Environmental leader Paul Hawken discusses a holistic set of solutions for dealing with climate change, while simultaneously making the Earth worth saving.
In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast, we delve into the issue of climate change, as underscored by the latest UN climate report’s warning of impending catastrophic warming in the face of indifference, if not resistance, on the part of most of the world’s population.
Our guest, Paul Hawken, author of bestsellers Drawdown and Regeneration and a prominent figure in the environmental movement, shares his insights on tackling climate change. Hawken highlights the significance of his “Regeneration” movement, which is rapidly gaining momentum worldwide with the aim of ending the climate crisis within a single generation.
He explains that this movement integrates issues of justice, climate, biodiversity, equity, and human dignity into a comprehensive framework for action, policy, and transformation. To captivate humanity’s attention, Hawken asserts that we must first create a world worth saving from the threat of global warming.
Discussing the need for holistic solutions, Hawken emphasizes learning from Earth’s feedback and the importance of collective action over individual efforts. Although he acknowledges the role of technology, he recognizes that it alone cannot solve the problem, especially since technology has contributed significantly to the crisis.
Hawken contends that calls to action that rely on fear are more paralyzing than motivating. By understanding our disengagement from such a crucial issue, he believes we may actually find the path toward a solution. In his book Regeneration, Hawken offers a counterargument to those who think it is too late to address the climate crisis.
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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman. The latest UN climate report reveals that we’re edging closer to catastrophic warming. As we witnessed the devastating impact of the drought in Somalia and extreme weather events across America, still an astounding 90-plus percent of people remain disengaged from the climate conversation.
According to our guest on this week’s WhoWhatWhy Podcast, Paul Hawken, addressing the climate crisis will require the engagement of the vast majority of humanity. Perhaps to capture humanity’s attention, we must first create a world that feels attended to. A world that’s worth saving.
Joining me today to help make sense of our collective disregard for this crisis, and what we can still do about it, is Paul Hawken. He’s a leading voice in the environmental movement, one of the leaders in the effort to engage government, business, and community in the climate crisis. Hawken is the author of eight books, including Drawdown and Regeneration, where he argues that it is not too late to address the climate crisis. It is my pleasure to welcome Paul Hawken here to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Paul, thanks so much for joining us.
Paul Hawken: Thank you and I appreciate it.
Jeff: First of all, given how difficult it has been and seemingly will continue to be to do even the simplest things we need to do for the country and for society, does that give you pause and concern about taking on some of the gigantic things we need to take on with respect to dealing with climate change?
Paul: Well, I’m not taking it on. [laughter] That’s too much for anybody and the last thing you want to do is try to save the earth because you can’t, and it’s a burden. But there’s a lot we can do to bring us together in ways that unite us, and what unites us is far more important than what divides us, especially when it comes to climate. And this phenomenon, global warming and all the impacts it is having on weather, jet streams, ocean currents, floods, hurricanes, iconic disturbances, drought, et cetera, basically, is like the earth talking to us. It’s like it’s feedback, and it’s like we’re being homeschooled by Mother Earth.
These are real lessons [laughs] and we can ignore them, but any system that ignores feedback perishes, and this is feedback. No question about it. And so I see it differently than taking it on as a burden or something like that. I see it as [the] end of an era in terms of how we relate to each other. How we relate to the earth and what we’ve done to nature. And I see the beginning of an era of regeneration, which is inclusive, which is not about stealing the earth, which is what we’re doing. We’re stealing the future from our children. And we’re degenerating life. We’re contracting it. We’re turning it into money and capital and wealth and privilege. But the earth is talking back.
And so I see this in a positive way, not as a hopeful thing. I’m not interested in hope. I’m interested in bringing myself and others to life, and I think that’s what the earth is offering us, which is to regenerate every single system that we know of, whether it’s a city or whether it’s an ecosystem, whether it’s the forest or whether it’s the favelas, whether it’s the companies we work within or the institutions that we uphold and so forth. They’re all ready for regeneration and it’s happening. This is an emergent movement.
Jeff: Is there a fundamental conflict that is inherent in this view of what we have to do to deal with the climate? This idea of coming together as a direction at a time when the world seems more divided than ever before?
Paul: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. Yes, it does seem that way, but that presumes that this movement is about bringing the whole world together, the whole country together, the whole state together, and that’s not what it’s about. The climate movement, in my opinion, will become the largest movement in human history. And the reason for that is [the] weather. The climate and the impacts of global warming have changed from being a concept, [a] future existential threat, to experiential. It’s not conceptual, it’s the real deal. Vicariously or directly, more and more people on Earth, 1.1 billion have experienced it directly now.
And that changes our attitude. As long as the concept is out there, somewhere, sometime, there’s not really much we want to do or have to do. And that’s been borne out by the fact that 98 percent of humanity is disengaged. But when I say bring people together, what I’m talking about is that we have been told as individuals this is what you can do. Like Uncle Sam pointing his finger at us, and there are things we can do as individuals for sure, but the fact is we’re not individuals. You have agency. It’s called conversations with Jeff Schechtman- that’s agency. So look at how many people you reach. But all of us have family and friends and communities and neighborhoods and where we work, in our clubs, in our churches or synagogues or temples or all these things are part of who we are. And there’s no such thing as an individual. And that’s what we call agency. That’s agency. And what we know about human beings is they love to learn together, and they love to solve problems together. We do it really well, by the way, and we’re social beings and we like that. And we do it, and we do it all the time.
