Archives For sustainability

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.”


May 19, 2009 — 4 Comments

An interdisciplinary team from CCA (California College of Arts) and the University of Santa Clara have been working on a project for the 2009 Solar Decathlon. The video tells a very nice story of a group of smart students dealing with the challenges of a complex piece of design thinking. A link to the project on the CCA site is here. The movie was made by one of the project team members, Alexander Winter.

visualizing the grid

April 30, 2009 — 4 Comments

NPR has posted a great visualization of the US power grid. It shows the transmission grid, the mix of power sources in each state, locations of power stations and the densities of solar and wind power across the country. It makes the complexity of the power system and the challenge of replacing carbon based sources all too clear.

Design Is The Problem

April 7, 2009 — 6 Comments

Nathan Shedroff has just written what is likely to become the sustainability manual for designers. Design Is The Problem is a thorough and informative survey of just about every aspect of sustainable design. It covers important frameworks, schools of thought and specific tools. It’s interspersed with good examples and case studies that reveal the complexity of the issue and that force the reader to engage with the topic rather than assume simple answers, which of course don’t exist. Design Is The Problem does not go into significant depth on each topic but it will give you a place to start on pretty much anything related to sustainability. Definitely an important book to have in your library.

There is quite a debate going on around IDEO at the moment about the merits of the Tata Nano. On the one hand some are concerned about the increased emissions and congestion a conversion to cars will cause in India and other poorer economies. Others worry that it sets off yet another round of unsustainable consumption. On the flip-side there is a case to made that modern cars create fewer emissions than old motorbikes and auto-rickshaws. There is also speculation that Tata intends the Nano to be assembled locally by dealers and rural entrepreneurs. This would be an interesting new business model.

Either way the Nano appears to be quite an achievement from a cost perspective coming in at around $2000 when it goes on sale in Mumbai on Monday. The question is whether the Nano will ultimately help or harm the economies and livehoods of those that purchase it?