The title of Paul Hawken’s talk, “The New Great Transformation,” has two referents, he explained. Economist Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book, The Great Transformation, said that the “market society” and modern nation state emerged together in Europe after 1700 and divided society in ways that have yet to be healed.
Karen Armstrong’s 2006 book, The Great Transformation, explores “the Axial Age” between 800 and 200 BC when the world’s great religions and philosophies first took shape. They were all initially social movements, she says, acting on revulsion against the violence and injustice of their times.
Both books describe conditions in which “the future is stolen and sold to the present,” said Hawken— a situation we are having to deal with yet again.
His new book, Blessed Unrest, was inspired by the countless business cards that earnest environmentalists would hand him after his lectures all over the world. After a while he had 7,000, and he wondered, “How many environmental groups are there in the world?” He began actively building a now-public database, WiserEarth.org, which includes social justice and indigenous rights organizations because he found they indivisibly overlap in their values and activities.
The database now has 105,000 such organizations. The still-emerging taxonomy of their “areas of focus” has 414 categories, amounting to a “curriculum of the 21st century”— Acid Rain, Living Wages, Tropical Moist Forests, Peacemaking, Democratic Reform, Sustainable Cities, Environmental Toxicology, Watershed Management, Human Trafficking, Mountaintop Removal, Pesticides, Climate Change, Refugees, Women’s Safety, Eco-villages, Fair Trade… Extrapolating from carefully inventoried regions to those yet to be tallied, he estimates there are over 1,000,000 such organizations in the world, adding up to the largest and fastest growing Movement in history.
The phenomenon has been overlooked because it lacks the customary hallmarks of a movement— no charismatic leaders, no grand theory or ideology, no “ism,” no defining events. The new activist groups are about dispersing power rather than aggregating power. Their focus is on ideas rather than ideology— ideologies are clung to, but ideas can be tried and tossed or improved. The point is to solve problems, usually from the bottom up. The movement can never be divided because it is already atomized.
What’s going on? Hawken wondered if humanity might have some collective intelligence that we don’t yet understand. The metaphor he finds most useful is the immune system, which is the most complex system in our body— more complex than the entire Internet— massive, distributed, subtle, ingenious, and effective. The opposite of a hierarchical army, its power is in the density of its network. It deals with problems not through frontal attack but complex negotiation and rapprochement.
Much of the new movement, Hawken said, was inspired, at root, by the slavery abolitionists and by the Transcendentalists Emerson and his student Thoreau. Emerson declared that “everything is connected,” and Thoreau wound up going to jail (and making it cool) by taking that idea seriously in social-justice terms.
Now, as in the Axial Age, activism comes from acting on the realization that “all life is sacred.”-- by Stewart Brand