Climate Crisis: Eric Utne and Paul Hawken Debate Path Forward

The following letter from Paul Hawken is in response to Eric Utne’s critique of the book Drawdown. Beneath Paul’s letter you will find Eric’s rebuttal.

Paul Hawken’s Response

Eric Utne’s dramatically titled essay, A Clash of Paradigms, is what is called a straw man review in the book world. The reviewer tells the reader what a book says or is, and then proceeds to criticize or deconstruct it.  Here are some suggestions about what Drawdown is actually about, and which are clearly stated in the book.

  1. We set out to map, measure, and model 100 substantive solutions to global warming based on their carbon impact, either through avoided/reduced emissions or their capacity to sequester carbon.
  2. It is not a campaign. Unless literacy is a campaign. Awareness of the threat posed by global warming has been widely available for 40 years. During that time, no institution has produced as comprehensive and methodically researched a set of substantive solutions based solely on widely-cited and peer-reviewed science.
  3. It is not founded on the premise that climate change can be “solved”. First, climate change can never be solved. Change is constant and infinite in the atmosphere, just as it is in the wind, with ocean currents, and the sun itself. What we can address is our activity on earth, actions that create global warming. Second, we set out to find out if reversing global warming was possible, to see if it was possible with practices, techniques, and technologies that were extant. What we found was that adopting these solutions reduces atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases, in theory resulting in a reversal of global warming
  4. We do not say declaratively that it will take 30 years to reverse global warming. What we did is analyze 80 solutions and showed what it would take to do that. The solutions we model are almost entirely no regrets solutions that do have many benefits
  5. Eric is right. Drawdown does not tackle the market economy. That was not our purpose. Nor did we tackle his list of other concerns. The questions he raises about market economies, growth, consumerism, etc. are tackled head on by Naomi Klein’s book, This Changes Everything, but you will not know from reading her book how to substantively address global warming. For those who say that changing our economic system is a good idea, three cheers, but in the meantime…? We need to learn what is possible, and to implement realistic solutions that confront the greatest crisis ever faced by civilization right now.We can argue about paradigms and economic theories, but right now we need action on all levels of society
  6. Drawdown does not ask the reader to do anything, Eric is right. It shows what people worldwide are already doing. It informs the reader about what is happening and invites them to think about what choices they can make. People are weary of the use of fear to motivate them, tired of a progressive movement circling its wagons and shooting inwards. They are not interested in people being “right” and making other people wrong, and more. They want to do something
  7. There is no techno-utopian vision in Drawdown. That is the straw man on center stage. Unless you count as “techno-utopian” educating girls, silvopasture, ocean farming, building with wood, electric bicycles, family planning, renewable energy, reduced food waste, plant-rich diets, protecting forests, walkable cities, hemp cultivation, preserving coastal wetlands, in-stream hydro, composting, biochar, building insulation, perennial cereal crops, improved rice production, bike infrastructure, degraded farmland restoration, regenerative agriculture…I could list more. No idea where this techno-utopian tag came from.
  8. Social engineering? Far from it. Solutions are researched and presented based on individual agency. Whether that someone is choosing to avoid wasting food or deciding when and how they will have a family; a building owner concluding that installing insulation and heat pumps are more effective and will save money over time; a city planner mapping how to make neighborhoods more walkable and bikeable; fund managers deciding to invest in renewable energy systems; or farmers choosing what and how to plant next season. This is a distributed plan, not a central one.

Eric says we need community to solve the crisis. Totally agree. However, we are not community if community only comprises the people who think the way we do and agree with us. If we are going to reverse global warming, we need to come together, not demonize the other. That means we have to “solve” our thinking, the beliefs that cause dualism in the world. That is much more difficult than being “right”

Eric Utne’s Response

“Even if nonpolluting power were feasible and abundant, the use of energy on a massive scale acts on society like a drug that is physically harmless but psychically enslaving.”
–Ivan Illich, Energy & Equity, 1973

Paul’s letter saddens me. He makes it sound like I was out to get Drawdown, to bring it down. He accuses me of fear-mongering, dualistic thinking, and demonization. As I wrote in my review, “I’m all for Project Drawdown. But I don’t believe it will ‘solve’ the climate crisis.”

My main problems with the book are its misleading title, the huge, institutional scale of many of its recommended remedies, and its techno-utopian worldview. The title reads: “Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming,” and the back cover touts: “The 100 Most Substantive Solutions to Reverse Global Warming.”

Solutions are actions that solve a problem. And according to Webster’s, “solve” means to “fix, clear up, iron out, settle, lick, get to the bottom of, unravel, untangle, unriddle, or figure out.” Paul wants his readers to believe that it’s possible to “solve” global warming. I don’t think so.

Drawdown is a well written and lavishly produced compendium of interventions designed to allow us to keep living exactly as we are — unsustainably. It amounts to a cauldron of symptomatic remedies and last-ditch, heroic measures for a way of life that’s already in its death throes and on life-support — Xanax for the techno-industrial complex and Stage 4 chemotherapy for the global market economy.

The Hopi have a word for the techno-industrial complex: Koyaanisqatsi, “life out of balance.” Implementing brilliant technologies to sequester carbon is not a cure for life out of balance. Drawdown may buy us some time, and, as I said, I’m all for many of Paul’s recommended actions, but “solving” the climate crisis requires going much deeper.

Paul writes, “There is no techno-utopian vision in Drawdown.”

I respectfully disagree. Paul’s list is loaded with laudable “solutions” mixed with “techno-utopian” ones. The latter include nuclear power, giant wind turbines, large methane digesters, commercial LED lighting, district heating, multi-strata agroforestry, building automation, bio-plastics, industrial recycling, smart glass, high-speed rail, intensive silvo-pasture, autonomous vehicles, solid-state wave energy, hydrogen boron fusion, smart highways, and hyper-loops, to name a few.

Paul reckons the costs for 80 of the 100 “solutions” will total US$27.4 trillion, and provide lifetime savings of US$73.9 trillion, which is roughly equal to the annual gross domestic product of all the countries of the world (GWP) combined. To place those numbers in context, the total US federal budget for 2015 was $3.8 trillion, about 21 percent of the total U.S. economy. The total value of the 3,066 companies listed on the New York Stock Exchange comes to about US$15 trillion. No one has ever accused Paul of not thinking big.

Paul writes, “Eric says we need community to solve the crisis. Totally agree. However, we are not community if community only comprises the people who think the way we do and agree with us … we need to come together, not demonize the other.”

I don’t equate disagreement with demonization. I hope Paul doesn’t either. I believe that real community requires a tolerance for difference, and a willingness to hang in there with each other, even when we disagree. This is basic to convivial society, the only kind of society that can survive and thrive in the rocky “climacteric” that is already upon us.

Perhaps it’s time to revisit the words of Ivan Illich, whose critique of large-scale “solutions” to social needs I first discovered almost 50 years ago on the pages of the Whole Earth Catalog. Like the modern institutions Ivan Illich warned us about, Paul’s 100 solutions will, “create needs faster than they can create satisfaction, and in the process of trying to meet the needs they generate, they (will) consume the earth.”

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