Focus on Leadership: Paul Hawken - Aug/Sep 16

Interview by Kemp Harr

Environmentalist and best-selling author Paul Hawken wrote The Ecology of Commerce, the book that inspired Interface founder Ray Anderson to dramatically alter his business practices with respect to environmental concerns. The two became friends and Hawken, also a gifted speaker, gave a moving eulogy at Anderson’s funeral.

Currently, Hawken is editing his sixth book, Drawdown, a compilation of research outcomes from the non-profit he founded, Project Drawdown. The organization’s scientists, academics, business leaders and activists study climate change and viable paths to reversal. Along with the book, an open-source database and an interactive digital platform will also be made public for anyone interested in the findings.

Awarded six honorary doctorates, Hawken often writes about corporate reform in the context of ecological preservation, and is regularly consulted by heads of state and CEOs from around the world as an expert on economic development, industrial ecology and environmental policy.

Hawken has rubbed shoulders with great leaders from an early age, working as a press coordinator and marshal for the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965 at only 17. He had conversations with civil rights greats, including Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson and Ralph Abernathy, and also met leading performers and activists like Sammy Davis Jr., Leonard Bernstein, the Kingston Trio and Joan Baez. “It was a privilege, and it changes your life because you see things through others’ eyes,” he says. That same year, while working as a photographer, he was assaulted and seized by Ku Klux Klan members, escaping thanks to FBI intervention. “It was quite an eye opener for a 17-year-old boy, I’ll tell you,” he remembers.

Q: What happened in the early stages of your life to help you see that you could make a difference in the world? 
A:
 I cannot remember any single event or influence that led me to a belief that I could make a difference. What might be closer to the truth is that nothing told me that I couldn’t make a difference. I lived virtually in a university where ideas, free speech and paradigmatic exploration were normal. 

Q: What motivated you to shift your focus from social issues to environmental issues?
A:
 My early focus was on civil rights, poverty and the cessation of the Vietnam War, and to me they were inextricable. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who said, “We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them 8,000 miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia, which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem.”

Q: Explain what you mean when you say, “Change always comes from the margins.”
A:
 That is both an historical truth and an ecosystem principle. In human and biological systems, stability is a critical factor for survival and dominance. Over time, stability leads to rigidity, ossification and loss of resilience. Where a savannah meets a forest, for example, there are species of plants, insects, biota and microbes that do not live in either the forest or the savannah. 

This inter-zonal biome is known as an ecotone, and the creatures and plants are known as EDGE (evolutionarily distinct and globally endangered) species. They are either the last of the line having been pushed to the margins, or they are the evolutionary forerunners of the future. When there is a regime change caused by fire, drought or climate change, the species that grow on the margins are more resilient and adaptive and can become the new dominant grass, tree, insect, etc. 

Q: How critical is climate change in the ranking of issues that we must address to have a sustainable world for our grandchildren?
A:
 The atmosphere is the only true boundary for Earth. In thinking about global warming, most people think of weather. It is better to look straight up at the sky or better yet to see NASA videos that show the very thin barrier that separates us and protects us from frozen space. Having no atmosphere would make us a frozen planet like Mars. An enlarged atmosphere would make us a boiling hot planet like Venus. We happen to have an atmosphere that is perfect for the evolution and creation of life. All other issues that humankind must address are dependent on climate—food, security, water, peace, hunger, prosperity, human rights. 

Q: What does the term “drawdown” mean?
A:
 Drawdown is the point at which greenhouse gases in the atmosphere begin to decline on a year-to-year basis. There are three paths to drawdown: use less energy, replace fossil fuel energy with renewable energy, and employ land-use solutions to bring the carbon home into the soil and biomass. 

In my opinion, the only goal that makes any sense to humanity in the 21st century is to reverse global warming. It’s not the gorilla in the room; it’s the whole jungle. It sounds absurd, but no one’s done the math on the 100 most substantive solutions to climate change. It’s never been done. 

