Tami Simon: Welcome to Insights at the Edge, produced by Sounds True. My name’s Tami Simon. I’m the founder of Sounds True, and I’d love to take a moment to introduce you to the new Sounds True Foundation. The Sounds True Foundation is dedicated to creating a wiser and kinder world by making transformational education widely available. We want everyone to have access to transformational tools, such as mindfulness, emotional awareness, and self-compassion, regardless of financial, social, or physical challenges. The Sounds True Foundation is a nonprofit dedicated to providing these transformational tools to communities in need, including at-risk youth, prisoners, veterans, and those in developing countries. If you’d like to learn more or feel inspired to become a supporter, please visit SoundsTrueFoundation.org.
You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Paul Hawken. Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, an entrepreneur, author, and an activist, who has dedicated his life to environmental sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment. Paul Hawken is the founder of Project Drawdown, a nonprofit dedicated to researching when and how global warming can be reversed. He’s written eight books, including five national bestsellers, including the book Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming, and a new book, which is the subject of this conversation, Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation. Paul’s work is an inspiration to action. He writes, “Our job is not to fret and cling to threads of hope. Our role is to solve problems. Blame, demonization of others, and handwringing waste our time and energy.” Paul calls us, team Earth, to get to work. Here’s to very catalytic and inspiring conversation with Paul Hawken.
Paul, we’re celebrating here your new book, Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation. And this is a sequel to your 2017 book, Drawdown: The Most Comprehensive Plan Ever Proposed to Reverse Global Warming. I’m excited to talk to you as somebody who wants to understand more from someone like you, who’s right at the center of all of this research, all of this thinking, all of this writing. I’ve heard from people I deeply respect, “Tami, get real. We’re actually past the point where humans can make enough of an impact for the climate crisis not to basically kill humanity. We’re past that point. Get real.” And I’ve heard from other people, “This is the critical decade. This is the critical decade where it’s not game over.” In your language, “It’s game on.” In the previous podcast we recorded on Drawdown, those were the words you used—“Game on.” So where do you feel we are right now here in 2021 in terms of the timeline and the climate crisis?
Paul Hawken: Good question. It’s lovely to be with you. Yes, it’s easy to be a doomsayer about where we are because the science is incredible. The rate of change surpasses earlier predictions—that is, what’s happening with warming, Arctic ice melting, temperature changes, fires, droughts, etc. All this is happening much quicker than what’s predicted by the IPCC. It’d be very easy then to project ahead further and say, therefore, it’s game over. My question back to those people is, “Hey, then what are you going to do? What’s your life about? Why are you here?” I mean, really. And I would say that if you were a gambling person and you want to lay odds on it, then the odds would be that it’s too late—but not because it’s too late: it’s because nobody’s doing anything. When I say nobody’s doing anything, 98 percent to 99 percent of humanity is disengaged. How could that be? The greatest crisis that civilization has ever faced, but certainly may ever face. And what do we do? How do we communicate? What was it that created this gap between what is needed and what is possible and what is happening?
That’s the question to me, is not being basically predictably apocalyptic and say, “Look, an apocalypse is coming. Wake up.” That’s what people are saying. And I know it. I hear it, and I see it, and I read it as well. That’s not who I hang out with, but it’s definitely sensible from just a pure scientific point of view, but there’s a big gap in all that, which is humanity. And my belief is that the kind of movement will become the biggest movement on Earth, and not because of some charismatic leader, not because of a slogan, not because of some political leader is going to rise up and galvanize this all. No, it’s because of weather. And so climate is moving from the conceptual to the experiential. And when it moves to the experiential, you get to see change in people’s way of seeing, thinking, and being in the world. And it happens very, very quickly. The interesting thing about if you look at humanity and its ability to kind of pivot, just like a flock of birds, suddenly change directions—we have done that before in history, and we can do it again.
