Those of us who live at the center of an empire often know the least about the world. Information tends to flow out from the center, not in from the periphery. Thus half the people on earth have seen Baywatch, but how many of us can name three pop stars from Latin America, much less three social activists?
That’s why Paul Hawken’s marvelous new book may come as a bit of a shock to many in the West. We tend to think we’ve been living through an apathetic era, with the mindless prosperity of the Clinton years succeeded by the mindless obedience of the Bush decade. Around the world, though—and increasingly close to home—there’s actually an explosion of involvement underway, “a global humanitarian movement arising from the bottom up,” according to Hawken.
This movement is a “great underground,” an “intertwingling” of everything from urban farmers to pirate radio broadcasters, from human rights groups to solar panel aficionados, from “localvores” to child labor opponents. By Hawken’s estimate, there may be two million groups worldwide doing these kinds of work, a loose web of concern for social justice and ecological survival that constitutes a kind of nascent, invisible superpower.
We don’t know about this movement because it has few recognizable leaders, no consistent set of demands, and no logo—hence it’s hard for the media to cover. I remember well traveling to Seattle for the first big protest against the WTO in 2000. It was still early enough in the evolution of the web that journalists weren’t paying much attention to the chatter about what might happen in the streets; The New York Times assigned its local Seattle reporter to cover the story.
By day’s end, however, after nonviolent protesters had shut down the conference of the great globalizing corporate powers, and after exceedingly violent authorities had staged a police riot (abetted by a few cooperative anarchists who helpfully broke some windows), there were reporters jetting in from every direction. By nightfall, there were four or five Times reporters on the scene.
Globalization advocate Tom Friedman used his op-ed page column to dismiss the protesters as “a Noah’s ark of flat-earth advocates, protectionist trade unions, and yuppies looking for their 1960s fix.” In fact, it was much more subtle than that. The people dressed as sea turtles and the people holding pictures of Burmese dissident leader Aung San Suu Kyi in fact shared a belief: that there was more than one bottom line in the world, that simply adding up the GNP was not the way to tell if life was getting better.
“If there is a pervasive criticism of global capitalism shared by all the actors in this movement, it is this,” writes Hawken. “Goods seem to have become more important, and are treated better, than people. What would a world look like if that were reversed?” Or, more succinctly, and in the words printed on a large balloon that I saw float overhead while I was rinsing pepper spray from my eyes: “Wake Up, Muggles.”
Hawken—whose important earlier books, such as The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism, describe the possibilities for an environmentally benign capitalism—writes more beautifully here than ever before. In particular, an extended description of the human immune system provides him with an analogy for the rise of these groups. He describes the way that our bodies use a web of connections across many systems to fend off virus, bacteria, fungi, parasite. “Just as the immune system recognizes self and non-self, the movement identifies what is humane and not humane,” he writes. Using technologies like the Internet and the cell phone, with billions of links magnifying the miniscule power of each particular group, the “shared activity” of all these actors “can be seen as humanity’s response to toxins like political corruption, economic disease, and ecological degradation.”
If the troubled state of the world seems to be falling behind in the task, he adds, we shouldn’t be discouraged, because “globalization’s depredations have nearly a five-hundred-year head start on humanity’s immune system.” In the same way that it takes your body a few days to rally against a cold, he insists, our defenses against the excesses of corporate globalism have begun to kick in. “I believe this movement will prevail,” he writes. The “infinite game” of life will go on, thanks to “activists, conservations, biophiles, nuns, immigrants, outsiders, puppeteers, protesters, Christians, biologists, permaculturists, refugees, green architects, doctors without borders, engineers without borders, reformers, healers, poets, environmental educators, organic farmers, Buddhists, rainwater harvesters, meddlers, meditators, mediators, agitators, schoolchildren, ecofeminists, biomimics, Muslims, and social entrepreneurs.”
I think he’s right. Or rather, I’m almost convinced. But there are, sometimes, diseases that defeat our immune system, intruderslike AIDS so powerful and so cascading in their complexity that the body can’t fight them off before time runs out. If there’s one problem like that on earth right now—one game-stopper, deal-breaker, pinball-tilter—it’s climate change. In the last few years we’ve learned just how quickly and massively this wave is starting to break above our heads. Our most important climatologist,James Hansen, warned last year that unless we are able to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere in the next decade we will soon find ourselves living on a “totally different planet,” one in which, among other things, the great ice sheets above Greenland and the West Antarctic will have begun an irreversible melt.
In that kind of world, our civil society would be spending all its time and energy doing nothing but trying to help victims cope; we’d be living in a perennial emergency, like the aftermath of Katrina, which might well overwhelm and use up all the resources of goodwill and fellow-feeling that Hawken describes so well. It’s like a lot of problems—if you leave it alone, it gets geometrically worse.
But even against this most extreme of problems, Hawken’s metaphor seems to be coming to life. In the last year, finally, we’ve seen the rise of a real consciousness about climate change. Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth helped open many minds, and so did the startling commitment of groups like the leaders of the country’s main evangelical denominations. In January of this year, seven of us—me and six brand-new graduates from Middlebury College—started a website called stepitup07.org asking people to organize rallies on April 14 to demand from Congress ambitious cuts in carbon emissions. It was like a test of Hawken’s hypothesis: we had no money, we had no mailing lists to work from. We just started sending e-mails to the people we knew, and they started forwarding them, and on and on. Within eleven weeks we’d organized 1,400 protests in all fifty states, one of the largest days of grassroots environmental activism since Earth Day in 1970.
It worked because we connected with myriad little groups and with people who’d never organized anything before but simply wanted to contribute in a fight against a foe that was haunting them, but that seemed too big to engage. We were all, I suppose, antibodies of a kind, and within a few weeks of our protests all the major Democratic candidates for president had endorsed our quite radical goal of eighty percent cuts in carbon emissions by 2050.
What’s more, so many of the groups and causes that Hawken describes interlock—their efforts work together unintentionally. Organic farmers and people concerned about pesticides in their bodies were one of the sparks behind the farmers’ market movement, now the fastest-growing part of America’s food economy. And that new emphasis on local food also helps with climate change, since it takes far less energy to raise your vegetables near to home. And since, as sociologists havwe found, shoppers at farmers’ markets have ten times as many conversations as shoppers at supermarkets, those farmers’ markets have turned into (to extend the medical analogies) a kind of petri dish for the next rounds of activism.
There are many reasons this movement is coming to the fore right now. One, to make use of Hawken’s metaphor, is because it’s so badly needed—we’re desperately sick. But the need coincided with the means. The rise of the Internet as a tool for political and social organizing is only beginning to be understood, but it has definitely rewritten some of the power balances. (Some presidential candidates, for instance, are now raising more money online, in $40 chunks, than they used to raise from big corporate contributors.) And there’s one other condition too: the fall of the Soviet Union and the rest of the Communist bloc removed one option from the table. Almost no one in the marvelous and endless taxonomy of groups that Hawken provides at the end of the book, and through his WiserEarth website, is interested in a centrally planned totalitarian state. Instead, just the opposite. This is a movement imbued with the twin insights of ecological science: everything to its niche, and everything connected.
Hawken contends this is a moment as grand as what some have called the Axial Age that saw the rise of everyone from Socrates and Buddha to Jeremiah and
Jesus, an age “in which much of the world turned away from violence, cruelty, and barbarity.” It does feel as if we live at the dawn of such a moment, but also that we live in the dark twilight of the industrial era. Let’s work on the assumption—and Hawken gives us ample ground to do so—that day will break before night can fall.