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Ecological Mindfulness

The Instinct to Save the Planet

Do the million grassroots green and social organizations work as an immune system that’s working to stop injustice and pollution? Paul Hawken on the biggest movement in the history of humankind that has come just on time.


Paul Hawken

Over the past 15 years, I have given nearly one thousand talks about the environment, and every time I have felt like a tightrope performer struggling to maintain perfect balance. To be sure, people are interested to know what is happening to their world, but no speaker wants to leave an audience depressed, no matter how frightening a future is predicted by studies that outline the rate of environmental loss. To be sanguine about the future, however, requires a plausible basis for constructive action: You cannot describe possibilities for that future unless the present problem is accurately defined.

Bridging the chasm between the two was always a challenge, but audiences kindly ignored my intellectual vertigo and over time provided me with ways to overcome this challenge. After every speech a smaller crowd would gather to talk, ask questions, and exchange business cards. These people were typically working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights. They came from the non-profit and non-governmental 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 unfair trade policies, worked to green inner cities, and taught children about the environment. Quite simply, they had dedicated themselves to trying to safeguard nature and ensure justice. Although this was the 1990s, and the media largely ignored them, in those small meetings I had a chance to listen to their concerns. They were students, grandmothers, teenagers, tribal members, business people, architects, teachers, retired professors and worried mothers and fathers.


I would get from five to 30 such cards per speech, and after being on the road for a week or two would return home with a few hundred of them 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 the scope and diversity of what these groups were doing on behalf of others. Later, I would store them in drawers or paper bags as keepsakes of the journey. Over the course of years, the number of cards mounted into the thousands, and whenever I glanced at them, I came back to one question: Did anyone truly appreciate how many groups and organizations were engaged in progressive causes? At first, this was a matter of curiosity on my part, but it slowly grew into a hunch that something larger was afoot, a significant social movement that was eluding the radar of mainstream culture.

So, intrigued, 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 a total of 30,000 environmental organizations around the globe. And when I added social justice and indigenous peoples’ rights organizations, the number exceeded 100,000. I then researched to see if there had ever been any equal to this movement in scale or scope, but I couldn’t find anything, past or present. The more I probed, the more organizations I unearthed, and the numbers continued to climb as I discovered lists, indexes, and small databases specific to certain sectors or geographic areas. In trying to pick up a stone, I found the exposed tip of a much larger geological formation. I soon realized that my initial estimate of 100,000 organizations was off by at least a factor of ten, and I now believe there are over 1 – and maybe even 2 – million organizations around the world 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. They read the biography of the founder(s) or listen to them perorate on tape or in person. Movements, in short, have followers. 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 hotel conference centres. One of its distinctive features is that it is tentatively emerging as a global humanitarian movement arising from the bottom up. Historically, social movements have arisen primarily in response to injustice, inequities and corruption. Those woes still remain, joined by a new condition that has no precedent: The planet has a life-threatening disease, marked by massive ecological degradation and rapid climate change. As I counted these vast numbers of organizations, it crossed my mind that perhaps I was witnessing the growth of something organic, if not biologic. 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? How does it function? How fast is it growing? How is it connected? Why is it largely ignored? Does it have a history? Can it successfully address the issues that governments are failing to do: energy, jobs, conservation, poverty and global warming?


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. When describing it to politicians, academics and businesspeople, I found that many believe they are already familiar with this movement, how it works, what it consists of, and its approximate size. They base their conclusions on media reports about Amnesty International, the Sierra Club, Oxfam or other venerable institutions. They may be directly acquainted with a few smaller organizations and may even sit on the board of a local group. For them and others the movement is small and circumscribed, a new type of charity, with a sprinkling of ragtag activists who occasionally give it a bad name. People inside the movement can also underestimate it, basing their judgment on only the organizations they are linked to, even though their networks can only encompass a fraction of the whole. But after spending years researching this phenomenon, including creating with my colleagues a global data base of its constituent organizations, I have come to this conclusion: This is the largest social movement in all of human history. No one knows its scope, and how it functions is more mysterious than what meets the eye.

When discussing the movement with academics or friends in the media, the first question they pose is usually the same: If it is so large, why isn’t this movement more visible? By that they mean, why isn’t it more visible to news media, especially TV? Although global in its scope, the movement generally remains unseen until it gathers to take part in demonstrations, whether in London, Prague, or New York, or at annual meetings of the World Social Forum, after which it seems to disappear again, reinforcing the perception that it is a will-o-the-wisp. The movement doesn’t fit neatly into any category in modern society, and what can’t be visualized can’t be named. In business, what isn’t measured isn’t managed; in the media, what isn’t visible isn’t reported.