We only do it when we feel threatened and when we have to and there’s a reason. Within weeks of Pearl Harbor, the auto industry shut down. It was making tanks two months later. No cars were being made. And the women went to work. Men went overseas. I mean, the speed with which we mobilized in the United States after Pearl Harbor was astonishing. It was a war. This is not a war, so I don’t want to analogize it in that way, but I do want to say that we are amazing when we have the understanding and the reason to actually have the wherewithal. There’s no question about that. So that’s what I would say to them.
The other thing I would say to them is that, not to them, but to everybody in general, is why is 98 percent to 99 percent of the humanity disengaged? I mean, they can be sympathetic, empathetic. They can get it, understand anthropogenic causes of climate global warming and still not really do anything. And they watch a documentary on Netflix about climate, and they think they’ve done something. The mind confuses itself that way. I would say it’s for two reasons. One is when the science started to come out 45, 50 years ago—and it goes back further than that—but in the public sphere, the science was very much about future existential threat. And the scientists quite correctly were saying, “If we don’t change what we’re doing now and continue on the same course we’re going, this is going to happen, and this is going to happen. We don’t know exactly, but we will confront and face these challenges and these changes that will affect civilization and our viability as a civilization.” Nobody listened to it really because the brain isn’t wired to respond to future existential threat. Everyone who’s listening to this podcast, and you and I, and so far our ancestors, were really good at responding to current existential threat. That’s how the brain is wired.
Nothing much happened, and there was a kind of movement that did begin and exists to this day. But the activists, when they took on the science, then took the threat, a future existential threat—and threat causes fear; and they took the fear and the threat, and then they added to it blame and shame, which is to blame the people who did it, the Exxons and Chevrons (which richly deserve it by the way); and then [they shamed] those who were harming, hurting, not aware, continuing to pollute the planet, continuing to double glaze the planet with greenhouse gases and so forth. There you have most people listening to fear of threat, blame, shame, guilt—and those are the most uninspiring set of words you can imagine to create action.
The results show. The results are showing. What Regeneration is about is trying to do a figure-ground shift on this sort of overwhelm of probability of what’s going wrong, how fast it’s going wrong, how quickly it could go wronger, so to speak, and to change it to a narrative where it’s like “Wow, this science is incredible. It’s incredible. What great science. Got it. Thank you. Now let’s go to work.”
It goes back to Wendell Berry’s quote from his poem, “Be [joyful] though you [have considered] all the facts,” but nobody knows the facts about the future because it doesn’t exist. So anybody who says they know what’s going happen in the future is wrong because it doesn’t exist. We are creating the future right now.
TS: Just to check something out with you, Paul, what I hear you saying is that weather changes that we’re currently experiencing—fires, immediate threats—that’s what’s going to galvanize people, not about some future existential concern, but right now; and that’s what will create the greatest movement in human history. Is that right? Is that your perspective?
PH: Yes, because it’s experiential. Experience changes us. I think even back then, when I was at SRI, Stanford Research Institute, and I learned everything there about climate from my colleagues, but everybody said then, and they were quite right, that, “Humans probably won’t do anything about this until it’s experiential, and then it’ll be too late,” just as some people say right now. It was a good point then, and it’s a good point now, which is we could’ve been doing so much ten, 20, 30, 40 years ago that would’ve taken us to a completely different place at this time. We didn’t, but that’s exactly what I’m saying, because the conceptuality of climate was about jargon and acronyms—who understands really what carbon neutrality means? It means nothing. The Earth has never been carbon neutral. It’s a carbon cycle. And what does net zero mean? What does a negative emission mean?
Now, I’m an English major. There’s no such thing as a negative emission. That’s like saying, “Oh, there’s a negative tree, a negative whale, [etc.].” Come on. This is terminology that’s being used—“decarbonization.” I mean, you’re a pipe fitter. You’re a nurse. You work at a restaurant. Somebody says, “Oh, what are you doing about decarbonization? It has no meaning, these acronyms and jargon. And that’s the language that’s been used by the book, the science side and the activist side and the political side to this day. And if you want to ensure that there’s no uptake and no engagement, talk that way, and that’s the way we’re talking.
