Rachel's Democracy & Health News #909, May 31, 2007


[Rachel's introduction: Activist and author Kate Davies responds to Paul Hawken about the nature and future of the worldwide social movement that has arisen in response to widespread ecological devastation and global warming.]

By Kate Davies

Hooray for Paul Hawken! His article "To Remake the World" in Rachel's News #908 and his new book "Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming" are extremely timely and thought-provoking.

Hawken has put his finger on a global phenomenon that has been growing since the 1999 protests against the World Trade Organization in Seattle. Largely unacknowledged by the spotlight of media attention, a new social movement has been quietly gaining strength in the U.S. and internationally. In bringing it to light, Hawken has revealed a trend that is positive and hopeful at a time when these qualities are sorely needed in the world.

Although he has done an outstanding job of describing the new movement, several points call out for further exploration.

First, Hawken shies away from giving the new movement the full recognition of a name, calling it instead "this unnamed movement." This is a little strange because it has already been given several names. My favorite is "the new progressive movement," in homage to the U.S. Progressive Movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The new progressive movement embraces many of the same principles as its predecessor, including beliefs in truly democratic institutions and processes, efficient government and the elimination of corruption, social and economic justice, regulation of large corporations and monopolies, and environmental protection.

He also asserts that the new movement lacks many basic attributes of previous social movements, specifically an ideology, leaders, and internal organization. Let's look at each of these in more detail.


Hawken says the new movement does not have an ideology and its "big contribution is the absence of one big idea." He is right -- in a sense. The new movement does not impose a rigid article of faith on its members, but it is guided by one big, inspirational idea. Indeed, Hawken acknowledges as much in the article's title.

The movement's big, inspirational idea is that ordinary people, acting together, can "remake the world." Collectively, empowered citizens can do more than just succeed on individual issues, like climate change or immigration. They can do more than just win legislative victories, like banning toxic flame retardants or protecting endangered species. The new movement is motivated by the transformative idea that by working together citizens can recreate the whole of society.

This is not a new concept. It is the same one that stimulated the birth of this country. But it is an idea that most Americans seem to have forgotten of late. In today's social and political climate, the thought that ordinary people can shape society -- rather than just relying on politicians, corporate leaders and economists -- is truly radical. This may not be "ideology" in the sense that Hawken uses the word, but it is a "big idea" that motivates the entire movement.

In addition to this, there are four goals or aspirations that unite much of the movement:

** Creating an open, participatory and fully accountable democracy;

** Social and economic justice;

** Sustainability for people and the planet; and

** Health and wellbeing for all.

Most members of the new movement are committed to all these goals, even if they work on only one. Collectively, they provide an inspiring and world-changing ideology, especially when combined with the idea that empowered citizens really can remake society.


Hawken states that the new movement has few recognizable leaders. He says: "Its leaders are farmers, zoologists, shoemakers, and poets." In short, there is no Martin Luther King Jr. or Mahatma Gandhi to look up to and venerate.

Going one step further, I would say that the un-acclaimed leaders of the new movement exemplify new types of leadership. Transcending traditional concepts of charismatic and authoritative leadership, they are extremely low key and modest. They are people who emerge in response to specific situations and then relinquish their role when circumstances change. And they are people who serve a group rather than impose their will upon it.

The new movement is not alone in embodying new types of leadership. Many organizations are now experimenting with different approaches. Indeed, innovative ways of thinking about leadership have become very fashionable lately. Many authors, including Ronald Heifetz, Peter Senge and Meg Wheatley, have advocated many innovative ideas, such as:

** Seeing leadership as a process of relationship, rather than control;

** Recognizing that there are many different types of leaders;

** Thinking about leadership from a systems perspective; and

** Focusing on the adaptive challenges of long term change, rather than imposing immediate technical fixes.

They highlight that the concept of leadership itself is changing. So it should not be surprising that the leaders of the emerging movement are different from those of previous movements.

Internal Organization

Hawken asserts that the new movement does not have any internal organization, saying: "It forms, gathers and dissipates quickly," an organic process that is "dispersed, inchoate, and fiercely independent."

