Swans Commentary » swans.com November 19, 2012  



No Idea(ology), And Paul Hawken's Blessed Unrest


by Michael Barker



(Swans - November 19, 2012)   In Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming (Penguin Books, 2007), green capitalist guru Paul Hawken set himself the onerous task of examining the global growth of civil society organizations in the late 20th century (and beyond). Awestruck by their collective successes to date, Hawken describes this movement as being "fiercely independent" in its efforts to create a "global humanitarian movement arising from the bottom up." However rather than focusing on political success stories, he is overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of groups that are part of this "atomized" movement, which he feels may signal "the growth of something organic, if not biologic." Could it be, he asks, that this movement is "an instinctive, collective response to threat?" (1)

Hawken is clear that what unifies this atomized movement "is ideas, not ideologies." Here he erroneously suggests that "ideas question and liberate, while ideologies justify and dictate." (2) Seen in this inane way, Hawken's "nonideological movement" "does not aim for the utopian, which is just another ism, but is eminently pragmatic." Indeed sounding very much like a postmodern prophet, Hawken adds that actually searching for "the big solution, ... is itself part of the problem, since the most effective solutions are both local and systemic." (3)

After profiling some of the nonprofit organizations that comprise this movement, many of which are funded by ruling class philanthropic foundations (something he neglects to tell his readers), Hawken acknowledges, almost as an afterthought that:

There are also real billionaires in the movement. Rich and powerful men who are setting up NGOs and who are committed to saving the planet and its people. This group includes George Soros, Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Gordon Moore, and the collection of private sector funds orchestrated by President Clinton under the auspices of the Clinton Global Initiative. (p149)

He points out that: "Some of these fortunes were, certainly, accumulated in controversial ways"; suggesting that, "these and other hyperwealthy individuals are collectively moving into the vacuum left by the collapsing legitimacy of government." But strangely this central issue of elite powerbrokers and political vacuums is not problematized by Hawken. (4) Instead he lists the supposedly democratic achievements of these hyperwealthy philanthropists, which leads him to positively celebrate the "hybridization of business, philanthropy, technology, and nonprofit activity..." (5) With "all [the nonprofits and their benefactors] working towards common goals" this "incongruity" between activists and billionaire funders simply becomes one of the movement's strengths, acting as a "testament to human impulses that are unstoppable and eternal." (6)

According to Hawken, the global movement he misrepresents is "collectively forming the basis" of a widespread spiritual and religious awakening that "encompasses a refined understanding of biology, ecology, physiology, quantum physics, and cosmology," which "sees the feminine as sacred and holy, and... recognizes the wisdom of indigenous peoples all over the world, from Africa to Nunavut." Upon the latter point he is certain that the "quiet hub of the new movement -- its heart and soul -- is indigenous culture." (7) (Heaven forbid that the quiet hub could be corporate culture.)

Noting the centrality of compassion and love to this movement (not liberalism and capital accumulation), Hawken quotes David James Duncan to support the conclusions to his anti-political love-in:

When small things are done with love it's not a flawed you or me who does them: it's love. I have no faith in any political party, left, right, or centrist. I have boundless faith in love. In keeping with this faith, the only spiritually responsible way I know to be a citizen, artist, or activist in these strange times is by giving little or no thought to "great things" such as saving the planet, achieving world peace, or stopping neocon greed. Great things tend to be undoable things. Whereas small things, lovingly done, are always within our reach. (8)

Hawken's closing focus on the movement's contribution to humankind's new spiritual awakening is thus supremely compatible with his spiritual world view (as I have illustrated elsewhere). But other than one brief mention of Frijof Capra's eco-mystical work The Web of Life: A New Scientific Understanding of Living Systems (Anchor Books, 1996), (9) Hawken makes no reference to the type of new-age nonsense that undergirds his evangelizing work -- until, that is, we come to the opening quote of the appendix, which is provided courtesy of Richard Tarnas's book, which is dedicated to the advancement of archetypal cosmology, and is entitled Cosmos and Psyche: Intimations of a New World View (Viking, 2006). (10)

Four significant take-home points can thus be safely derived from Blessed Unrest. These are: (1) critical theorizing is out, and new age mysticism is in, (2) coordinated movements are out, and atomized movements are in, (3) oppressors share the same political interests as the oppressed, and following from this point, (4) that bottom-up grassroots movements can be supported by billionaire funders (no questions asked).

