Paul Hawken: Will Unregulated Corporate Capitalism Be Our Downfall?

Paul Hawken, one of the most important environmental authors, activists, thinkers and entrepreneurs of our era, has dedicated his life to sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment. His many bestselling books include such massively influential texts as: The Next Economy; The Ecology of Commerce; Blessed Unrest; and most recently, Drawdown, The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming.

Hawken is the founder of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit dedicated to researching real solutions to global warming.

Below, read an edited version of his talk from 2002, where he spoke passionately and eloquently on corporate capitalism and control, wealth disparity, social injustice and how each of those issues plays into ongoing environmental degradation. In the 17 years since, Hawken’s dreams of a more just, sustainable world have yet to be realized.

Hawken will attend Bioneers once again in October 2019 as a keynote presenter. Learn more about how to attend here.

Paul Hawken:

Pseudopodic ego, what’s that? It’s the guy who gives a dollar to a homeless person every day, and then goes to the bar, ties one on, goes home and abuses his wife and children. He takes his identity from that moment when he gave the dollar to the homeless person. That is exactly what I want to talk about today.

The people who are arguing most articulately and vociferously against globalization are not protesting trade but the corporatization of the world’s commons. The very same companies that are issuing corporate responsibility reports are busy enclosing and dominating the world’s commons. The very companies that tout their environmental records are the ones who dominated the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg and obstructed all meaningful resolutions pertaining to poverty, water, energy, and climate change.

The commons that are being corporatized include the human genome, seeds, water, food, air waves, and the media. The commons include our stories, our music, our culture as well. It includes self-determination and democracy. It includes the ability for people to decide what is and isn’t acceptable as a product in a locale, in a region, a place, or a country. It includes all tradition. All these areas are being taken over and corrupted by corporations, and publicly held corporations live by a lie. They believe that we reside in a world where capital has a right to grow, and that is a higher right than the rights of people, of culture, of place, of qualities that historically have been our commons.

You can’t get to sustainability from the economic model that strives to increase the amount of money large corporations have.

You can’t get there if you’re destroying the world’s local economies. You can’t get there if you’re McDonald’s and spend $2 billion a year to get our children to eat junk food. We cannot correct environmental problems if we don’t correct the assumptions that cause them. Most of the world’s economy and the behavior of the world’s governments are under the control of corporations, and they are striving to increase that control. At the same time, have you noticed that the world is getting out of control? There is a direct connection between the two.

A highly placed government official from the Clinton administration recently met with his counterpart in the Bush administration. After that meeting, his conclusion was this: They are not governing. They are preventing governance in order to serve their masters: corporations. Even if a large corporation does not engage in that activity, why are they mute in the face of this liquidation sale of government to private interests?

This new way of corporate colonization is having disastrous results. Bechtel in San Francisco, and Vivendi in France want to privatize water the world over. Novartis, DuPont, Monsanto, and Bayer Aventis want to control 90% of the germ plasm of 90% of the caloric food intake of the world. These are companies that make toxic aniline dyes, animal hormones, artificial sweeteners, explosives, and pesticides.

Ted Turner said in the end there’ll be two media companies in the world. He wants to have a stake in one of them. Rupert Murdoch said the same thing. He wants the other. McDonald’s opens up 2,800 restaurants a year, and even the U.S. government under President Bush said that the doubling of childhood obesity and diabetes in the past 10 years is due to fast food.

The Domini Social Index Fund, run by Amy Domini, the doyen of social responsible investing, owns 357,000 shares of McDonald’s. Go figure. Right now, one of every five meals in the U.S. is fast food, and they want that to be the case everywhere in the world.

Coke now has 10% of the total liquid intake of the world. And they want to increase that to 20%, or was it 30%? Or maybe it’s 50%. These are absurd and devastating goals for corporations.

I do not believe that any Fortune 500 company can be sustainable. But there are definitely things that transnational corporations can do to help society and to help the environment. The first thing they can do is to get out of our schools. And the next thing they can do is to get out of our stomachs. And they can get out of our government. And they can get out of our rivers, our oceans, our forests. Get out of our skies. Get out of our soils. Get out of our seeds. Get out of our genome. And for God’s sake, stop molesting our children.

