Bert Olivier
Bert Olivier

How the largest movement in history is restoring justice to the world

Paul Hawken, writer of Blessed Unrest — How the largest movement in the world came into being and why no one saw it coming (Penguin 2007), is an indefatigable speaker and champion for environmental justice, who gave more than a thousand talks on the environment in the course of 15 years, before writing the book. He recounts how, after every talk, some people would remain behind to continue the conversation.

“These people”, he says, “were typically working on the most salient issues of our day: climate change, poverty, deforestation, peace, water, hunger, conservation, human rights. They came from the non-profit and non-governmental world, also known as civil society; they looked after rivers and bays, educated consumers about sustainable agriculture, retrofitted houses with solar panels, lobbied state legislatures about pollution, fought against corporate-weighted trade policies, worked to green inner cities, and taught children about the environment. Quite simply, they had dedicated themselves to trying to safeguard nature and ensure justice”.

Gradually, through the years, as he travelled from place to place, Hawken developed a sense of the diversity and number of these organisations, whose members taught him many things. For example, he learnt from a Native American that the environmental and social-justice movements were two sides of the same coin: “The way we harm the earth affects all people, and how we treat each other is reflected in how we treat the earth.”

He also came to appreciate how diverse and numerous these groups were, and judging by the number and variety of business cards he received after each meeting, came to the conclusion “ … that something larger was afoot, a significant social movement that was eluding the radar of mainstream culture”. To cut a long story short, after extensive research on the number of social justice and environmental organisations worldwide, his initial estimate amounted to about 100 000 such groups globally. As his research shifted from tax census information to other lists and indices pertaining to specific societal sectors and geographical areas, he was astonished to find that the number climbed to over a million such organisations, probably closer to two million globally, all intent on promoting social and ecological justice.

Hawken admits that the sheer diversity of these organisations defy homogenisation under the title of a “movement” in the conventional sense — besides, there is no single, defining ideology or identifiable leader(s) or founder(s), which movements in the customary sense usually have. Moreover, it is dispersed, lacks a unifying manifesto or doctrine, and is emerging from a heterogeneity of contexts and settings, ranging from grand hotels to jungles, villages, schools and slums to companies and farms.

In brief, on all counts this inchoate “movement” seems to be unprecedented because, while other social movements have usually appeared as a response to identifiable instances of injustice and corruption, in this case such specifics are absent. In addition to the many other issues that animate its numerous constituent organisations, it does seem to be connected to a new, globally pervasive threat, however, namely the planetary “ … life-threatening disease, marked by massive ecological degradation and rapid climate change”.

It is difficult to identify a movement which comprises more than a million organisations “held together” by a common thread, namely, working for radical change, for a tomorrow beyond injustice against the poor, or against specific groups of (for example indigenous) people, and beyond the systematic plundering of the earth’s resources by corporations (with predictable deleterious effects on living species and on whole ecosystems). It is therefore not surprising that many sceptics doubt the existence of this “phantom” phenomenon.

And yet, as Hawken and his colleagues continued researching the organisations comprising it and establishing a database of its constituents, their conviction grew that it is indeed the largest “movement” in human history, and that its strength lies, paradoxically, in the fact that it would pop up somewhere to promote or protest something, only to disappear and regroup somewhere else in support of a different cause. And like the protesters on Tahrir Square during the Egyptian Spring’s early days, its power also derives from the fact that it does not have one, or even a few, identifiable (and therefore corruptible) leaders, but many, and they change all the time. Ironically, as Hawken argues, the very multiplicity and diversity that go hand in hand with its flexibility are also the most likely source of its weakness, should a time come where the “movement” has to function cohesively and act decisively.

“What does meet the eye,” says Hawken, “is compelling: coherent, organic, self-organised congregations involving tens of millions of people dedicated to change. When asked at colleges if I am pessimistic or optimistic about the future, my answer is always the same: If you look at the science that describes what is happening on earth today and aren’t pessimistic, you don’t have the correct data. If you meet the people in this unnamed movement and aren’t optimistic, you haven’t got a heart”.

The book covers what Hawken calls “glimpses of some of the movement’s roots”, including progressive campaigns for civil rights, women’s suffrage, abolition and food security. It also focuses on the intertwinement of environmentalism and social-justice movements, the diversity of the kinds of environmentalism around the world, and the impact of globalisation on indigenous cultures. Of the latter he remarks: “Their traditional lands represent the greatest remaining sanctuaries of life on earth, and resource-hungry corporations are commercialising and destroying these biological arks.”

One of the illuminating metaphors Hawken uses to describe the “movement of movements” (as it has been dubbed by journalist and activist Naomi Klein), is that of the body’s immensely complex immune system, given its analogous function of protecting the “organism” concerned. One of the things against the onslaught of which the immune system comprising the “movement” is defending the planetary “organism”, is described as “the juggernaut of free market fundamentalism”. Here I must quote Hawken at length, where he points out something that resonates with Deleuze and Guattari’s views on the interdependence of capitalism and government agencies (p117):

“Those who question the inevitability of supranational corporations to supply most of our material and employment needs are seen as out-of-step, if not nostalgic. But even the free market’s most articulate defender, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, knows better: ‘The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist. McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies to flourish is called the US Army, Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.’ Of course, globalisation does have potentially positive effects. They include dissolution of exclusionary political borders, increased transparency of political actors, connectivity among people around the world, and in general a wealth of new opportunities in employment, education and income. But these benefits obscure the liabilities: resource and worker exploitation, climate change, pollution, destruction of communities and diminished biological diversity … an inordinate focus on wealth creation also obscures poverty creation.”

The full scope of this remarkable book is too variegated and complex to capture in a mere blog post, but everyone interested in understanding the vastness of this strange, amorphous and yet effectively tangible “movement” aimed at putting out the fire consuming our planet, as it were, should read it. It gives one hope that more and more people may — or will — realise that the source of the threat to our descendants’ future lies with some of the most powerful, and most misunderstood, institutions in the midst of which we live, mostly without questioning them.

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