As Joel Kovel correctly observed over a decade ago, "for all the vigor of Hawken's anti-corporate polemic, he remains a believer in reform and not revolution." (11) But while it is certainly true that Hawken is not interested in promoting revolutionary political change, he is definitely serious about the need for a revolutionary shift in spiritual consciousness of the new-age variety -- something that was overlooked by Kovel. Unfortunately, such magical thinking tends to flourish in times of dire economic crisis, and so one can only hope that concerned individuals who value the principles of the Enlightenment will continue to step forward to vigorously refute Hawken and his ilk's widely disseminated nonsense.


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1.  Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming (Penguin Books, 2007), p.3. He writes: "To those calling for more trade and global economic growth to solve" the world's problems, "it should be pointed out that both have been promoted vigorously throughout the past twenty-five years, yet during that time inequities in the world have only worsened." (p.14)  (back)

2.  Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p.16. To support this point Hawken cites Louis Menand, The Metaphysical Club: A Story of Ideas in America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001), p.xii. Hawken later comically misrepresents the work of Karl Marx, writing that: "He was dismissive of those who spent their lives in an ongoing effort to interpret the world because he had the luxury of believing there was only one correct interpretation. Such a narrow view is common to ideologies, and it is why many diverse groups are arising in opposition to this sort of rigid thinking. Ideologies exclude openness, diversity, resiliency, and multiplicity, the very qualities that nourish life in any system, be it ecosystem, immune system, or social system." (p.162) To support this statement Hawken cites, Philip Ball, Critical Mass: How One Thing Leaders to Another (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2004), pp.459-60.  (back)

3.  Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p.18, p.20. For a critical take on this philanthropic nexus, see INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence (eds.), The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex (South End Press, 2007).  (back)

4.  Hawken, Blessed Unrest, pp.149-50. Here it is notable that Hawken problematizes the controversial life of John D. Rockefeller, whom he describes as the "poster child for corporate ruthlessness" who used "merciless tactics to drive competitors out of business." However, Hawken fails to acknowledge that the creation of the Rockefeller's philanthropic empire in the early twentieth century provides a prime example of a hyperwealthy family, which to this day continues to exert a strong influence on the growth of the movement Hawken describes in Blessed Unrest. Instead of drawing his readers' attention to this issue, Hawken recounts how Ida Tarbell's muckraking classic The History of Standard Oil (1904) succeeded in helping dismember Rockefeller's Standard Oil Trust "into thirty-four separate companies under the Sherman Antitrust Act." But rather than explaining how the Rockefeller philanthropies played a central role in funding and co-opting environmental organizations throughout the twentieth century he simply focuses on the role of the Rockefellers' continued oil interests in funding anti-environmental activities. First Hawken explains that after Standard Oil Trust was dismantled into separate companies, three of the largest became Exxon, Mobil, and Chevron, with the former two merging in 1998 to become ExxonMobil. Then he notes how ExxonMobil acted as one of one "biggest supporters" of the "oil and automobile industry campaign called the Global Climate Coalition... whose main purpose was to kill the Kyoto Protocol in the United States." He adds that E. Bruce Harrison "helped devise" this campaign -- observing that he was the same man who led the chemical industries campaign against Rachel Carson in the 1960s. Thus although the issue is not acknowledged by Hawken, Rockefeller monies (from their for-profit corporations) have not only undermined more radical or controversial elements within the environmental movement but simultaneously provided massive financial support (via their not-for-profit corporations) for conservative conservation organizations.

