepreneurial colleagues wish to exploit while greening – if they can (and, at least if they fail, they get to hang on to their white, male and class privileges). While Hawken repeatedly states that this movement is broad and without ideology – one that no book can encompass and describe, he ironically asserts (188) – he believes he can rightly encapsulate this movement in his book with an ideology that only embraces reforms to capitalism while critical of any portion of the movement that is revolutionary. This hypocrisy is inexcusable in a text that purports to be beyond ideology and about a movement that includes all who care for the Earth and its inhabitants. The anarchists are the unfortunate hangers-on, while eco-conscious scientists trying to make sustainable technologies (and sustainable profits, mind you) are the more valuable and palatable core of this movement, as Hawken sees it.

In an interview with Hawken, John Stauber asks him:

“Why did you not try to better differentiate groups that are under-funded, grassroots and voluntary, from groups that are essentially large, sophisticated non-profit corporations that, while staffed by well-meaning people, often undermine and thwart fundamental change?”

Hawken only answers that he understands the concern, but that he “was describing something, not evaluating groups in order to announce to the world which ones I think are good and which are bad.” So are we to assume, then, that he does not intend for his reader to frown upon the criminal fanatics, the anarchist extremists? This is the attitude and approach typical of the media he condemns.

It is easy to make the fallacious error of assuming “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.” In the anti-globalization movements, many disparate political groups speak up. EZLN (“the Zapatistas”) supporters marched alongside Patrick Buchanan at the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle , but few of those who marched against globalization would say that the EZLN and Buchanan are part of the same movement.****

It may also seem easy to make the mistake of thinking that a business whose owners hold beliefs similar to those involved in movements are part of that movement, even when they do little to engage themselves in social or political struggle. In fact, they may involve all their energies in running a profitable business. Would a traditional African apparel company be considered as part of the Civil Rights Movement? Is a gay bar part of the gay rights movement? It may be too far of a stretch to consider an environmentally-conscious national or international technology firm or producer of products as part of a social or political movement, if their “activism” is confined to their own conference rooms pouring over reports, whether they are dealing with profitability or with potential environmental impact or lack thereof.

The long journey of history often allows perceptions to shift. While the nonviolent bus boycotts and the marches of Martin Luther King, Jr. are triumphed as the leaders of the Civil Rights movement, most historians and social movement researchers admit – sometimes grudgingly – that without the militant Black Power movement, with leaders ranging from Malcolm X to the Black Panther Party, that many of the gains of the 1960s and 1970s would have been impossible.

In the decades or centuries ahead, it may be likely – if we survive the coming collapse the current course has us directed toward – that figures such as Ted Kaczynski will be transformed from villains to heroes in the collective conscience – just as the property destruction and sabotage central to Luddite activism of 200 years ago is now regarded with nostalgic esteem, while the Black Bloc tactics at the WTO protests are condemned. Today, however, the mass media’s association between the environmental movement and “the Unabomber” disturbs Hawken. Perhaps this disturbance provides for a clear distinction of Hawken’s ideology. Kaczynski represents a critic of technology and critic of civilization, who suggests we should be revolutionary in our thinking and action, employing all means necessary to transform the infrastructure of our communities and society. Hawken, and this “one big movement,” represents the faithful adherents to the virtues of technology and civilization, who believe we should reform it in order to save it – not only because of their faith in it, but also because they believe the approach to be pragmatic.

I close with these words from Ted Kaczynski:

People tend to assume that because a revolution involves a much greater change than reform does, it is more difficult to bring about than reform is. Actually, under certain circumstances revolution is much easier than reform. The reason is that a revolutionary movement can inspire an intensity of commitment that a reform movement cannot inspire. A reform movement merely offers to solve a particular social problem. A revolutionary movement offers to solve all problems at one stroke and create a whole new world; it provides the kind of ideal for which people will take great risks and make great sacrifices. For this reasons it would be much easier to overthrow the whole technological system than to put effective, permanent restraints on the development of application of any one segment of technology, such as genetic engineering, but under suitable conditions large numbers of people may devote themselves passionately to a revolution against the industrial-technological system.


* Hawken looks historically at the champions of the early environmental movement – the “honored individuals” – and points out those who escaped in their time and from the annals of history – esteemed recognition, a mistake that I would argue he continues in Blessed Unrest. p. 47

** Jensen, Derrick, Endgame, Seven Stories Press, 2006, p. x.

*** Stauber, John. “Interview with Paul Hawken.”, October 4, 2009.

**** O’Neill, Kate. “Transnational protest: states, circuses, and conflict at the frontline of global politics.” International Studies Review (2004) 6, 242.

***** Kaczynski, Ted. Industrial Society and Its Future. Filiquarian Publishing, LLC, 1995. Pgs. 63-64.

2 Responses to “Thoughts on Paul Hawken and Blessed Unrest”

  1. Chris Marsh

    Have you read Vaclav Smil’s review of ‘Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution’ by Hawken & the Lovins? (Population and Development Review, 26 (2000), 163-76.)? What do you think of Smil?

  2. John Garrett Jones

    which way are we heading? There has recently been a NATO summit meeting in Wales. Main items: how to react to the Islamic threat in Iraq and Syria and the Russian threat in Ukraine and the need for every NATO signatory to meet its commitment to pay 2% of GDP to NATO.
    It is our contention that these are matters for an empowered UN, not for one segment of the global population in opposition to other segments of the global population – which is simply tribalism writ large and a denial of our common humanity.
    It is not a human right to be able to wage war. In fact the war which began a century ago deprived 16 million human beings of their most basic right, the right to life. Another 21 million were wounded, many of them incapacitated for life. See and

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