At Project Drawdown, we measure the impact and the financial cost, and the ROI. We have 200 advisors and over 100 scientists. We do the math and we are rigorous about it. We are not here to say you should do this or don’t do that. We just do the math on the most effective ways to stop putting carbon in the air and bring it back down. Then everyone else has to decide what they want to do with that information.

Q: What land-use solutions are most effective?
A:
 There are many—afforestation, for example, when you plant a forest where there wasn’t one. Also avoided deforestation. Bamboo sequesters more carbon per hectare faster than any other technique in the world. And biotar—you take substances, make charcoal, put it in the soil, so you’re putting carbon in the soil mechanically, if you will, and it just explodes in terms of microbial populations. It jumpstarts the soil. 

There are five billion acres of degraded farmland, so farmland restoration is a big carbon sink—carbon farming, composting, conservation agriculture, farmwater productivity, grazing and pasture management, multi-strata agroforestry, peat land protection, perennial bio-energy crops, regenerative agriculture, silver pasture. 

Sustainable rice production is one of the top ten things we can do in the world. Rice is the number one crop and the largest methane emitter. You could reduce methane emissions by 75%.

Those are land-use examples that all bring carbon back home. And they all do many other things in terms of food benefits, higher water infiltration rates so soil can hold much more water, more drought resistance, more resilient soil, higher productivity and possibly eliminating the input of fertilizer and herbicides.

Q: How are the conservation of world resources and the issues of overpopulation tied to the education of young girls ?
A:
 Girls get pulled out of school in many, many countries in the developing world pre-puberty for a lot of reasons. In some cultures they get married off, but sometimes they don’t want to be there because there is no latrine, and they are ashamed when they start their period.

To address overpopulation, I would do everything I could to help provide a young girl with a safe and wholesome place to get a really great education. That girl, now a woman, will make choices that are intelligent and informed. 

If you can provide the means for a girl to stay in school past 4th or 5th grade to 11th or 12th grade, she makes choices that are very different because she’s making the choices and the choices aren’t made for her. One of those choices is to have fewer children, and that has a big impact on the planet. It’s really what the NoVo foundation and many other groups and NGOs around the world are doing, to make sure that young women in this world have a chance to get an education. 

Q: What elements of society stand in the way of humans doing what is right? 
A:
 The element of society that prevents humans from doing what is right is in every human being, and it is called our identity. Our minds are extraordinarily conditioned by parents, schools, social pressure, music, television, political rhetoric, ideologies, religion and more. The conditioned mind is not who we truly are. If we react from our conditioning, rather than our heart, we are going to cause problems for others and ourselves. 

Q: You mention that we need to reverse the perverse incentives that permeate society in terms of consumption. What is the root of this malady?
A:
 I think consumption is a way to find a place that cannot be found. We want to be accepted, respected, if not admired. We want to be seen as competent, intelligent and a good provider to our families. So we strive. Not that it makes many people happy, but strive we must, because we are defined in our society by material attainment. Those with a great deal of discretionary capital will tell you that all of their homes and clothes and private jets have not made them happier. We have defined a pathway to happiness that is the ultimate gerbil wheel based on material wealth. It is unsustainable, so this phase in human existence will pass, but not without a big hangover.

Q: What are the top five things that Americans can do to help in the quest to create a more sustainable world?
A:
 I truly do not know what others should do. I find that a bit patronizing, because each person is distinct, a unique individual unlike any other person in the world. What is very helpful is education and literacy. Until we see and understand that our world is inextricably bound and stitched together in an inseparable mystery called life, we may not understand how small acts cumulate into larger insults and kindnesses in this world, whether social, economical or biological [environmental].