TS: Okay. There’s so much I want to talk to you about, Paul. I noticed I’m kind of jumping out of my skin here. One of the metaphors that you introduce in Regeneration is that we are right now at this time being homeschooled by planet Earth. I wanted to understand more about that metaphor. If we’re being homeschooled, what do you see as the core learnings that planet Earth is trying to teach us in this school that we’re in?
PH: Yes. The idea that climate change is a problem is a mistake, because the climate is perfect. It’s always perfect. Nature never makes a mistake—we do. Okay, number one.
Number two, the atmosphere and the biosphere are one thing in different expressions and modalities and concentrations, but it’s one thing. So therefore, when the atmosphere is changing, it’s because the biosphere has changed. We are the biosphere, and we’ve caused this extraordinary, rapid increase in emissions, particularly CO2. Okay? Any system that ignores feedback perishes. If we get a fever, that’s feedback. If we have aches and pains, that’s feedback. We have different symptoms, that’s feedback. We respond. We go to a doctor. We go to the healer. We change our way of life, thinking, or diet or whatever. That’s feedback. We respond to feedback. So the change caused by global warming—which is a right term, by the way, that’s what’s going on; the atmosphere is warmer, almost one degree now centigrade; and warming air, warming in the atmosphere causes changes in the jet stream, in weather, in oceanic currents and so forth. That changes weather where we live. And that threatens us.
Why I say we’re being homeschooled is that we’re getting feedback. And it’s one system. What we’ve done, Tami, in the way we talk about it is we’ve “othered” climate. We live in a very fortunate time where the duplicity and the horror, frankly, of othering has come to the fore. The Me Too movement is about othering a whole gender, for Christ’s sakes. Half of the world is being othered. We other races—racism, religions, antisemitism. I mean, religion, in terms of Islam and so forth, this othering surfeited with that. We’ve been othering climate this whole time, and as if climate change is a problem, if it’s out there somewhere and that we’re going to fix it. It’s a very male way of looking at the world. I have to say, with all due respect to my gender, it is really how men look at it. They get in this Promethean mode like Bill Gates and say, “Well, we’re going to fix it, and we’re going to get new technologies to fix the technologies that have caused the problem.” And every time you get a technology to fix all technological problems, you get new technological problems. You don’t fix it at all. You just change the nature of the problems.
Rather than looking at it as an “it” out there somewhere, which doesn’t exist—it’s a figment of the imagination, and the ego, so forth—we have to understand it’s us. And like I said, the only thing that’s making a mistake is us. What mistake are we making? By being out of alignment with biology, with life. Regeneration is really about alignment, and it asks the question, which is a fair question, do we want to continue to steal the future? Because that’s what we’re doing. We’re just stealing the future from our children and our grandchildren and those who succeed us. Or do we want to heal it? And what I mean by steal the future is if every economic sector that we are involved with, that we buy from, the services from ones we receive, are absolutely taking life. In other words, they extract value. And if you just follow the breadcrumbs, anything you buy, have, own virtually, it takes you back to supply chains that are destroying life. They’re taking life. They don’t mean to. They don’t intend to. They just accept it as a matter of fact and so forth. They’re not bad people. But the fact is when you take life, you degenerate.
The question your generation is asking is two-fold. One is what does it mean to do a 180 and putting life at the center of every act and decision? And the assumption, I think, that’s tacit and well-embedded in capitalism is that the way you make capital is to take. It does it very well, by the way. It takes life—whether it’s biodiversity, whether it’s the oceans, whether it’s the cause of pollution, rivers, land, to industrial agriculture. Everywhere you look where industry is active is destroying life. And the question is, can we just do a 180? Can we actually increase life on Earth and create prosperity and economy and wellbeing for humanity? The answer is yes, because the way we’re going now goes the opposite direction. We are creating less wellbeing for the Earth, less wellbeing for people. And people are sicker, less healthy. Environments are degrading or falling apart. Food is becoming more scarce. Fish are disappearing. You can go on and on with that list.