The movement can’t be divided because it is so atomized – a collection of small pieces, loosely joined. It forms, dissipates, and then regathers quickly, without central leadership, command or control. Rather than seeking dominance, this unnamed movement strives to disperse concentrations of power. It has been capable of bringing down governments, companies and leaders through witnessing, informing and massing. The quickening of the movement in recent years has come about through information technologies becoming increasingly accessible and affordable to people everywhere. Its clout resides in its ideas, not in force.

Picture the collective presence of all human beings as an organism. Pervading that organism are intelligent activities, humanity’s immune response to resist and heal the effects of political corruption, economic disease and ecological degradation. In a world grown too complex for constrictive ideologies, even the very word “movement” to describe such a process may be limiting. Writer and activist Naomi Klein calls it “the movement of movements,” but for lack of a better term I will stick with “movement” here because I believe all its components are beginning to converge.


The movement has three basic roots: environmental activism, social justice initiatives and indigenous cultures’ resistance to globalization, all of which have become intertwined. Collectively, it expresses the needs of the majority of people on Earth to sustain the environment, wage peace, democratize decision making and policy, reinvent public governance piece by piece from the bottom up, and improve their lives – women, children and the poor.

This movement is not bound together by an “-ism.” What unifies it is ideas, not ideologies. There is a vast difference between the two; ideas question and liberate, while ideologies justify and dictate. One of the differences between the bottom-up movement now erupting around the world and established ideologies is that the movement develops its ideas based on observation, whereas ideologies act on the basis of belief or theory. Are there ideologues in the movement? To be sure, but fundamentally the movement is that part of humanity which has assumed the task of protecting and saving itself.

If we accept that the metaphor of an organism can be applied to humankind, we can imagine a collective movement that would protect, repair and restore that organism’s capacity to endure when threatened. If so, that capacity to respond would function like an immune system, which operates independently of an individual person’s intent.

Just as the immune system is the line of internal defence that allows and organism to persist over time, sustainability is a strategy for humanity to continue to exist over time. The word “immunity” comes from the Latin im munis, meaning “ready to serve.” The immune system is usually portrayed in militaristic terms: a biological defence department armed to fight off invading organisms. In the textbook case, antibodies attach themselves to molecular invaders, which are then neutralized and destroyed by white blood cells. Simple and elegant, but the process of fending off invaders and disease is more complex and interesting.

The immune system is the most diverse system in the body, consisting of an array of proteins, immunoglobulins, monocytes, macrophages and more, a microbestiary of cells working in sync with one another, without which we would perish in a matter of days, like a rotten piece of fruit, devoured by billions of viruses, bacilli, fungi and parasites, to whom we are a juicy lunch wrapped in jeans and T-shirt. The immune system is everywhere, dispersed in lymphatic fluid, which courses through the thymus, spleen and thousands of lymph nodes scattered like little peanuts throughout the body.


At the core of immunity is a miracle of recovery and restoration, for there are times when our immune system is weakened. Stress, chemicals, infections, lack of sleep and poor diets can overwhelm the immune system and send it into a tailspin. When that happens, old diseases can resurface while protection from new ones breaks down. Pathogens burgeon and seem to hold sway, and a moment comes when death lurks at the threshold. At that point, given the odds and circumstances, something extraordinary can happen that really shouldn’t: The immunological descent slows and halts, our life hangs in the balance and we begin to heal, a comeback that rivals the climax of a Hollywood plot. How the disoriented and muddled immune system reverses course and recovers is not well understood; some would say it is a mystery.

The workings of this immune system sound orderly and precise, but it is not. Antibodies bind not just to pathogens but to many types of cells, even themselves, as if the lymphatic system were a chamber of commerce mixer of local business owners feverishly exchanging business cards. In The Web of Life, Fritjof Capra writes, “The entire system looks much more like a network, more like the Internet than soldiers looking out for an enemy. Gradually, immunologists have been forced to shift their perception from an immune system to an immune network.” Scientists Francesco Varela and Antonio Coutinho describe an immune system that can best be understood as intelligence, a living, learning, self-regulating system – almost another mind. Its function does not depend on its firepower but on the quality of its connectedness. Rather than “inside cells’ automatically destroying “outside cells,” there is a mediatory response to pathogens, as if the immune system learned millions of years ago that dŽtente and familiarity with potential adversaries were wiser than first-strike responses, that achieving balance was more appropriate than eradicating the enemy. The immune system depends on its diversity to maintain resiliency, with which it can maintain homeostasis, respond to surprises, learn from pathogens and adapt to sudden changes. The implication for medicine is clear: To fend off cancer and infection, we may need to understand how to increase the immune network’s connectivity rather than the intensity of its response.