Wendell Berry says a corporation does not arrive, as most persons do, at a realization of the shortness and smallness of our life. It does not come to see the future as a lifetime of its children or grandchildren, or anybody in particular. It cannot experience personal hope or remorse, nor change of heart. It cannot humble itself. It cannot sing. That’s my line. It goes about its business as if it were immortal with the single purpose of becoming a bigger pile of money. Until corporations understand that they are spearheading a kind of commercial fascism, they are going to find that worldwide resistance will grow. It is fascist in its attempt to create a meta-order for people, with the assumption that a small group of people know better than the larger group, therefore the larger group does not have to be consulted. Whether it was Marxist Lenonism or Mussolini, fascism has always been informed by the vanity that a few know more than the many for our own good.

In The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Tom Friedman wrote: “The hidden hand of the market will never work without a hidden fist.” McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonald Douglas. The hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley to flourish is called the U.S. Army, the Air Force, the Navy, and the Marine Corps.

Trade is great. Trade is civilizing. Trade’s not the issue. The question is: Who sets the rules and who enforces them? There can be no sustainability when the rules and standards are being set by institutions whose primary purpose is to create money. The question to be grappled with is the shape of the relationships between sovereign nations, between regions and peoples, between companies, markets, and the commons which support all life on Earth.

It will come down to some very simple questions: Do we want democracy and self-determination, or do we want oligarchic institutions? Do we want a world of uniformity, where the road from every airport to every city center looks like every strip mall in the world? Do we want a different world than the one envisioned by Monsanto, Walmart, and Disney? Do we want our 9-year-old girls being lured by dolls with happy meals into McDonald’s and to end up with Type II diabetes? Or do we want strong, regional and native cultures, proud of their heritage, devoted to their land, committed to true development and the future of their children? In short, do we want a world structured by rich, mostly white men, or a world that is an expression of the fabulous qualities of all human beings? You choose.

The way to create a healthy, vibrant economy in society is through diversity. That’s ecology 101. We know that scientifically, but we also know that economically. Any system that loses its diversity loses its resiliency. It is more subject to sudden shocks and changes from which it cannot recover.

The corporatization of the world is a loss of diversity. It enforces uniformity upon people, upon place, and upon culture.

The degree to which a company honors and then allows diversity to emerge from a place, from a country, a locale, a culture, a tribe, a city is a very good thing. The degree to which it tries to enforce a one-size-fits-all formulaic solution to diet, or media, or agriculture is, in my opinion, going to be seen in hindsight as just as much a criminal act as the deracination and slaughter of Indigenous People by the Spaniards, the genocide of Native Americans, or the enslavement of African Americans.

We look back at those things now and feel ashamed. We look back, and we will look back at what we’re doing right now, and see the world for what it is, which is a violation of humanity. The very same companies that invoke sustainability have business models that destroy people and life. We will, I predict, in our lifetime, convict corporations of crimes against humanity.

A time will come when we honor those who truly do add value, not those who take it away. A Nigerian chief once said: “If you don’t share your wealth with us, we will share our poverty with you.” It is a lot less expensive to share our wealth. It is less expensive to do that than to continue this extravagantly self-centered system we call “corporate capitalism.” This is not the most economic system. It is the most expensive one there could possibly be.

In systems theory, if you optimize only components in a system, you pessimize the entire system. If you optimize corporate profitability, you destroy society. The idea that sustainability costs more is upside down and backwards. It costs less to maintain and honor the Earth in real time.

My state, California, spends more money on prisons than classrooms. A country that rapes its oceans and forests, a world where 20% of people get less than 1% of its resources, where nearly a billion people go to bed hungry, a world torn by strife, riddled by greed, controlled by small, petty men, bankrolled by large, transnational corporations is not cheap. It’s really costly.

Vaclav Havel has said that we’re on the brink of a new order, if for no other reason than the old order has become invalid. We know how to transform this world, to reduce our impact on nature by several-fold, to provide meaningful, dignified, living-wage jobs for all who seek them, and how to feed, clothe and house every person on Earth. What we don’t know is how to do is remove those in power, those whose ignorance of biology is matched only by their indifference to human suffering. This is a political issue. It is not an ecological problem.

The way to save this Earth is to focus on its people, and particularly those people who pay the highest price – women, children, communities of color, and the localized poor. The sustainability movement, without forsaking its understanding of living systems, resources, and conservation biology, must move from a resource float model of saving the Earth to a model based on human rights, the right to food, the right to livelihood, the rights to culture, and to the rights of community, and the right to self-sufficiency.

