An inspirational message from Paul Hawken

June 4, 2009 — 16 Comments

Paul has long been one of the most inspirational guides for how to think imaginatively and sustainably but his Commencement address to the University of Portland in May is particularly good.

Commencement Address by Paul Hawken, University of Portland, May 3rd,

When I was invited to give this speech, I was asked if I could give a
simple short talk that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate,
lean, shivering, startling, and graceful.” Boy, no pressure there.

But let’s begin with the startling part. Hey, Class of 2009: you are
going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth
at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of
decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation – but not
one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute
that statement.

Basically, the earth needs a new operating system, you are the
programmers, and we need it within a few decades.

This planet came with a set of operating instructions, but we seem to
have misplaced them. Important rules like don’t poison the water,
soil, or air, and don’t let the earth get overcrowded, and don’t touch
the thermostat have been broken. Buckminster Fuller said that
spaceship earth was so ingeniously designed that no one has a clue
that we are on one, flying through the universe at a million miles per
hour, with no need for seatbelts, lots of room in coach, and really
good food – but all that is changing.

There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will
receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can
tell you what it says: YOU ARE BRILLIANT, AND THE EARTH IS HIRING. The
earth couldn’t afford to send any recruiters or limos to your school.
It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and
that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And
here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet-saving is not
possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know
what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it
was impossible only after you are done.

When asked if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my
answer is always the same: If you look at the science about what is
happening on earth and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t understand data.
But if you meet the people who are working to restore this earth and
the lives of the poor, and you aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a
pulse. What I see everywhere in the world are ordinary people willing
to confront despair, power, and incalculable odds in order to restore
some semblance of grace, justice, and beauty to this world. The poet
Adrienne Rich wrote, “So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot
with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary
power, reconstitute the world.” There could be no better description.
Humanity is coalescing. It is reconstituting the world, and the action
is taking place in schoolrooms, farms, jungles, villages, campuses,
companies, refuge camps, deserts, fisheries, and slums.

You join a multitude of caring people. No one knows how many groups
and organizations are working on the most salient issues of our day:
climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger,
conservation, human rights, and more. This is the largest movement the
world has ever seen.

Rather than control, it seeks connection. Rather than dominance, it
strives to disperse concentrations of power. Like Mercy Corps, it
works behind the scenes and gets the job done. Large as it is, no one
knows the true size of this movement. It provides hope, support, and
meaning to billions of people in the world. Its clout resides in idea,
not in force. It is made up of teachers, children, peasants,
businesspeople, rappers, organic farmers, nuns, artists, government
workers, fisherfolk, engineers, students, incorrigible writers,
weeping Muslims, concerned mothers, poets, doctors without borders,
grieving Christians, street musicians, the President of the United
States of America, and as the writer David James Duncan would say, the
Creator, the One who loves us all in such a huge way.

There is a rabbinical teaching that says if the world is ending and
the Messiah arrives, first plant a tree, and then see if the story is
true.  Inspiration is not garnered from the litanies of what may
befall us; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress,
reform, rebuild, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. “One day you
finally knew what you had to do, and began, though the voices around
you kept shouting their bad advice,” is Mary Oliver’s description of
moving away from the profane toward a deep sense of connectedness to
the living world.

Millions of people are working on behalf of strangers, even if the
evening news is usually about the death of strangers. This kindness of
strangers has religious, even mythic origins, and very specific
eighteenth-century roots. Abolitionists were the first people to
create a national and global movement to defend the rights of those
they did not know. Until that time, no group had filed a grievance
except on behalf of itself. The founders of this movement were largely
unknown – Granville Clark, Thomas Clarkson, Josiah Wedgwood – and
their goal was ridiculous on the face of it: at that time three out of
four people in the world were enslaved. Enslaving each other was what
human beings had done for ages. And the abolitionist movement was
greeted with incredulity. Conservative spokesmen ridiculed the
abolitionists as liberals, progressives, do-gooders, meddlers, and
activists. They were told they would ruin the economy and drive
England into poverty. But for the first time in history a group of
people organized themselves to help people they would never know, from
whom they would never receive direct or indirect benefit. And today
tens of millions of people do this every day. It is called the world
of non-profits, civil society, schools, social entrepreneurship, and
non-governmental organizations, of companies who place social and
environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals. The scope
and scale of this effort is unparalleled in history.

