Paul Hawken

Utne Reader visionary [Originally published as Paul Hawken in the January-February 1995 issue of Utne Reader]

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“Business is destroying the world, with flair, expertise, and panache,” says Paul Hawken, 48, a former businessman who writes and lectures in aid of a new environmental pedagogy that he hopes will inspire a willing, uncoerced, even joyous “redesign” of the way we do business and live upon the earth. 

“The responses that environmentalists evokefear, anxiety, numbness, despairare not helpful, even if they are understandable,” Hawken says. “It should be fascinating, even enthralling to be in the milieu of environmental change.” And his critique of business arises from the nuanced disillusion of an insider who struggled to make Green principles work in the corporate world. 

Hawken’s early life, an intriguing mix of Horatio Alger hardscrabble and hippie-era anything goes, took him to the Haight-Ashbury music scene, to Japan for macrobiotic studies, and to Boston, where he founded the natural-foods giant Erewhon Trading Company. In 1979 he cofounded Smith and Hawken, a California mail-order gardening-supply company that was soon a byword for ecological responsibility. 

Eventually, however, Hawken came to feel that he was rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic. “The recycled toner cartridges, the sustainably harvested woods, the replanted trees, the soy-based inks...were all well and good,” he wrote in his main theoretical book, The Ecology of Commerce (1993), “but basically we were in the junk mail business....All the recycling in the world would not change the fact that doing business in the latter part of the 20th century is an energy-intensive endeavor that gulps down resources.” 

After leaving the company in 1991, he began to give his full attention to describing what he calls a new industrial revolution, in which “we reduce what we take from natural systems; we employ more and more people, not fewer and fewer; we emphasize location and rootedness. This is not Arcadian; it’s as plausible as the system that preceded it,” he insists. “It’s a combination of simple procedural changes and profound perceptual changes.” 

The perceptual changes imply a basic understanding of nonlinear systems and a heightened awareness of the environmental truths we all can agree on. Paraphrasing Swedish physician and environmentalist Karl-Henrik Robèrt, who has been a major influence on his work, Hawken says, “We may not be able to determine how many parts per million of dioxin cause cancer; but we know dioxin is persistent, biocumulative, man-made, harmful to cell life, and unpredictable in its effects. That’s enough to know that we can’t introduce it into living systems.” 

For all his intensity, Hawken expresses no desireand no needto lead an ecorevolution. “I want to help design this new pedagogy so that nobody associates a person with it,” he says. “The environmental movement is hostile to hierarchy, charisma, centralization. At its best it still flies under the media radar. But it has reached critical mass in the past five years or soand will be the defining context of the century to come.”