Prepare for victory today:
An eclectic group of environmental visionaries gathers at the electronic roundtable.
It's been a dismal thousand years, environmentally speaking.
We cut down most of the earth's forests, drove most large carnivores to the brink of
extinction, spread disruptive exotic species around the globe, manufactured poisons on a
monumental scale, and set in motion a potentially catastrophic warming of the atmosphere.
with the blank slate of a new millennium before us, we have a chance to get it right. To
figure out how we can do better, we've turned to some wise friends for advice. These
include author Bill McKibben, whose The End of Nature and The Age of Missing Information
established him as one of the country's premier environmental thinkers; Paul Hawken, who
cofounded the gardening retailer Smith & Hawken and went on to become a leading
proponent of ecological economics through his book The Ecology of Commerce; Anne Ehrlich,
associate director of the Center for Conservation Biology at Stanford University and a
Sierra Club director; Paul Ehrlich, professor of population studies at Stanford and author
of the 1968 conservation classic The Population Bomb; Terry Tempest Williams,
naturalist-in-residence at the Utah Museum of Natural History and author of Refuge: An
Unnatural History of Family and Place; Homero Aridjis, author and founder of Mexico's
leading environmental organization, the Group of 100; and John Sweeney, the head of the
AFL-CIO, representing more than 13 million union members. Moderating the discussion,
conducted via e-mail in the fall, is Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope.
Carl Pope: As we reach the end of the millennium, I am struck by how public
attitudes, both in the United States and globally, have shifted dramatically in the last
third of this century. Last year, for instance, I returned to the Indian state of Bihar
where I served as a Peace Corps volunteer some 30 years ago. Ranchi, once a bucolic hill
station of a few hundred thousand, now has about a million residents. Located in one of
the most poverty-stricken, poorly educated states in India, it is hardly a cosmopolitan
place. Talking with a shopkeeper, I told him I had been away for many years, and was
curious how things had changed.
His response stunned me: "Oh, there are way too many people. We are cutting down
the forests around the city, and air and water pollution have skyrocketed. Now we are even
changing the climate. We used to have this miserable heat for two weeks every year. Now we
have it for two months."
These are the same concerns we hear from Sierra Club members. If Main Street Ranchi is
this close to Main Street America, something profound has happened in the world. But the
actual practices of our societies have changed much less dramatically than public
attitudes. We are headed off an environmental cliff, but governments and corporations
continue to operate on short time horizonsresisting popular desire to minimize
technological risk, for example, or exposure to toxic chemicals. Indeed, they may lag
those they nominally serve by as much as a generation.
So the question I would like to pose is this: How can our collective behavior catch up
with our individual concerns? How, in the next century, can we translate public attitudes
into real environmental progress? Is there a magic button, a single lever, an obvious
first step to get it right in the next millennium?
Bill McKibben: On a local level we're doing at least OKwinning a fair
number of battles over everything from toxics to wildlands. My attitude may be biased
because of my location in the Adirondacks, where Republican Governor George Pataki has
bought large parcels of land, and where were even having reasonably civil
discussions of things like wolf restoration. My sense is that in many places local
legislators have gotten the message; in these very concrete battles, groups like the
Sierra Club and the many small and ad-hoc organizations can often hold their own.
But on the national and international level, it seems to me we're losing ever more all
the time. Partly, I think, we fail politically because we cant manage to
prioritizeall "environmental" issues get the same weight in the movement,
even though in physical terms they are vastly different. If anything, the single most
important issueclimate changegets the least attention, because its the
hardest to act on politically, and because it demands real change on the part of everyone,
including environmentalists. (In fact, American environmentalists are likely to be found
in the demographic group that should change the most). As a result, even environmentally
minded politicians, like those in the Clinton administration, spend all their time on
technological fixes (hydrogen cars!), which are at most half the solution.
Until the national mood coalesces behind the issue, it will be hard to change anything.
We are in the Bayard Rustin/A. Philip Randolph phase of this movement, waiting for our
Rosa Parks or our Dr. King to emergesomeone who can figure out how to galvanize
attention on this ultimate wrongness, our wholesale alteration of the planets
ecosystems. It may not be a great leader that we need. It may be a book (à la Silent
Spring) or more likely it may be some display from the earth itself, like a Category Five
hurricane striking Miami Beachsomething big enough to actually capture the emotional
imagination of a public so removed from the natural world that it doesnt take
physical reality as seriously as abstractions like the economy. One prays that when it
comes its not so dire that we just react defensivelysandbagging cities instead
of building mass transit.