Q: Explain to our readers how the smartphone is a perfect example of dematerialization.
A:
 I think they can figure that out, at least if they are over 30 years old. If you are younger, then it is the norm. But has the smartphone dematerialized our footprint? Maybe, maybe not. The materials in a modern smartphone require 8,000 to 9,000 pounds of material that is not in the phone. And they require server farms that are bigger than stadia. Microsoft, Amazon and Google use more electrical power than Japan. It is a very interesting question. I do not have the definitive answer.

Q: Where should flooring industry leaders focus their attention to help create the sustainable world that you envision?
A:
 I think the flooring industry is focusing on a sustainable world. Flooring was blessed to be specified by architects and interior designers who took the environment and human health very seriously. Because of that, it got ahead of many other traditional manufacturing industries.

Going forward, I would like to see the industry make carpet fiber from CO2 in the air, a technique known as direct air capture. I would also like to see the elimination of dyes and the institution of refracting color molecules that allow carpet patterns and colors to be changed with a phone app. I would like to see carpet tiles become a communication and sensor matrix for a building that will make a true living building, one that responds quickly and sensitively to human patterns, occupancy, load balancing, temperature, sound, light, traffic, etc. I would like to see biophilia not just in the design but also in the composition.

Q: Making carpet fibers from air sounds like science fiction. Is that really feasible? 
A:
 For ten years, Klaus Lackner has been leading the science and research on capturing CO2 right out of the air, and there are already companies doing that and making plastics and things. We know how to do it, but that’s expensive carbon. It’s cheaper to buy nylon 6, which is also carbon, by the way. The question is: how do we close the economic loop? 

With direct capture, we are where we were with solar not that many years ago, when it was $20 a watt. Now it’s $0.65 a watt. The $0.65 a watt solar panels of today use pretty much the same technology as the $20 ones. What happened was amazing breakthroughs in manufacturing economies, and now it’s cheaper than coal in many places, and much cheaper than kerosene and coal in developing countries. It’s the cheapest energy alternative right now. This is what happens when human ingenuity keeps working on an idea, so the idea of direct air capture to make carpet is not unreasonable. Can we do it today? Not economically. 

Interface years ago asked if we could reuse and recycle every single molecule in our carpet, particularly the nylon 6,6, in a way that is affordable. Eventually they achieved that. They didn’t achieve it by waiting for someone to come to their door. They did it by doing the research. I think with direct air capture, it’s going to be possible for us to make a lot of things, not the least of which is carpet. 

Q: Won’t the viability of solar energy and LED lighting make a big dent in the issues causing global warming?
A:
 Yes and no. The pricing of LEDs has gone down 1,000 to 1, and without using any more cost reduction projections, by 2033 the world will be 94% LED. LED for the next 20 years has a really big impact because it uses one-tenth the energy. If you look at what’s going to change with respect to energy, it’s going to be sourced locally—wind, microwind, solar—and the storage of it is going to be mobile, like graphene nano battery packs that are super light but super dense in terms of energy.

Nothing is going to stop this. Climate change or not, there is an energy revolution going on in this world and it’s as big as when we went to fossil fuel. The reason it’s going to triumph is brilliant engineering. This isn’t activism. Activism is fantastic but it stops things—it says, don’t do that. But the do side is commerce. Business is do and activism is don’t, and you need both. You have to stop doing things that harm, but you’ve got to do the things to solve the problem. 

The interesting thing about the solutions, even if you took global warming off the table, we would do everything we’re doing now because of jobs, prosperity, health, security, welfare and localization. Solar now in the U.S. employs more people than coal, gas and oil. 

Q: How do you balance your daily life to live it to the fullest?
A:
 I don’t do it very well at the moment. But I do take time to exercise every day. And I bike to work, although recently it has been a bit too busy to do that. I eat mostly plants that have been grown in healthy soils, and have an extraordinary wife who makes me laugh and joyous every day!

Q: What is the right order of priority for these elements of life: diet, exercise, education, spirituality, friendship, work, relaxing?
A: 
Spirituality, friendship, food (don’t call it diet—it is how we let the living world become us), exercise, education, relaxing, work.

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