Paul Hawken’s Blessed Unrest Review

Reviewed by Alder Moonoak

Environmentalist, entrepreneur, and journalist Hawken subtitled his 2007 book “How the Largest Social Movement in History is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World,” and in its pages he investigates groups across the planet with varying projects and agendas that are bringing about what he believes are profound transformations in human society. It’s an account of the people who are redefining “our relationship to the environment and to one another, healing the wounds of the Earth with passion and determination.” The book emerges from the author’s hundreds of lectures at which people from every walk of life approach him and share their personal or group work relating to environmentalism, peace, social justice, or indigenous wisdom. In time, the interconnections and dependencies between these groups became clear, along with their sheer number and scope—the author estimates there are over 100,000 such groups in the world, constituting the “largest social movement in history.” As Hawken counted the vast number of organizations, he began to postulate that the movement he observed was somehow organic or even biologic. He writes that this movement has a distinct history, “what poet Gary Snyder calls the great underground, a current of humanity that dates back to the Paleolithic.” The work of Reich, Ferguson, Thompson, Ray, and Anderson can be considered ‘surfacings’ of this underground and examples of its periodic recognition. 

Blessed Unrest begins with a general overview of the ubiquitous “movement,” each group sprouting “like blades of grass after a rain” and spreading across the globe. Because of its decentralization, the movement cannot be divided, because of its egalitarianism, it tends to disperse concentrations of power, and because of improvements in information technology, its growth has been significant. Hawken regards the movement as humanity’s response to crisis by persons with a particular set of values. 

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.   

However, like Ray and Anderson, Hawken laments the movement’s virtual invisibility, which he attributes to the fact that cultural developments often do not fit conventional categories and to the resulting difficulties defining cultural changes on the gradual scale of generations or even centuries. Neither does the movement have strong ideologies to clearly identify and delineate it from the background cultural milieu or to create conflict between competing ideas and their supporters. Instead of grand normative isms, regional processes, community needs, pragmatic solutions, and compassionate responses lead to radical democracy uncorrupted by corporations or modern nation-states. The movement is vast, but because of corporate media myopia, its message, numbers, and underlying unity are lost to the public and the members of the movement themselves. 

The basic questions of Blessed Unrest concern that group of people who, invisible or not, form the minority progressive vanguard. Having attained a certain level of conscious awareness about the larger pictures of human and global interdependence, they act to deepen relationships between persons, groups, and Earth, and to heal wounds endured during the march of industrial civilization. 

This book asks whether a significant portion of humanity has found a new series of adaptive traits and stories more alluring than the ideological fundamentalisms that have caused us so much suffering.  

The “adaptive traits” characterize a change in behavioral patterns based on new knowledge and its dissemination through a population, and the “stories” indicate the changing of cultural mythos from the assumptions of modernity to the pragmatic necessities of what Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry call the Ecozoic Era. Old cultural stories begin to lose their power before the next story can fully develop. The passion of progressives for this fresh perspective is based on excitement for the project of developing the next culture founded on unique characteristics of the Ecozoic period. 

Hawken divides his book into chapters dealing with individual histories and influences of the movement, beginning with “The Long Green,” an examination of environmentalism. He argues that “The first generation—our own—to worry about global threats like nuclear proliferation and climate change is effectively ahistorical.” In other words, ecological concerns are unprecedented in history, and unique global issues require a holistic and transnational perspective with a planet-wide consciousness. The author traces the history of the environmental branch of the movement from Emerson’s Nature and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species to Carson’s Silent Spring and Brower’s Earth Island Institute, including the writings of Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, James Lovelock, and Stewart Brand. 

In the chapter “Immunity,” Hawken speculates that not only may the Earth be a single living entity, but humankind itself may form a collective organism integrated in mysterious and inexplicable ways. The answer to current difficulties is the nurturance of the human collective consciousness which has the power to initiate global innovations individuals or small groups can’t. The author further submits that such a massive mind acts as the planet’s immune system, responding to toxins like political corruption, economic disease, and environmental degradation. 

Just as the immune system recognizes self and non-self, the movement identifies what is humane and not humane. Just as the immune system is the line of internal defense that allows an organism to persist over time, sustainability is a strategy for humanity to continue to exist over time.

Comparing the human species in its capacity to rectify and correct disease in its collective body to the individual body’s complex system of protection gives a global perspective to the meaning of immune response. In similar fashion, the diverse network of organizations proliferating in the world today act to heal and maintain the planetary body, each group targeting specific pathogens to eliminate. Many people are now aware that the Earth is sick and that human history is rife with unnecessary human-made suffering. The process is slow and often discouraging as the same problems repeat over and over in a seemingly endless cycle of destruction. Most groups remain small with few resources, and it’s not easy creating a system with no antecedent; however, as with our previous authors, Hawken is optimistic, seeing momentous organizational energy forming to meet the monstrous tasks.

