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World Reports

Reimagining the World

An excerpt from Paul Hawken's new book Blessed Unrest
stylized drawing of people on an urban street; a spotlight on the sky has the shadow of the globeJohnathan Valiente /

While so much is going wrong, so much is going right. Over the years the ingenuity of organizations, engineers, designers, social entrepreneurs, and individuals has created a powerful arsenal of alternatives. The financial and technical means are in place to address and restore the needs of the biosphere and society. Poverty, hunger, and preventable childhood diseases can be eliminated in a single generation. Energy use can be reduced 80 percent in developed countries within 30 years with an improvement in the quality of life, and the remaining 20 percent can be replaced by renewable sources. Living-wage jobs can be created for every man and woman who wants one. The toxins and poisons that permeate our daily lives can be completely eliminated through green chemistry. Biological agriculture can increase yields and reduce petroleum-based pollution into soil and water. Green, safe, livable cities are at the fingertips of architects and designers. Inexpensive technologies can decrease usage and improve purity so that every person on earth has clean drinking water. So what is stopping us from accomplishing these tasks?

It has been said that we cannot save our planet unless humankind undergoes a widespread spiritual and religious awakening. In other words, fixes won’t fix until we fix our souls as well. So let’s ask ourselves this question: Would we recognize a worldwide spiritual awakening if we saw one? Or let me put the question another way: What if there is already in place a large-scale spiritual awakening and we are simply not recognizing it?

In a seminal work, The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong details the origins of our religious traditions during what is called the Axial Age, a 700-year period dating from 900 to 200 BCE, during which much of the world turned away from violence, cruelty, and barbarity. The upwelling of philosophy, insight, and intellect from that era lives today in the works of Socrates, Plato, Lao-tzu, Confucius, Mencius, Buddha, Jeremiah, Rabbi Hillel, and others. Rather than establishing doctrinaire religious institutions, these teachers created social movements that addressed human suffering. These movements were later called Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, monotheistic Judaism, democracy, and philosophical rationalism; the second flowering of the Axial Age brought forth Christianity, Islam, and Rabbinical Judaism. The point Armstrong strongly emphasizes is that the early expressions of religiosity during the Axial Age were not theocratic systems requiring belief, but instructional practices requiring action. The arthritic catechisms and rituals that we now accept as religion had no place in the precepts of these sages, prophets, and mystics. Their goal was to foster a compassionate society, and the question of whether there was an omnipotent God was irrelevant to how one might lead a moral life. They asked their students to question and challenge and, as opposed to modern religion, to take nothing on faith. They did not proselytize, sell, urge people to succeed, give motivational sermons, or harangue sinners. They urged their followers to change how they behaved in the world. All relied on a common principle, the Golden Rule: Neverdo to anyone what you would not have done to yourself.

No one in the Axial Age imagined that he was living in an age of spiritual awakening. It was a difficult time, riddled with betrayals, misunderstandings, and petty jealousies. But the philosophy and spirituality of these centuries constituted a movement nevertheless, a movement we can recognize in hindsight. Just as today, the Axial sages lived in a time of war. Their aim was to understand the source of violence, not to combat it. All roads led to self, psyche, thought, and mind. The spiritual practices that evolved were varied, but all concentrated on focusing and guiding the mind with simple precepts and practices whose repetition in daily life would gradually and truly change the heart. Enlightenment was not an end – equanimity, kindness, and compassion were.

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These teachings were the original source of charities in the ancient world, and they are the true source of NGOs, volunteerism, trusts, foundations, and faith-based charities in the modern world. I suggest that the contemporary movement is unknowingly returning the favor to the Axial Age, and is collectively forming the basis of an awakening. But it is a very different awakening, because it encompasses a refined understanding of biology, ecology, physiology, quantum physics, and cosmology. Unlike the massive failing of the Axial Age, it sees the feminine as sacred and holy, and it recognizes the wisdom of indigenouspeoples all over the world, from Africa to Nunavut.