Essentially the environmental movement must become a Civil Rights movement. A human rights movement. Without that we will simply be a failed white man’s movement from the North.

The understanding of sustainability in the North is largely meaningless to the world’s poor. We cannot say to the South that we’re sorry that their end of the lifeboat is sinking but we’re doing pretty well on our end. It was David Brower who said that environmentalists make terrible neighbors, but they make great ancestors.

There are two voices on the world’s stage: the voice of the wealthy and the voice of the poor. One is an extreme minority and the other is the majority world. And the shift is occurring with the poor themselves. Poverty, in their view, derives from a deficit of power, not a lack of money. Far from being needy persons waiting for handouts from the North, they are citizens who are constrained by a lack of rights, entitlements, salaries, and political leverage.

Rafael Diaz said a family is where every human being knows that they matter. To me, that is what sustainability is about. It is about improving the quality of life for all people on Earth. The only kind of sustainability that makes sense to me is alleviation of suffering and honoring of all forms of life.

There’s a big sign out there. It says, “You are brilliant and the Earth is hiring.”

Helen Keller once said, “This is a time for a loud voice, open speech, and fearless thinking. I rejoice that I live in such a splendidly disturbing time.”

After a two-hour interview for Fortune magazine, a journalist turned his tape recorder off, and he said to me, “Aren’t you just dreaming?”

I said, “Absolutely, I’m dreaming. Somebody’s got to dream in America.” It is our right to dream. It is something that we owe our children’s children. A dream is a gift to the future, and the future is begging.

So I do have dreams, and I think we should get together and talk about what they mean. I dream of a UN team shutting down the 10,000 chemical plants in this country, which are essentially biological weapons waiting to happen. I dream of my country living up to its legal treaty commitments and getting rid of weapons of mass destruction. I dream of a U.S. that actually has an energy plan and a climate plan. A 100-year plan, not a midterm election plan. A water plan to get rid of all the corporate pollutants in our riparian corridors and in our streams, a biodiversity plan, a plan to eliminate poverty, illiteracy, a plan that ensures no child here or anywhere goes to bed hungry.

I once gave a talk at an elementary school to third graders. I told them that there are a billion people in the world who want to work and can’t. One person, a girl, raised her hand, and she said, “Is all the work done?”

I dream of getting my government back, a country of by and for the people. And I dream of a country that can say that it’s wrong, that it’s sorry, and that it’s remorseful.

I dream of a country that can apologize for the suffering it’s caused First Peoples, African Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and all people in all lands that we have tortured, that we have harmed, and that we have killed. A country big and generous enough to pay reparations and build new schools in inner cities and act with decency.

Eduardo Galeano talks about a time when historians will stop believing that countries enjoy being invaded. When the world will no longer be at war against the poor, but against poverty. Where the weapons industry will have no choice but to declare bankruptcy. When nobody will die of hunger, and the street children will not be treated as if they were trash because there will be no street children because a black woman will become president of Brazil, and another black woman president of the United States, and an Indian woman president of Guatemala.

These dreams are pipe dreams unless we act politically. As David Orr says, We have great ideas. The right wing does politics. We are cozy in our niches. We are titillated about being right, they are busy being in control. I dream that we will become a political movement, not simply one called by the name of a color but by the name of an ideal. What should we call it?

And let’s not spend so much time on the big villains. What we need to do is honor the saints in our midst, not the fools. The small heroes, not the big louts. Arundhati Roy writes that we have to support our small heroes, of these we have many. We have to fight specific wars in specific ways. Who knows, perhaps that’s what the 21st century is about and has in store for us: the dismantling of the big – big bombs, big dams, big ideologies, big contradictions, big countries, big wars, big heroes, big mistakes. Perhaps it will be the century of the small. Perhaps right now, this very minute, there is a small god up in heaven readying herself for us.

The great Sufi poet Hafiz said clever men place the world into cages, but the wise woman who must duck under the moon throws keys to the rowdy prisoners. Please throw keys to the rowdy prisoners. Freedom, that’s what sustainability is about – freedom from tyranny, freedom from empire, freedom from corporate rule. Freedom to honor life, to create – in Janine Benyus’ memorable phrase – a world that is conducive to life.

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