In the meantime, there's organizing to be done. Assembling the networks of people who
understand and care about this issue; electing people to office who want to do something
about it, and educating those mayors and state senators and others who are potentially
open to the message; protesting the absurdities of our age, like the 19-foot-long Ford
Excursion. When the moment comes, we need to have large numbers of people ready to respond
in creative ways, and we need to have coordinated leadership from our national and
international environmental organizations, not the current infighting. I realize that's as
far as you can get from a magic button, but it's as close as I can come to the actual
Paul Hawken: America is going through the most spectacular gilded age in all of
history. At no time has so much financial wealth been accumulated by a relatively small
group of people so quickly, so fantastically. Rapid accumulation of wealth has a highly
disorienting effect on society, as dislocating as earthquakes and fire. We don't know when
and how it will end, but we know it will end. When it does it will bring about a powerful
realignment of values, primarily because of dashed dreams and sinking fantasy horizons.
This new wealth is being created in part by an exponential increase in the rapidity of
communication and many other functions. In turn, this compression of time is squeezing out
most vestiges of traditional social modelsof community, family, relationships,
place, and work itselfbecause the physical and emotional spaces for them are
disappearing. Its as if our interior landscape is being covered by an informational
and chronological sprawl. Lives are slowly fragmenting, and the emotional, physical, and
spiritual toll is very heavy.
Furthermore, there is an astonishing concentration of corporate power and ownership in
media, food, energy, transportation, banking, and more. There are only four major
publishers left in New York, and everyone expects that number to go to three. Three
companiesMonsanto, DuPont, and Novartis, whose origins go back to cancer-causing
saccharine, gunpowder, and toxic aniline dyes respectivelystrive to control 90
percent of the germ plasm that provides the world with 90 percent of its caloric intake.
Whose idea was that? It is the very opposite of the biological redundancy that is at the
heart of ecosystem resilience and sustainability.
Having said all that, I would suggest that the very idea of a lever, of some
Archimedean fulcrum upon which we can pull and move mountains of opinion is antithetical
to the environmental (some might say sustainability) movement. This movement is vastly
different from anything the world has ever seen. Bill McKibben pointed out that we do not
have our Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks yet. But what if the strength of this movement
is that it never will? What if we dont have to figure out where the lever is, but
continue to do what we are doing, and do it better? What if what we need to do is start
being more respectful of our own diversity? What if we need more than anything else the
conviction, against all cursory evidence, that the broad understanding that informs our
work will absolutely prevail? What if we need to start thinking about how to prepare to
actually win, instead of worrying about being right when the ship goes down? By
"win," I do not mean that someone or something will be defeated. I mean prevail
as in a phase transition, ice becoming water. Of course we are losing when measured by any
acceptable indicator, social or ecological. Yet that doesnt mean the current
worldview will continue or can prevail. It cannot.
There are in the United States today at least 30,000 nongovernmental organizations
dealing with sustainability in the broad sense of the word. In the world, there are
approximately 100,000 such groups. Numbers themselves, however, do not convey the power of
this movement; what does are the underlying mental models and frameworks that inform it.
In the past, movements that became powerful (Marxism, Christianity, Freudianism) started
with a set of ideas and disseminated them, creating power struggles over time as the core
model was changed, diluted, or revised. The sustainability movement does not agree on
everything, nor should it ever. But, remarkably, it shares a basic set of fundamental
understandings about the earth and how it functions, and about the necessity of fairness
and equity for all people in partaking of the earths lifegiving systems. This shared
understanding is arising spontaneously, from different economic sectors, cultures,
regions, and cohorts. And it is absolutely growing and spreading worldwide, with no
exception. No one started this worldview, no one is in charge of it, there is no
What we need to ask ourselves is, how can we better recognize what we have already
created, and what is proliferating worldwide? We should also ask if we are preparing ourselves for leadership instead
of loss. I am reminded of Vaclav Havel who with his compatriots spent years practicing
democracy, with shadow ministers, parliaments, and real debates. They were arrested,
jailed, harassed, and when they were released from prison, they practiced some more. When
democracy came, suddenly, unpredictably, and improbably, the Czechs were ready. Russia was
not. The difference is telling. Are we practicing for that time when a new worldview will
prevail? There is a difference between blind, heady optimism and the deep conviction,
Gandhi-like, that no force can counter the truths we share and hold so deeply. The latter
is what we need, more than levers, more than magic, more than instant results. We are not
going to win by uniting and we need to recognize that and put it aside as
vestigial. We are going to win by being true to our model of life. We are going to win by
diversity and differentiation.
Carl Pope: I concur with Paul Hawken that we
shouldnt look to the one big organization or the correct
analysis models as our salvation. But Im skeptical that we can win solely
through a phase transition. It seems to me that we not only need a personal
commitment to model and practice sustainability, but some fundamentally new concepts of
how to embed that ethic in human institutions, which are now global in scale but
hopelessly parochial in vision.