Livia Albeck-Ripka on Paul Hawken
On May 3, 2009, Paul Hawken stood before the graduating class of the University of Portland. He’d been asked to deliver a commencement address that was “direct, naked, taut, honest, passionate, lean, shivering, startling and graceful.” No pressure, he joked to his audience. Rousing the spirits of a few hundred young people embarking on a century of climate change, terrorism and extinction was, he knew, no small feat. “You are graduating to the most amazing and stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation,” he told them.
When Paul was a young man, the world had other problems, many of which persist today: the war in Vietnam, civil rights abuses, racism. At just 18, he became Martin Luther King Jr.’s press co-ordinator, helping to organise the historic March on Montgomery. He photographed voter registration drives in Bogalusa, Louisiana and Florida. Later, in Mississippi, he captured images of the Ku Klux Klan—the group kidnapped Paul and held him prisoner.
At 20, Paul moved into business, opening one of America’s first natural food stores, Erewhon. With every step he’s taken since that time—whether as an author, entrepreneur or businessperson—protecting the environment has been his clear, committed path. He’s set up garden supply and solar energy companies. He’s taught organisations how to transition to renewable energy as head of the United States’ arm of The Natural Step. He’s consulted with businesses, governments and civic groups and written multiple books—one of which, Natural Capitalism, former President Bill Clinton described as among the five most important books in the world. His latest effort, Drawdown, is a handbook that, for the first time ever, lists and ranks the top 100 solutions to climate change.
Despite his accolades, Paul is softly spoken. He gives opinions tentatively and without bravado. Just a few days before we spoke, US President Donald Trump had pulled out of the Paris climate accords. I don’t ask Paul whether this makes him feel pessimistic, because I know the answer. That day in Portland, he told the graduates, “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.’”