Similarly, the widely diverse network of organizations proliferating in the world today may be a better defence against injustice than F-16 fighter jets. Connectivity allows these organizations to be task-specific and focus their resources precisely and frugally. Incremental success is achieved by consensus operating within informal structures, where no one person has all or much power. The force that such groups exert is in the form of dialogue and truthfulness. Computers, cell phones, broadband and the Internet have created perfect conditions for the margins to unify. According to Kevin Kelly, author of Out of Control, the Internet already consists of a quintillion transistors, a trillion links and a million emails per second. Moore’s Law, which predicts that processing power will double in power and halve in price every 18 months, is meeting Metcalfe’s Law, which states that the usefulness of a network grows exponentially with arithmetic increases in numbers of users. These laws enable big corporations just as they do small NGOs, but the latter gain greater advantage because these new technologies amplify smallness more effectively than largeness. Large organizations don’t need networks; small ones thrive on them. Webs are complex systems of interconnected elements that link individual actions to larger grids of knowledge and movement. Web sites link to other sites with more links to other sites ad infinitum, creating a critical, fluid mass of information that evolves and grows as needed – very much like the response of our immune systems. At the heart of all of this is not technology but relationships, tens of millions of people working toward restoration and social justice.

The state of the world today suggests that, given the number of organizations and people dedicated to fighting injustice, the movement has not been particularly effective. The counterargument to this claim is that globalization’s depredations have had a nearly 500-year head start on humanity’s immune system. The exponential assault on resources and the production of waste, coupled with the extirpation of cultures and the exploitation of workers, is a disease as surely as is hepatitis or cancer. It is caused by a political-economic system of which we are all a part, and any finger-pointing is inevitably directed back to ourselves. There may be no particular they there, but the system is still a disease, even if we created and contracted it. Because a lot of people know we are sick and want to treat the cause, not just the symptoms, the environmental movement is humanity’s response to contagious policies killing the Earth, while the social-justice movement addresses economic and political pathogens that destroy families, bodies, cultures and communities. They are two sides of the same coin, because when you harm one you harm the other. They address what anthropologist and physician Dr. Paul Farmer calls the “pathologies of power,” the “rising tide of inequalities” that breed violence, whether against people, ecosystems or other forms of life. No government can say it cares for its citizens while allowing the environment to be trashed.

The ultimate purpose of a global immune system is to identify what is not life-affirming and to contain, neutralize or eliminate it. Where communities, cultures and ecosystems have been damaged, it seeks to prevent additional harm and then heal and restore the damage. Most social-change organizations are understaffed and underfunded, and nearly all are negotiating steep learning curves. It is not easy to create a system that has no antecedent, and if you study the taxonomy of the movement you will see a new curriculum for humankind emerging, some of it corrective, some of it restorative and some of it highly imaginative. In many countries, participation in the movement can be dangerous. We memorialize the well-known murders of South African black consciousness activist Stephen Biko and rubber tapper and environmentalist Chico Mendes, yet people in this movement are killed and intimidated every day. When you see images of Amazonian Indians marching in full regalia in S‹o Paulo to protest Brazilian government policies, they are individuals who are as courageous as they are terrified. I have a photograph of a small Mayan girl holding her mother’s hand looking up in wide-eyed disbelief at a phalanx of black polycarbonate shields and masked police gripping their batons in Guatemala. When the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan march for women’s rights without their burkas, they display an extraordinary valour, because they know there will be reprisals. When the Wild Yak Brigade was formed in Zhidou, China, to protect the endangered Tibetan antelope, poachers murdered its first two leaders. Most movement activists start like Chico Mendes, believing they are fighting for a specific cause, in his case rubber trees, and realize later they are fighting for a greater purpose: “Then I thought I was trying to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realize I was fighting for humanity.”

To deal with the pathogens, the movement has had to become an array of different types of organizations. There are institutes, community-development agencies, village- and citizen-based groups, corporations, research institutes, associations, networks, faith-based groups, trusts and foundations. Within each of these categories are dozens of types of organizations defined by their activities; within these different activities, groups have a specific focus: rights of children, cultural diversity, coral-reef conservation, democratic reform, energy security, literacy and so on.

