Saturday, August 11, 2012

Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World

Book Review: Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World by Paul Hawken (Penguin 2007)

This is a very useful and pertinent book for understanding the foundation for the current Occupy Wall Street movement and indeed for comprehending the nature of all social and environmental movements.

In the future it is possible that more people will work for non-profits and NGO’s as their influence grows and their services and skills are desired. This may provide a more stable check and balance against the power of corporations but there is likely to be some bumping around before things stabilize.

Hawken notes the relationship between environmental justice and social justice. Basically, Hawken has counted up organizations involved in these two basic endeavors and lumped them into a single social movement – thus the subtitle as the ‘largest social movement in history’. I think this is perhaps a bit misleading as many of these are basic local issues as well as trends and they are quite diverse and some quite specific. Generally speaking they can be lumped together as similar and of comparable orientation but a single social movement it is not. He acknowledges this but goes on to redefine what constitutes a movement. He suggests that it is an “instinctive, collective response to threat.” Indeed he likens it to an ‘immune response’ of humanity towards the earth and one another. He defines social justice in terms of the UN Declaration of Human Rights which is fairly intuitive.

Hawken compares the ideological approach beginning with the 19th century Industrial Revolution to the systems approach in terms of ecology. He says ideology tends to promote health through uniformity while ecology promotes health through diversity. Diversity causes inertia in some respects compared to uniformity and he discusses things along this line. He notes that traditional politics and media assess strength by single-mindedness, or uniformity of purpose. He also mentions that many solutions to social problems were and are ‘band-aids’ that offer temporary healing but fail to solve the root problems – ie. GMO’s for hunger, nuclear power for global warming, promoting war to establish democracy. These approaches can have horrible side effects and ultimately lack the ‘social intelligence’ that more well-thought plans might have. As part of his notion that all these diverse groups are related he has compared their mission statements and functions and notes that they are quite similar. Of course, activism has many different levels of radical-ness and approaches are varied enough that one group may strongly disagree with the methods of another.

Hawken likens the first big environmental ‘globalization’ to post-Columbian America where plants, food, animals, pests, insects, bacteria, disease, and toxins were imported to the continent by European settlers. Though he doesn’t mention it – it has happened before, albeit on a much smaller scale – ie. Australian and Native American hunters wiping out species, Middle and Near Eastern farmers ruining farmland by over-farming, deforestation in Europe, sewage and sanitation problems in Medieval cities, etc. Of course, globalization has gotten more efficient, faster, and more thorough, as time goes on and population increases. 

He discusses how the Industrial Revolution has affected species, habitat, and the pace of evolutionary change. Due to massive human population increase and corresponding increases in resource usage and production of toxic waste – quite obviously we impact the environment much more drastically than in the past. 

He surveys the birth of environmentalism through the lives of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and consideration of Darwin’s evolutionary biology. Emerson and Thoreau stressed that we are part of nature and what we do to it we do to ourselves. Hawken contrasts their ideas to those of their 19th century contemporary, George Perkins Marsh, who took a different path in his book – Man and Nature – where he notes that it is necessary for man to dominate nature  - yet he was a naturist and according to Hawken was the first to note the interdependence of society and the environment.

He goes through the history of the conservation movement with the story of John Muir and the Sierra Club and similar groups. This led eventually to the affluence of the well-funded groups of today such as World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation, the Nature Conservancy, the National Geographic Society, and the Wilderness Society.  The well-to-do upper class conservationists of the past would later bump heads with a more radical element in their midst. We see this in the last half of the 20th century with modern environmentalism being generally more radical and politicized than in the early days.

He tells the important yet sad story of biologist Rachel Carson and her 1962 book – Silent Spring – detailing the damaging effects of pesticides. In this story was revealed the attacks against her, the possible beginnings of “corporate junk science” to verify safety, her own uncomfortable battle with cancer, and the numerous people who confidently ridiculed her – who at long last have been thoroughly proven wrong. The whole affair began an enhanced conflict scenario between business/growth/industry and environmental concerns that continues to this day. The horrors of the Bhopal disaster in India are recounted with the rights of business and of people compared and contrasted.