The living world is not “out there” somewhere, but in your heart. What
do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life
creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no
better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of
abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned
people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed
regulators on how to save failed assets. Think about this: we are the
only species on this planet without full employment. Brilliant. We
have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in
real time than to renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money
to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At
present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and
calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an
economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it. We
can either create assets for the future or take the assets of the
future. One is called restoration and the other exploitation. And
whenever we exploit the earth we exploit people and cause untold
suffering. Working for the earth is not a way to get rich, it is a way
to be rich.

The first living cell came into being nearly 40 million centuries ago,
and its direct descendants are in all of our bloodstreams. Literally
you are breathing molecules this very second that were inhaled by
Moses, Mother Teresa, and Bono. We are vastly interconnected. Our
fates are inseparable. We are here because the dream of every cell is
to become two cells. In each of you are one quadrillion cells, 90
percent of which are not human cells. Your body is a community, and
without those other microorganisms you would perish in hours. Each
human cell has 400 billion molecules conducting millions of processes
between trillions of atoms. The total cellular activity in one human
body is staggering: one septillion actions at any one moment, a one
with twenty-four zeros after it. In a millisecond, our body has
undergone ten times more processes than there are stars in the
universe – exactly what Charles Darwin foretold when he said science
would discover that each living creature was a “little universe,
formed of a host of self-propagating organisms, inconceivably minute
and as numerous as the stars of heaven.”

So I have two questions for you all: First, can you feel your body?
Stop for a moment. Feel your body. One septillion activities going on
simultaneously, and your body does this so well you are free to ignore
it, and wonder instead when this speech will end. Second question: who
is in charge of your body? Who is managing those molecules? Hopefully
not a political party. Life is creating the conditions that are
conducive to life inside you, just as in all of nature. What I want
you to imagine is that collectively humanity is evincing a 20 deep
innate wisdom in coming together to heal the wounds and insults of the

Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came
out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of
course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be
ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the
stars come out every night, and we watch television.

This extraordinary time when we are globally aware of each other and
the multiple dangers that threaten civilization has never happened,
not in a thousand years, not in ten thousand years. Each of us is as
complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done
great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring
creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, challenging,
stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations
before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted
and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your
existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for
a better boss. The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic,
not the dreamer. Hopefulness only makes sense when it doesn’t make
sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your
life depends on it.”

Tim Brown


16 responses to An inspirational message from Paul Hawken

  1. ..well except for some amount of turbulence every now and then in southern california lol. ( ie earthquakes), ref. to the spaceship earth. ;).
    this was a lovely read. thanks for posting it Tim and thanks for writing it Paul.

    ( we are battling ‘human-ness’ with our incoherent humanity, this is the war on dying earth)

  2. That was absolutely amazing. I think, if I ever get asked to write a commencement address, I will take a crack at it, throw it away, and read this instead.

  3. Truly inspiration. I think everybody should read this and reflect deeply on how we are living our lives on this planet, and how minute we are.
    Unsettling thoughts ripple through my mind now.
    An echo: If I were allow to live only one day every year, what would I do?

  4. Tim:
    Since it is your blog, I’ll respond to you. Paul Hawken’s piece stands by itself. Can we think about it also as a call to mobilize? In this light, I would like to hold it up next to what IDEO is doing. I refer to your previous postings with “thoughts” on how design thinking might be brought to bear on the post-crisis economy. Clearly your vision on the constitution of a post-crisis economy and Hawken’s vision of a re-made planet have much in common. Hawken described, among others, “companies who place social and environmental justice at the top of their strategic goals” as those who are engaged in the work of “re-imagining” (et al) our planet and people. Would you place IDEO in this illustrious number? From an external observer, you (IDEO) have done beautiful work (even without the intensity level of the hype). A few steps further back from there and it seems that much, perhaps most, of your client base is made up what Hawken lists as causing our present dilemma.

    Did I get it wrong? Good!! It was not my intention to provoke argument on this smaller issue, but on the larger one of who or what is now positioned to take on the challenge to lead. The time constraints are so evident and dire as Hawken points out. The post-crisis economy can be resolved without design thinking. If all of us choose to remain on the margins of the problem, thinking about how the values of a new economy might be conceived or how we should design a platform for participation, we cannot be surprised or disappointed to find ourselves marginalized.

    So, will IDEO elect to move into a leadership role or as a convenor of leaders in this critical issue, as they seem to be implying? I strongly hope so, though my hopes are somewhat deflated, having been rebuffed to discuss such a concept.

