The Resurgence of Citizen’s Movements

Beyond the empty campaign rhetoric that passes for public debate today lie the seeds of a dramatic cultural and political transformation. In 50 years, America will be a very different place. And surprise! It might be better than you dare imagine. Here’s why.

We are beginning a mythic period of existence, rather like the age portrayed in the Bhagavad Gita, in The Lord of the Rings, and in other tales of darkness and light. We live in a time in which every living system is in decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating as our economy grows. The commercial processes that bring us the kind of lives we supposedly desire are destroying the earth and the life we cherish. Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife reserve, wilderness, or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. We are losing our forests, fisheries, coral reefs, topsoil, water, biodiversity, and climatic stability. The land, sea, and air have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste.

Feeling the momentum of loss at the beginning of a new century, one wants to close one’s eyes. Yet that is the very thing that will bring forth ruin. I believe in rain, in odd miracles, in the intelligence that allows terns and swallows to find their way across the planet. And I believe that we are capable of creating a remarkable future for humankind.

In the United States, more than 30,000 citizens’ groups, nongovernmental organizations, and foundations are addressing the issue of social and ecological sustainability in the most complete sense of the word. Worldwide, their number exceeds 100,000. Together, they address a broad array of issues, including environmental justice, ecological literacy, public policy, conservation, women’s rights and health, population growth, renewable energy, corporate reform, labor rights, climate change, trade rules, ethical investing, ecological tax reform, water conservation, and much more. These groups follow Gandhi’s imperatives: Some resist, others create new structures, patterns, and means. The groups tend to be local, marginal, poorly funded, and overworked. It is hard for most groups not to feel justified anxiety that they could perish in a twinkling. At the same time, a deeper, extraordinary pattern is emerging. If you ask these groups for their principles, frameworks, conventions, models, or declarations, you will find that they do not conflict. Never before in history has this happened. In the past, movements that became powerful started with a unified or centralized set of ideas (Marxism, Christianity, Freudianism) and disseminated them, creating power struggles over time as the core mental model or dogma was changed, diluted, or revised. This new sustainability movement did not start this way. Its supporters do not agree on everything–nor should they–but remarkably, they share a basic set of fundamental understandings about the earth, how it functions, and the necessity of fairness and equity for all people in partaking of its life-giving systems.

This shared understanding is arising spontaneously from different economic sectors, cultures, regions, and cohorts. And it is spreading throughout this country and the world. No one started this worldview, no one is in charge of it, no orthodoxy is restraining it. I believe it is the fastest-growing and most powerful movement in the world today, unrecognizable to the American media because it is not centralized, based on power, or led by charismatic white males. As external conditions continue to worsen socially, environmentally, and politically, organizations working toward sustainability multiply and gain more supporters.

We will never recover what we have lost. It will take 5 million years to restore the diversity of lost species. Nevertheless, in 50 years we can begin the very necessary work of restoration. We can begin to reduce carbon in the atmosphere; recharge aquifers; bring back lands that have been taken by deserts; create habitat corridors for buffalo, panthers, and gray wolves; and thicken our paper-thin topsoil.What is possible in 50 years is a world that is wonderfully messy and deliriously creative. It doesn’t fit a single scenario written anywhere by anyone. As for the United States, it will not be a country defined by technologies, measured in money, or summarized by demographics. It will be, perforce, a country in a world defined by the acts of restoring life on Earth–dancing, donning costumes, singing, performing rituals, enjoying magic, praying, worshiping, and playing. This is the work of carefully reconstituting what has been lost by creating conditions conducive to life.

In 50 years, America will be a culture whose industrial materials cause no damage to anyone, on the short term or the long term; it will be a society that emulates the design brilliance of nature, which we have yet to fully appreciate. The great work of this era will be extraordinary for defining its goals not solely in terms of a decade or even a century, but of millennia. The American people will have thrown off the tyranny of compressive time, coercive work, and erosive competition. It will be a country still rent by massive discontinuities as the momentum of today’s world extends far into the future, but it will be a country that is connected, aware, and committed to the future. It will be an America that can see–and can see that it knows all it needs to know to sustain and honor life. That alone will distinguish it from where we are today.

Paul Hawken is the author (with Hunter and Amory Lovins) of Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution and The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability. All essays reprinted from Imagine: What America Could Be in the 21st Century, edited by Marianne Williamson. Available wherever books are sold or directly from the publisher by calling 800/848-4735 or visiting

Join the revolution! Throughout November and December Cafe Utne will host discussions with several of the visionary authors who contributed essays to Imagine. For a full schedule, go to the Salon

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