This is true, but the idea that the emerging movement is more of a loose network than a coherent organization is not new. In early 2004, Gideon Rosenblatt, Executive Director of ONE/Northwest, published a paper called "Movement as Network: Connecting People and Organizations in the Environmental Movement." In it, Rosenblatt made the point that the strength of the environmental movement is the countless links between people and organizations, rather than the people or the organizations themselves.

Although the "movement as network" idea espoused by Hawken and Rosenblatt has much to commend it, social movements need at least some internal organization. Without any lasting internal structures, it can be difficult to sustain the long-term political momentum needed to successfully confront the entrenched power elites.

So what types of structures would be helpful? There are many candidates including policy "think tanks" to facilitate strategic planning, national or regional groups to help local ones mobilize the public, research units to provide information, educational institutions to provide training and support, groups with expertise in communications, and last but not least, organizations with fundraising experience.

Beyond "To Remake the World" and "Blessed Unrest"

The next step beyond Paul Hawken's article and book is to ask: "How can we build the new movement?" The answer may determine not only the success of the movement itself but also whether it can truly "remake the world."

I believe that the emerging movement needs to deepen its understanding of what it takes to achieve systemic social change. This will require a greater understanding of the culture it wants to transform and a more strategic approach to advance progressive change.

Understanding Culture

Many members of the new movement are natural activists -- me included. By this, I mean we want to identify problems and solve them. We want to fix what's wrong with the world! Our strengths lie in targeting specific issues and promoting solutions.

But this emphasis on particular problems means that we pay less attention to the cultural origins that cause the problems we seek to correct. Developing an in-depth understanding of the fundamental economic, political and social forces that shape western culture is essential to identify the leverage points for change. If the new movement does not have a comprehensive knowledge of the culture in which it operates, how can it hope to intervene effectively?

This is challenging because issues are usually represented separately from each other by the media and other mainstream social institutions. Unemployment is portrayed as a different issue from racism. Racism is framed independently of environmental quality. Environmental quality is described without any connection to the economy. This fragmentation makes the public perceive individual issues in isolation from one another and prevents them from seeing the common cultural origins that connect different issues.

A Strategic Approach to Progressive Change

Activists' usual emphasis on immediate solutions also means that the new movement pays less attention to strategies for long term success. As a result, it is relatively unskilled at achieving lasting, resilient change. Although the emerging movement is good at winning battles, it needs a better understanding of the strategies necessary to win the war.

Developing a strategic approach to progressive change will require knowledge of how social change actually happens. So how can the new movement acquire such knowledge?

1. One key source of information is previous movements, such as the civil rights, anti-Vietnam War, and women's movements. These and other movements have not yet been adequately studied for what they can teach the new movement about progressive social change.

2. Current thinking about the process of social change provides another source. Ideas about social constructivism will be particularly relevant.

3. A third source is adult learning theory. Much work has already been done on the relationship between learning and change that will be helpful.

In summary, the emerging movement could learn a lot about the process of progressive social change that will enable it to be more strategic.

Closing Comment

Paul Hawken's article and book make an important contribution to progressive social change. They describe what has previously been an unnoticed, but widespread, movement and in doing they so make it much more visible.

But Hawken's work is double-edged. At the same time as he describes the new movement, he asserts that it is fundamentally indescribable, saying: "No book can explain it, no person can represent it, no words can encompass it." This remark runs the risk of being more poetic than helpful.

Indeed, on the basis of these words, Hawken's readers may question the existence of a movement at all. If it cannot be explained, is it in fact real? If it cannot be represented, does it actually exist? If it cannot be encompassed, is it really a single entity? I fear that Hawken's dualistic representation of the movement could dilute its significance and effectiveness. It also threatens to undermine his central thesis -- that there is a new global movement for progressive social change. Hawken's true gift is to help us all see just how real this movement is -- real enough "to remake the world."


Kate Davies is Core Faculty in the Center for Creative Change at Antioch University Seattle. She is currently working on a book called "Making Change: Ideas, Values and Strategies for Building the New Progressive Movement."