Early predatory industrial history is recounted as well – resulting in laws against monopoly and trusts. Of course, the power of the corporation is a subject well in the spotlight these days. This book is good for giving background, contexts, and history of these relationships, although I think Hawken is decidedly biased against corporate interests. He even admits he has some biases and at least attempts to be fair in some respects. Indeed nowadays we also need to be aware of “activist junk science” meant to discredit environmental safety.

He also recounts the 19th century beginnings of “civil disobedience” with Thoreau’s protest actions that were subsequently read and studied by Gandhi who used them as inspiration for his non-violent resistance movement of Satyagraha, or ‘truth force’. Of course, both Thoreau and Gandhi were influenced by the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads of India. Later history along this trend of course includes the actions of Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King.

The next section is about indigenous peoples and how they have been mistreated in the past by Europeans and Westerners and how they have been exploited by business interests. While this is obviously true, in the past it was more the bias of the times and the people of the times. People actually believed scientifically that certain races were superior to others and nature was subservient to man. This was an assumed part of philosophy, science, and religion. I think he overdoes things in this chapter – making assumptions that indigenous cultures were more naturalistically advanced than industrial ones and somehow superior – it is almost a reversal of beliefs. He also goes on to make a long list of companies and corporations who have exploited indigenous peoples as a sort of indictment against them. Most of these are mining, resource, timber, and dam-building interests – typically those industries requiring access to land. He also contrasts these with environmental organizations just in the Amazon as if to suggest that more people are gathering to restore exploitation than are exploiting. Of course, many of these people have been exploited by business interests and many unjustly compensated for the effects of the exploitation and pollution. There is no doubt about it but he does not note that regulations, transparency, and accountability are much improved over the past. There is obviously less corruption in most of the world than there has been in the past as more people and groups watch things more closely.

The next section tackles the massive 1999 demonstrations in Seattle against the World Trade Organization and ‘globalization’. Hawken does acknowledge some of the positive effects of globalization 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.” He lists the liabilities of globalization as: “resource and worker exploitation, climate change, pollution, destruction of communities, and diminished biological diversity.” It is true that local communities can become casualties of globalization and this has happened particularly among small farmers and unskilled workers. He notes, correctly I think, that focusing strictly on the benefits of free market ideology downplays the downsides that can happen to local economies that can represent vast amounts of people in the grip of poverty. It is ideological thinking that sees de-regulation and free market economics as universally good and any regulated, subsidized, or socialized functions as universally bad. Hawken, and the Seattle protestors, equate the WTO as pro-business and anti-people. While this may be true in some ways it is certainly not across the board. He sees such orgs as the WTO, World Bank, IMF, etc as totalitarian. Perhaps I am not as familiar with these orgs as I should be but I think that assumption may be a bit unfair. Sure, they may need some reforming, as they were likely convened as ‘band-aids’ to help solve crises. He notes that they have the money to invest and allocate and that investment is all put into free market strategies – but is there really a better overall alternative? I don’t know. Unfortunately for the Seattle protestors, they ended up being depicted as fanatical due likely to a combination of factors – ie. over-reaction of the police dept., over-reaction of radical anarchist fringe-elements, etc. The large protests against the dawning of the Iraq War perhaps went off better – as they were held in many cities and were particularly strong in Europe. He goes on to document some of the disastrous cases to which these orgs like the World Bank have been linked. Of course, these results were not planned and may have a lot to do with mis-calculating local situations such as culture, corruption, and local ecology. Of course, all these arguments end up with the same old tired and typical polarized ideological situation of reg vs. de-reg, liberal vs. conservative, free market capitalism vs. some form of socialism, etc. Hawken does note that current globalized economics are set up to prioritize growth over all else and this is often problematic as human social and environmental issues can slow growth. One of the strengths of Hawken’s ideas is his focus on promoting ‘healthy commerce’ which requires being mindful of social and environmental issues.

In the next section about – Immunity – he goes more into the notion that social and environmental orgs are a sort of immune-response of humanity to social and environmental ills. This is apt as an analogy to a certain extent but it does not mean that every environmental and social org has the right solution to problems. I think that it also continues an agenda of conflict (between antibodies and pathogens in the analogy) rather than collaboration which would be an improvement in my opinion. Hawken seems to waffle back and forth as to who the true villains are – sometimes they are corporations, sometimes orgs with too much power and sometimes we the people with our consuming habits -- “There may be no particular they there, but the system is still a disease, even if we created and contracted it.” He equates the environmental movement with humanity’s response to an illness of the earth. While this may be true in general, this is certainly not the only agenda of the environmental movement, as it can be just as deluged with ideological and political agenda as industrial interests.