  5. Found this blog quite by accident and started reading this address. Is very encouraging to know there are young graduates being exposed to this calibre of speech at a grad ceremony. I’m certain that can’t be said of many other speeches that will be forgotten shortly after the first celebratory drink.

  6. This speech should have replaced the “Home” movie by Yann Arthus-Bertrand on June 5th (World Environment Day). So much more motivating and positive. Great !

  7. Howard Bud Phillips June 9, 2009 at 12:20 pm

    Absolutely Inspiring – and it makes me think so much about the system and the design of the system we live in. And that is clearly the point of the speech – think both about yourself and the system of the world that you live in, and then choose to do something that benefits you and your world. Be serious and self aware of the power that people have to make a difference, rather than avoid the realization that what each of us chooses to do really matters.

  8. Well – Where to begin. This talk was both fascinating and foreboding at the same time. I have never heard of Mr Hawken but he clearly “gets it”. The earth has only limited resources and we are living a lie if we believe otherwise. His public speaking ability is definitely to be praised as his talk was sound, balanced and forceful. Truly a gift not many on this planet have focused on in their way of life. How many, though, of the human race will “get it”? Not enough before something really big happens to planet earth.

    His comment below is noteworthy:
    “Ralph Waldo Emerson once asked what we would do if the stars only came
    out once every thousand years. No one would sleep that night, of
    course. The world would become religious overnight. We would be
    ecstatic, delirious, made rapturous by the glory of God. Instead the
    stars come out every night, and we watch television.”

    Remember God does not watch television and would enjoy nothing more than to bless our course of life if we lead one that allows that blessing to flow. Also remember that God has a name, Jehovah, and a son, Jesus Christ, and a book, The Bible which can educate all of us to make any necessary changes. The first thing we must all do is – LEARN TO LOVE. Love Jehovah, Love the earth, our children, our parents and all our fellow man. If we do this “by design” and maintain that course we cannot help but succeed and do so with the approval of Jehovah God whose plan is for this earth to be inhabited forever but only with those who cultivate this love.

  9. Thanks for sharing Pauls’ Commencement Address and for all of the fpsitive comments.

    Paul also founded WiserEarth a free global online community for individuals, nonprofits, and businesses working toward a just and sustainable world. You can join WiserEarth and collaborate with Groups of like-minded folks via Wikis, Discussion Boards, and RSS Feeds.

    With thanks for the important work you do.

  10. Thanks for sharing Pauls’ Commencement Address and for all of the positive comments.

    Paul also founded WiserEarth a free global online community for individuals, nonprofits, and businesses working toward a just and sustainable world. You can join WiserEarth and collaborate with Groups of like-minded folks via Wikis, Discussion Boards, and RSS Feeds.

    With thanks for the important work you do.

  11. The website for WiserEarth is


  12. Juliana Boyle July 1, 2009 at 5:44 pm

    Wow. Goose bumps. Thank you.

  13. Truly uplifting. It seems to me that everyone is waiting for someone else to solve our problems. People are waiting for corporations. Corporations are waiting for government. Government is waiting for people. And on it goes. Mr. Hawken’s energy and eloquence is what is needed to push us out of our own inertia.

  14. For me, Paul Hawken’s inspiration (and credibility) comes from his inference that capitalism (well, natural capitalism) can ultimately restore environments, not just destroy them. It can also drive some true business innovation in the process (think Interface, Patagonia, etc), leading to commercial AND environmental wins.

    For IDEO, I’d expect (hope) that the environmental lens is increasingly applied to projects, not only to address client needs and compliance, but because in its own right, questions such as ‘forget the material product, what service are we providing?’ and ‘how do we reduce life cycle impact?’ so effectively broaden the horizon.

    I’ve always maintained, and increasingly maintain, that sustainability thinking and design-led activity (should) have a lot in common.

    P.S. Tim, the kiwi in me loves your use of the Better By Design t-shirt photo. BBD’s a great design-led initiative if ever there was one!

  15. Thank you for this post. It has saved my sanity, even just for the brief moment it took to read it.

    I’m a 21 yr old graduate (4 days ago) and have been job-hunting for the last two month, undoubtedly the knock-backs are taking its toll. But this post has put my reality into perspective, it certainly looks like we’re on a mission and I’m part of it. I’ve been following IDEO’s work and this blog for sometime now and absolutely admire the thinking. I know you’ll keep these inspirations coming, I’ll do my part and spread the word amongst my peers.

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