And so what I see is that the solutions to reversing global warming and to addressing the climate crisis and so forth are arising spontaneously everywhere in the world, in different ways, in different groupings, at different levels of agency. And in the meantime, what we see, Jeff, is that we keep being told what we can do as an individual, but we’re not individuals. That’s what I’m saying, we’re not. That’s just something our ego wakes up with in the morning and tells us, but our whole life is interdependent and intertwined with other people. And at the same time, what we’re told we could do is like puny compared to the task at hand. We’re like, “Okay, I’ll do it. I’ll recycle my plastic-
Paul: -and this and that.” And you go, “And I’ll put cold water in my washing machine, and I’ll use the different detergents,” and these sweet little things, these gestures. I’m not decrying them. They’re good stuff. But we know unless you have an IQ lower than room temperature, you know that these are inadequate to the task at hand. And so it doesn’t make you feel empowered. It makes you almost feel disempowered, like, “I’ll do it, but I know this isn’t enough.”
And then where do you look? You look to government, you look to big government, you look to big companies, big corporations, and you see they’re dysfunctional. [laughs] You see they don’t work, and they’re slow, and they’re corrupt in many cases, even if they don’t know it, they’re corrupted. And then you can go into despair. For sure.
Jeff: Is there a sense though that we are looking for some kind of magic bullet for some kind of technological solution, for someone to come along and solve this for us?
Paul: You’re so right. What happens in that dynamic of the individual versus the big institutions, is that all of us, I’ve experienced it, which is, “Well, I hope they do it,” or whoever they is. And the Bill Gates’ of the world, and all that sort of stuff, we have [his] big investment company breakthrough investments, whatever it’s called (Breakthrough Energy) investing in all these tech solutions. And there’s this idea where technology can save the day, and we definitely need technology and technology is amazing. It will not save the day because the day isn’t about technology. It’s about a living, breathing, beautiful, miraculous planet which supplies everything we need including air, water, food, and more.
If we separate that and we think technology is going to solve the problem, we have to also remember that technology is often used to solve the problems that technology created, and that doesn’t work forever. [chuckles] And technology is not going to solve those problems. But there is something that can and there’s a technology that we underestimate, which is the human mind, human imagination, the human heart, and the very fact that Regeneration, the title of the book, is innate to us.
Your 30 trillion cells are regenerating every nanosecond right now. This is why we can have this conversation. If it wasn’t for regeneration, blah, nothing. And it is the default mode of nature. It’s what happens every moment, every nanosecond, again, on every tree, every plant, and there are soil communities that are underneath. And the rivers repairing systems and oceans and creatures. It’s ubiquitous. It’s what the earth does. And we also see it in ourselves not just biologically but we see it in terms of how we care for our children, our family, our friends, our place, our pets, our gardens, our whatever. This is all regenerative impulses and activity because what are we doing? We’re taking care of life and so to me what regeneration offers us as an organizing principle to understand and address global warming is something that everybody can participate in and you don’t have to save the world. You can’t anyway, it’s a burden to think about it. It’s not your problem.
Your opportunity though is to do something that is absolutely relevant to where you are with whom you are or the people you are with. And what lights you up with, like, “I want to do this. I love doing this. This is something I’ve always wanted to do.” As opposed to acting on this thing out of guilt, of fear, of threat, of shame, [and] all those things. Those emotions. Those have been used now for decades as a way to motivate people. And all I can say about that is, how is that working for you? It’s not working.
Jeff: To your point earlier about, what we’re experiencing in terms of fires, in terms of floods and the weather activity you talk about, it is arguable that fear becomes an even bigger motivation at this point as these things become front and center.
Paul: No, fear shuts people down. Fear lights up the amygdala. The amygdala then bypasses the neocortex and neocortex is a problem solving part of the brain and fear wipes that out. So I disagree. We know from neuroscience that that’s what’s happening. So, yes, if it’s fear in the sense of, you have to run from an animal or a snake that is about ready to bite you or something like that, of course, fear works. If you see a car coming at you and you’re in the crosswalk at 40 miles an hour you move.
Fear is a good, important emotion. No question about it. It’s there for a reason. But fear? No. When it’s a complex existential threat whether it’s current or in the future, that doesn’t motivate people
Jeff: Is there a concern about making this about too many other things? That if it gets away from the immediate concerns about warming and about climate and we start thinking about it in terms of social justice and equity and the broader context of the planet that we lose sight of the immediate crisis somehow.
Paul: We lost sight of it a long time ago. Over 98 percent of the world is disengaged right now, so making it smaller isn’t going to make it better. We have to ask ourselves, why are they disengaged? What happened? How [have] we communicated this in such a way that the greatest crisis civilization has ever faced and may ever face is basically unacted upon? That is what we have to look at.