Hawken goes on to describe different types of groups. First is what is known as Keeper Groups. These are groups who take care of a specific area – ie. river-keepers, lake-keepers, reef-keepers, coast-keepers, etc. These groups may function as scientist, lawyer, public relations people, lobbyist, or investigator. Watch Organizations are those that monitor corporations, institutions, projects, and places. Friends Organizations are those that do things like clean-up, support, and improvement of places. Other types of groups include Defenders – perhaps a more militant mode, Coalitions, and Alliances. There are also protest groups such as those that do street theatre and those known as culture jammers, who subvert and ridicule corporate advertising. The general sarcasm of the liberal internet can be seen as a mild form of this. He also mentions ideas such as that of the social entrepreneur – which refers to seeing beyond monetary success to include improvement in social and environmental impacts. He mentions groups like the Green Building Council that helps certify the ‘greenness’ of buildings which advocate innovative design, new technology, and renewable energy. He also covers the phenomenon of localization of NGO and non-profit aims and Stewart Brand’s ideas of ‘slowing down’ of fast food, fast decision society. Of course, the localization of food is sensible for several reasons – less transport, fresher, supports local economy, connects one to local nutrition, etc. Though he mentions different groups (NGO’s and non-profits) working together for successful results, I don’t think he emphasizes enough the possibilities of putting industry into the mix, especially as business has access to much more money. Personally I think more collaboration between business and non-profits will be necessary to solve more and more problems in the future, especially as more business models come to embrace social and environmental causes as sensible and even helpful to their overall bottom line.

The final section is called – Restoration. He goes on with the biological analogy in detail and perhaps a bit much. Here is good general quote defining important terms:

“Ecology is about how living organisms interact with one another and their environment. Sustainability is about stabilizing the currently disruptive relationship between the earth’s two most complex systems – human culture and the living world. The interrelation between these two systems marks every person’s existence and is responsible for the rise and fall of every civilization.”

This section also discusses things like the resilience of ecosystems and their thresholds, breaking points, and carrying capacities. Also discussed are climate change scenarios and assessing their urgency. Hawken suggests that these localized movements can be very efficient because they have few financial resources and must make do with what they have. He also notes that many of them are not real structured, authoritative, or centralized and again he compares them to – life organizing itself with the flow of information.

Regarding the laws and mechanisms of ecosystems he notes Wendell Barry’s idea of solving for pattern which is a systems way of thinking that entails solving multiple problems in terms of the whole system. This is in contrast to “fixes”. He suggests thinking in terms of a “cyclical biological system with a self-correcting bias.” Another notion of systems thinking is “feedback loops” and indeed (positive feedback) is a key mechanism behind prevailing theories of climate change. Other ideas covered are ‘zero-waste’ systems intended to emulate nature by recycling everything, ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approaches to manufacturing and re-cycling, ‘waste equals food’ where waste of one system is food or fuel for another, and promoting optimization over maximization – again in emulation of biological systems.

Hawken does note that it is the values of social and environmental activism rather than the biases that are beginning to permeate society and that can be a good thing – especially as more industrial and corporate management types begin to demand and promote more sustainable practices in their companies and industries. I do prefer the idea that people who have a desire to ‘heal the earth’ think of themselves as doctors rather than warriors. Healing should be collaboration between healer, patient, and those who create the conditions that allow the disease to develop – which is often the system itself or some sub-sector of it.

Hawken’s book is a good one to read in general. It is a bit wordy and over-intellectual at times and I think he over-details a few things. However, it is an honest attempt at understanding the vast number of groups with an interest in environmental and social justice and how they mesh and often complement one another in a sort of bio-net – to use his immune-response scenario. He also includes a very long appendix noting the types of groups and what they might do. This reads like encyclopedia or even dictionary entries and I guess serves merely to define these things in order to support his notion of a single social movement under one umbrella.

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