Groups are divided into several major categories: Keepers, Watchers, Friends, Defenders, Alliances, Conservancies, Incubator NGOs, Networks, Workers, Street performers, Culture jammers, Billionaire philanthropists, Social entrepreneurs, Foodies, and Free accessors. Each has its niche, but all share values relating to easing suffering, protecting the environment, supporting innovation, creating sustainable enterprises, addressing a specific need, or offering a service. The question is whether these groups can work together. Being separate entities working on different areas with varied goals does mean unification is challenging, but the underlying values and ultimate purposes of each collective provides a framework for finding common ground. Hawken suggests that diversity is strength and unity follows recognition.

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. This is the promise of the movement: that the margins link up, that we discover through our actions and shared concerns that we are a global family.    

The understanding that in our diversity we are whole represents a profound shift in consciousness, from isolated individuals to a unified community, millions of different human and organizational antibodies that can lock on to antigens, neutralize the invaders, and simultaneously signal for help. Hawken lists some of the antigens being actively addressed:

  • corrupt politics
  • climate change
  • corporate predation
  • death of the oceans
  • governmental indifference
  • pandemic poverty
  • industrial forestry and farming
  • depletion of soil and water

In the chapter “Restoration,” the author finds solace in the fierce efforts of the movement and its diversity. Such redundancy encourages resilience so that damage can be done on social and ecological levels and the system as a whole will continue to flourish. The interaction between humans and Earth must be stabilized, however, lest a serious disequilibrium develop which must be repaired by ejecting the source of the problem (us). The movement stimulates equilibrium by being balanced itself without requiring overriding structures, central authorities, or dominance that limits flexibility or calcifies porous boundaries needed for interconnectivity, cooperation, and growth. 

Hawken reminds us that spaceship Earth is powered by a mother ship, the Sun. In order to create real sustainability, humankind must learn to mimic the waste-recycling habits of nature so that, if possible, what was once pollution is reused. A trilogy of concepts—‘cradle to cradle,’ ‘waste equals food,’ and ‘staying within current solar income’—forms the basic tenets of the greening of industry and elimination of pollution and misuse. In other words, we need to realize that future generations will have to pay the price for current trends of gluttony and waste, that all waste is actually the food for some other element in the system, and that the Sun provides all the energy we could possibly need if we simply harvest it. The technical means for achieving a stable state economy exists; only the collective will is missing. The will is founded on more than expertise, outrage, or even suffering—it needs a source of passion and transcendence wherein the daunting problems we face can be overcome. It needs spirituality.

It has been said that we cannot save our planet unless humankind undergoes a widespread spiritual and religious awakening. In other words, fixes won’t fix unless we fix our souls as well.  

From spiritual teachers like Jesus and the Buddha who emerged during the ‘Axial Age’ come perennial values such as the Golden Rule, the sacredness of all life, and an active love for the world despite its imperfection. Hawken submits that “Compassion and love of others are at the heart of all religions, and at the heart of this movement.” It would seem that, like our other books, Blessed Unrest evinces a spiritual element to the community of faithful workers, whether they consciously regard themselves as spiritual or not. It takes a kind of faith to labor towards the unimaginable, to re-imagine the world in a way that fosters hope in things like growth without inequality, wealth without plunder, work without exploitation, and a future without fear. Through the spirit of healing, forgiveness, and determination to be born again can we transcend the wounds of the past and step into the sunlight of a new future.

For Hawken, the movement has no defining moment, no charismatic leaders, no book to fully describe it, because it’s “the breathing, sentient testament of the living world.” It constitutes an outgrowth of natural processes we see all around us. The movement is as organic as wildflowers and wind. In this way, the movement’s participants are following the natural course of the Earth itself as agents of the planet. We’re inseparably linked by a common destiny bound up with our ability to collectively turn the ship away from the rocks and into safe harbor. The author is optimistic that the dominant thinking of the movement will eventually influence every person, group, institution, and the whole planet’s consciousness, and will “change a sufficient number of people so as to begin the reversal of centuries of frenzied self-destructive behavior.” Commerce, government, schools, churches, and cities will learn to re-image the world from the bottom up based on the principles of justice and ecology. Remove whatever prevents the system from healing itself, and the future will dawn bright as sunshine. 

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