Are you a Pessimist or an Optimist?


“This planet came with a set of instructions, but we seem to have misplaced them,” Paul Hawken told the graduating class of the University of Portland in 2009. “Civilization needs a new operating system. You are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.”

Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author. Starting at age 20, he dedicated his life to sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment. His practice has included starting and running ecological business, writing and teaching about the impact of commerce on living systems, and consulting with governments and corporations on economic development, industrial ecology, and environmental policy.

From 1979 to 1993, Hawken led the garden lifestyle brand Smith & Hawken along with Dave Smith. But in fact, it was his writing after he moved on that led to his selection as a Pioneer. He tells us in the interview, “Writing is my way of diving deep into an issue. My approach is to watch, read, and listen, sometimes for years, in order to grasp the dynamics, resistance, and patterns of thought that repeat and impede progress and breakthrough. What I try to do is reframe the issue, and in order to do that I have to give up the idea that I know something or am “right.” It means finding a path to see things in a completely novel way, to make the familiar new and, if possible, fascinating.”

Creating a Revolution

Seldom does any single book create a revolution, especially so in the field of business. And yet, The Ecology of Commerce stands as an extremely influential book. Indeed, of all the moments that awakened fellow Pioneer Ray Anderson, reading The Ecology of Commerce was like a “spear in the chest” for him. The connection between these two Pioneers was so strong that Hawken eulogized Anderson at his funeral, stating that if his book were only read by one person, Ray Anderson, it was worth writing.
But the book wasn’t an immediate success – far from it. Hawken remembers giving a speech to a business audience as he was writing the book. He recalls that some in the crowd reacted angrily and even a few individuals left the room. “Either we see business as a restorative undertaking, or we, businesspeople, will march the entire race to the undertaker,” Hawken said in 1992 to the Commonwealth Club of San Francisco. “Business is the only mechanism on the planet today powerful enough to produce the changes necessary to reverse
global environmental and social degradation.”

Measuring Success: An Inherent Problem

Yet, Hawken also sees a fundamental problem with the way our economic system is measured. “As long as we study what’s being bought as opposed to what’s being fulfilled, we’ll always come to the wrong conclusion,” he said in an interview with the Global Oneness Project. “Really, the proper study of economics is fulfillment, not consumption… It doesn’t even matter if it’s a green product or a green house…

It’s still consumption. What matters in this world is the fulfillment of people’s needs and the fulfillment of their aspirations.” However, the barriers to attaining this state are systemic. As he wrote in the preface to the revised edition of The Ecology of Commerce, “Business will need to integrate economic, biologic, and human systems to create a sustainable method of commerce. As hard as we may try to become sustainable on a company by-company level, we cannot fully succeed until the institutions surrounding commerce are redesigned… where… everyday acts of work and life accumulate into a better world as a matter of course, not a matter of conscious altruism.”

Are We Part of the Momentum?

To put it simply, according to Hawken, piecemeal sustainability is actually unsustainable. Instead, he wants us to realize a fluid, interconnected world, and in the process, connect the consequences of our actions on the ecology and our communities, thus compelling action.

Progress is already being made. As he mentioned in his University of Portland speech, “Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses, companies, refugee camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums… When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: if you look at the science about what is happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand the data. But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a pulse.”

But as Hawken would likely challenge us: are we a part of that momentum?

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