I have friends who would vigorously protest this assertion, pointing out the small-mindedness, competition, and selfishness of a number of NGOs and the people who lead them. But I am not questioning whether the human condition permeates the movement. It does so, most surely. Clay feet march in all protests. My question is whether the underlying values of the movement are beginning to permeate global society. And there is even a larger issue, the matter of intent. What is the intention of the movement? If you examine its values, missions, goals, and principles, and I urge you to do so, you will see that at the core of all organizations are two principles, albeit unstated: first is the Golden Rule; second is the sacredness of all life, whether it be a creature, child, or culture. The prophets we now enshrine were ridiculed in their day. Amos was constantly in trouble with the authorities. Jeremiah became the root of the word jeremiad, which means a recitation of woes, but like Cassandra, he was right. David Suzuki has been prescient for 40 years. Donella Meadows was right about biological limits to growth and was scorned by fellow scientists. Bill McKibben has been unwavering and unerring in his cautions about climate change. Martin Luther King was killed one year after he delivered his “Beyond Vietnam” address opposing the Vietnam War and berating the American military for “taking the young black men who have 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.” Jane Goodall travels 300 days a year on behalf of the earth, speaking, teaching, supporting, and urging others to act. Wangari Maathai was denounced in Parliament, publicly mocked for divorcing her husband, and beaten unconscious for her work on behalf of women and the African environment. It matters not how these six and other leaders will be seen in the future; for now, they are teachers who try or have tried to address the suffering they witness on earth.

I once watched a large demonstration while waiting to meet a friend. Tens of thousands of people carrying a variety of handmade placards strolled down a wide boulevard accompanied by chants, slogans, and song. The signs referred to politicians, different species, prisoners of conscience, corporate campaigns, wars, agriculture, water, workers’ rights, dissidents, and more. Standing near me a policeman was trying to understand what appeared to be a political Tower of Babel. The broad-shouldered Irishman shook his head and asked rhetorically, “What do these people want?” Fair question.

There are two kinds of games – games that end, and games that don’t. In the first game, the rules are fixed and rigid. In the second, the rules change whenever necessary to keep the game going. James Carse called these, respectively, finite and infinite games. We play finite games to compete and win. They always have losers and are called business, banking, war, NBA, Wall Street, and politics. We play infinite games to play; they have no losers because the object of the game is to keep playing. Infinite games pay it forward and fill future coffers. They are called potlatch, family, samba, prayer, culture, tree planting, storytelling, and gospel singing. Sustainability, ensuring the future of life on earth, is an infinite game, the endless expression of generosity on behalf of all. Any action that threatens sustainability can end the game, which is why groups dedicated to keeping the game going assiduously address any harmful policy, law, or endeavor. With no invitation, they invade and take charge of the finite games of the world, not to win but to transform finite games into infinite ones. They want to keep the fish game going, so they go after polluters of rivers. They want to keep the culture game going, so they confront oil exploration in Ecuador. They want to keep the home game alive in the world, so they go after the roots of poverty. They want to keep the species game happening, so they buy swaths of habitat and undeveloped land. They want to keep the child game going; consequently, when the United States violated the Geneva Conventions and bombed the 1,400 Iraqi water and sewage treatment plants in the first Gulf War, creating sewage-, cholera-, and typhus-laden water, they condemned it as morally repugnant. When the same country that dropped the bombs persuaded the United Nations to prevent shipments of chlorine and medicine to treat the resulting diseases, the infinite-game players thought it hideous and traveled to the heart of that darkness to start NGOs to serve the abandoned. People trying to keep the game going are activists, conservationists, biophiles, nuns, immigrants, outsiders, puppeteers, protesters, Christians, biologists, permaculturists, refugees, green architects, doctors without borders, engineers with borders, reformers, healers, poets, environmental educators, organic farmers, Buddhists, rainwater harvesters, meddlers, meditators, mediators, agitators, schoolchildren, ecofeminists, biomimics, Muslims, and social entrepreneurs.

To answer the policeman’s question, “these people” are reimagining the world.

Reprinted by arrangement with Viking, a member of Penguin Group (USA)Inc., from Blessed Unrest by Paul Hawken. Copyright © Paul Hawken, 2007.


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