So making it bigger is that it is big, but making it bigger isn’t making it more onerous. It’s making it larger in terms of where people can meaningfully engage. How many people can put up a solar farm or a wind turbine in the ocean? And so most of what we hear about, again is whoa, wow, how many people can afford an EV, much less make one?
Much of what we hear about is like, “Whoa, I hope they – again, they – somebody out there has got it together because I don’t.” Because the repertoire or the menu that’s been offered, that has been told to me about where I can make a difference, is so narrow. And so I don’t see it as [being] bigger making it more problematic. I think it’s small and tiny and siloed and that’s the problem. And not to say, I’m decrying any of those things, I’m not. I’m just saying, it’s much bigger, more expansive, more interesting, more complex, [and] much more engaging the way it’s been taught to us.
Jeff: Talk about this in the context of the problem being as global as it is and coming with that, the fact that we’re dealing with so much cultural diversity across the world. Whether we can think about it this way, understanding that different cultures look at things in different ways.
Paul: They certainly do. When I finished the book and I hired a decolonization editor – Kyle Whyte from the University of Michigan, the Citizen Potawatomi professor there – and on the very first page, there was a word, I forgot the sentence, “We face the greatest crisis humanity’s ever…” whatever.That’s the we part. He circled it, in the margin. He said, “Who’s we?” It’s like, [chuckles] “Good question, Kyle.”
The idea that we can speak for we is nonsense. And we are different. We are diverse, we are complex. Our cultures are amazingly beautiful. There’s 5,000 indigenous cultures in the world alone and 5,000 languages right there, and they have enormous wisdom because they’ve been living in the same place for thousands of years and they’ve learned how to live there and what works and what doesn’t work and so forth.
And so Regeneration is very much about renewing [and] restoring our respect for this level of science. This is observational science. It’s not empirical science and the wisdom holders are there because they can teach us about our place. There’s the Mi’kmaqs in Nova Scotia, I mean, extraordinary. When they walk by a tree, a spruce, and they listen to the winds sopping through the tree, they name the tree for the sound. They name it. Ten years later they can still remember the name. They walk by the tree, they listen to the sound the tree is making now and they can tell whether it’s healthy or [has] been damaged.
There is a level of understanding on this planet that we have way overlooked by treating indigenous people, Black people, brown people. People who are other bicolonists and settlers that we have lost in some cases but which we have basically ignored. And so Regeneration is about really regenerating culture and ourselves and our knowledge and our wisdom and our sharing and understanding and our skills. And this is what brings us together.
And as I said, what unites us is far more important than what divides us in the sense of a climate emergency. When you have a climate emergency which is what we have, then people look at each other differently because they know they need each other.
Jeff: Among the 98 percent that are disengaged that you talked about, were any of them ever engaged or is it just to your point earlier that the language and the communications of this just never engaged them to start?
Paul: I think there’s two ways to look at that. One is I think half of those people really are sympathetic and understand the problem about how to present the cause of global warming and et cetera, and they don’t know what to do. And even if they hear about something that could be done or should be done, so to speak, they don’t know how to do it.
And so one of the purposes of Regeneration is the website. And you can bypass the book and go right to the website. And in there is Nexus. It’s not complete yet. We’re working as hard as we can. We’re an NGO. We don’t have buckets of money but we have buckets of great scholars and researchers in our buckets [and] our team is amazing.
And what Nexus is is the world’s largest listing and network of climate solutions and how to do them and how to do them on every level of agency. Just as an individual, okay. But what about a neighborhood? What about a community? What about a church? What about a temple? What about a synagogue? What about a company? What about a city? What about a classroom? What about a club? What about it goes on and on and on. And these are all levels of agency which we have, which we’re part of.
And it shows you how if you degrade a land restoration, okay, there is one. This is what you can do on all levels and here are the bad actors. Here are the ones who are just really amazing people. Here are the NGOs all over the world that are already active and know so much and want your support and will teach you and welcome involvement. Here are the books, here are the videos, here the documentaries. Here are the articles, here are all the resources you need.
And the most important thing that somebody can do, really, is what lights them up. What they love to do. They’re curious about it or they know about it or [it] takes them outside or whatever. It depends on each person [being] different and that’s what we need to do and we need to do it in a way that makes sense to us. And so we describe ourselves as being selfish. Yes, but we’re actually transcendently altruistic and we want to be and work with other people.
We’re humans. We like to solve problems together and learn together. And that’s what Regeneration is about, it’s just looking at it from a different point of view. It doesn’t in any way decry or exclude what is going on or what’s happening with respect to climate, but it’s too narrow.
Jeff: Paul Hawken. Paul, I thank you so much for spending time with us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast.
Paul: My pleasure, Jeff. Thank you so much.
Jeff: Thank you. And thank you for listening and joining us here on the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I hope you join us next week for another Radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman. If you like this podcast, please feel free to share and help others find it by rating and reviewing it on iTunes. You can also support this podcast and all the work we do by going to whowhatwhy.org/donate.