Having failed to mention that Rockefeller family wealth played a central role in the evolution of a conservative environmental movement in the United States (for details, see "The Liberal Foundations of Environmentalism: Revisiting the Rockefeller-Ford Connection"), Hawken does at least write that: "From the beginnings, conservation was an idea firmly rooted in upper-class, white society, with many of its leaders and spokespersons graduates of either Yale or Harvard." A point that leads him to accept that Rockefeller-backed groups of the so-called "Big Green"-- like the "Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Fund, National Wildlife Federation, the National Geographic Society, and the Wilderness Society" -- "are not threatening to the establishment because they are the establishment." Hawken then draws a rather arbitrary line between these establishment groups and "A more confrontational and grassroots approach within the environmental movement [that] was initiated by David Brower..." in the late 1960s. I say arbitrary because considering that many of these new groups still relied upon Rockefeller grants to undertake their more confrontational environmental work, it is of course debatable as to whether such groups can be said to truly represent grassroots interests.

Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p.64, p.43, p.64, p.65, pp.45-6, p.46.  (back)

5.  Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p.152. He suggests that this hybridization of interests "is exemplified in the work of Daniel Ben-Horin, who became involved through Larry Brilliant, now head of the Google Foundation, and Stewart Brand, who together in 1985 became founders of the WELL, the Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link, one of the first online virtual communities and one of the first dial-up ISPs in the world." (p.152)  (back)

6.  Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p.163. By way of an example, Hawken continues: "The founder of Earth First, Dave Foreman, and the chair of the New York Council of the Alaska Conservation Foundation, David Rockefeller Jr., want the same thing for Alaska..." (p.163)  (back)

7.  Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p.185, p.22. In contrast to "indigenous cultures, whose worlds are local, intimate, familiar," Hawken writes, "we live in the age of giants.... Bill Gates's home covers one and a half acres and cost nearly $100 million." (p.23).  (back)

8.  David James Duncan, God Laughs and Plays (Triad, 2006), p.118; cited by Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p.188.  (back)

9.  Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p.143. Other relevant New Age books cited in the bibliography of Blessed Unrest that are not directly quoted by Hawken include Eric Chaisson's The Life Era: Cosmic Selection and Conscious Evolution (W.W. Norton, 1987), and two books by James Lovelock: Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine (Gaia Books, 1991) and The Revenge of Gaia (Allen Lane, 2006). Finally, given Hawken's aversion to ideology, it is intriguing that his bibliography includes the world famous book authored by anarchist historian Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States (HarperCollins, 1980).  (back)

10.  With regard to Tarnas's earlier book, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (Ballantine, 1991), Morris Berman observed that while the book is "a fairly decent summary of European intellectual history... The strange bend in the road comes during the last fifty pages, when the author suddenly takes history into archetypal psychology and takes hermeneutic (the science of interpretation) and postmodernism to the new truth. Ignoring all contemporary critiques of deconstructionism, Tarnas declares authoritatively that 'no interpretation of a text can declaim decisive authority.' He claims 'to refuse the tyranny of wholes' and the 'escapism' of cults and ideologies. He then concludes by adopting Jungian archetypes, Stanislav Grof's LSD research, and the need for all of us to embrace the Great Mother and undergo 'dissolution of the ego in ecstatic unity with the universe.'" Morris Berman, Wandering God: A Study of Nomadic Spirituality (State University of New York Press, 2000), p.223.

The Tarnas quotation cited by Hawken's states: "It is perhaps not too much to say that, in the first decade of the new millennium, humanity has entered into a condition that is in some sense more globally united and interconnected, more sensitized to the experiences and suffering of others, in certain respects more spiritually awakened, more conscious of alternative future possibilities and ideals, more capable of collective healing and compassion, and, aided by technological advances in communication media, more able to think, feel, and respond together in a spiritually evolved manner to the world's swiftly changing realities than has ever before been possible." Richard Tarnas cited in Hawken, Blessed Unrest, p.191. (Tarnas is something of a New Age guru and is the founding director of the graduate program in Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.)  (back)

11.  Joel Kovel, "The Justifiers: A Critique of Julian Simon, Stephan Schmidheiny, and Paul Hawken on Capitalism and Nature," Capitalism Nature Socialism, 10 (3), 1999.  (back)


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Published November 19, 2012