Some would argue that it is counterproductive to conflate all the different organizations and types of organizations into a single movement, that it is self-evident that such divergent aims cannot create an effective, unified body. It’s true that pluralism, the de facto tactic of a million small organizations, functions best in a society that cultivates diversity, dialogue and collaboration. In a you-are-either-with-us-or-against-us society, small, single-issue organizations are effectively marginalized. In the United States, the environmental and social-justice movements emerged in what was then a pluralistic society. Because that is increasingly not the case, the stratagems and goals of the movement may be inadequate to match the increasing centralization of power.

Can myriad organizations work together to address deeper systemic issues? Do organizations step back and see where there is overlap? Do they operate sufficiently? Do they try to create synergies, maximize funding, encourage efficiencies and sublimate their identities to larger whole? Not as much as is possible, and is necessary. But the fact that the movement is made up of pieces does not mean it can only work piecemeal.

If anything can offer us hope for the future it will be an assembly of humanity that is representative but not centralized, because no single ideology can ever heal the wounds of this world. History demonstrates all too eloquently that no ideology has ever amounted to more than a palliative for any dire condition. The immune system is the most complex system in the body, just as the body is the most complex organism on Earth, and the most complicated assembly of organisms is human civilization.


This movement, for its part, is the most complex coalition of human organizations the world has ever seen. The incongruity of anarchists, wealthy philanthropists, street clowns, scientists, youthful activists, indigenous and native people, diplomats, computer geeks, writers, strategists, peasants and students all working toward common goals is a testament to human impulses that are unstoppable and eternal. The founder of the radical group Earth First!, Dave Foreman, and the chair of the New York Council of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, David Rockefeller Jr., want the same things for Alaska: no drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, moratoriums on indiscriminate game hunting, wildlife corridors for migratory species, permanent protection for the roadless areas of the Tongass and Chugach old-growth forests, elimination of all clear-cutting in the national forests, challenges to all timber sales and concessions by the Department of the Interior and an end to destructive bottom trawling by fishing boats. The list goes on. The two Davids do not know each other. They do not have to hoist a pint or exchange emails to work together, because their goals are the same, however different their politics, backgrounds, wealth and education. This is the promise of this movement: that the margins link up, that we discover through our actions and shared concerns that we are global family.

The ability to respond to the endless injustices and hurts endured by the Earth and its people requires concerted action and hinges in part on understanding both our function and potential as individuals and where we fit into a larger whole. I believe this movement will prevail. I don’t mean it will defeat, conquer or create harm to someone else. I mean that the thinking that informs the movement’s goals will reign. It will soon suffuse most institutions, but before then, it will change a sufficient number of people so as to begin the reversal of centuries of frenzied self-destructive behaviour. Some say it is too late, but people never change when they are comfortable.


My hopefulness about the resilience of human nature is matched by the gravity of our environmental and social condition. If we squander all our attention on what is wrong, we will miss the prize: In the chaos engulfing the world, a hopeful future resides because the past is disintegrating before us. If that is difficult to believe, think about winter; calculate what it requires to create a single springtime. It’s not too late for the world’s largest institutions and corporations to join in saving the planet, but co-operation must be on the planet’s terms. The “Help Wanted” signs are everywhere. All people and institutions, including commerce, governments, schools, churches and cities, need to learn from life and reimagine the world from the bottom up, based first on principles of justice and ecology. Ecological restoration is extraordinarily simple: You remove whatever prevents the system from healing itself. Social restoration is no different. We have the heart, knowledge, money and sense to optimize our social and ecological fabric. It is time for all that is harmful to leave. One million escorts are here to transform the nightmares of empire and the disgrace of war on people and place. We are the transgressors and we are the forgivers. “We” means all of us, everyone. There can be no green movement unless there is also a black, brown and copper movement. What is most harmful resides within us, the accumulated wound of the past, the sorrow, shame, deceit and ignominy shared by every culture, passed down to every person, as surely as DNA, a history of violence, and greed. There is no question that the environmental movement is critical to our survival. Our house is literally burning, and it is only logical that environmentalists expect the social-justice movement to get on the environmental bus. But it is the other way around; the only way we are going to put out the fire is to get on the social-justice bus and heal our wounds, because in the end, there is only one bus. Armed with that growing realization, we can address all that is harmful externally. What will guide us is a living intelligence that creates miracles every second, carried forth by a movement with no name.


Excerpted from Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (Viking).

Paul Hawken is the head of the Natural Capital Institute, and author of The Ecology of Commerce, Natural Capitalism (with Amory Lovins) and other books.


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