In other words, what we can see is if we look down the road at degeneration, which is our existing banking, financial capitalists, money-creating, capital-creating system, that road ends. We can see the end of that road already. I mean, that’s what scientists are saying. That’s what people involved with conservation, biodiversity, oceanographers are saying, “Hey, stop. You can’t keep doing that. It won’t be anything there if you keep doing that.” Regeneration is about—“Good idea, let’s do a 180.” What does that mean? What does that mean? And can we actually create a world where we’re healing the future? Yes, easily, just as easily. It has GDP. You can have money, transactions, jobs, jobs that are a lot more meaningful than the ones that exist right now, which in so many cases provide no meaning, no purpose, no dignity to people whatsoever. If there’s anything that’s going to bring us alive, it’s going to be jobs and vocations and purposes that mean something. And when we bring the world back to life, which is what regeneration is about, we bring ourselves back to life.
TS: Now, Paul, I want to just share something personally for a moment. I was lucky to get a pre-release copy of Regeneration. And I noticed immersing myself in the book and reading about how you encourage us not to see the climate crisis as something outside of our cells, but to really experience our cells as nature that’s regenerating right now. You and I, we’re regenerating while we’re having this conversation. Is that true? Your cells? My cells?
PH: Absolutely. All 30 trillion cells are regenerating every nanosecond, or we wouldn’t be having this conversation. So the wonderful thing about regeneration is innate. In other words, it’s not like a term or a concept or what does sustainability mean? And when you achieve it? And how you measure it? And blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. We regenerate every day. We take care of ourselves. Our body takes care of itself. We take care of our partner, our children, our friends, our family, our home, in terms of the garden, the flowers. We do this every day. Every single human being does that. And you can have somebody who’s a right-wing zealot, who’s got more armaments in his house than conceivably possible, and he will be really kind to his dog.
TS: OK. Let me ask this question, though, Paul. So here I am, I wake up, and I’m experiencing after reading your writing this regenerative kind of, I’d say, aspect of true nature inside of me. I feel like a fountain. I feel so happy. Here I am reading a book about ending the climate crisis in one generation, and I genuinely feel the sense of celebrating all of the people who are doing this great work out in the world. I feel that, feel that inside me. I feel the energy. And then I think of how difficult it is to change these social structures that feel outside of me. And you talked about how 98 percent to 99 percent of people don’t feel engaged in solving the climate crisis. And I had the feeling of yeah, when it comes to experiencing regeneration in a close way, in my body and my family, I get that. But when it comes to changing these larger structures, I feel probably the way most people feel, which is kind of impotent, feel impotent.
PH: Of course.
TS: I wonder if you can address that.
PH: Yeah, because you’re biting off what you can’t chew. You’re trying to change the largest structures. The largest structures change from the middle out, not from the top down. They never have. One of the things that’s happened is that the climate emergency, the climate crisis has been in a sense individuated on one side, like “This is what you can do, you. Okay?” “Me?” “Yes, you.” And then this is what they can do, at the conferences, the parties, or a new administration or a big corporation, so forth. […] If you Google what you could do, it’s like put a power strip in your home entertainment center and use cold water and recycle. It’s like unless you had an IQ lower than room temperature, you knew that that was inadequate to the task at hand. It’s actually disempowering.
Then you look at the establishment, whether it’s corporate or government or otherwise, you go “Wow, those”—guys usually— “those people are really out of it.” And they’re corrupt in most cases, corrupted by money and by other interests. It creates a sense of despair. The thing we talk about in Regeneration is that you have agency. You’re not an individual. You’re not Tami Simon. That’s what you wake up in the morning and believe. That’s your ego saying, “Hey!”
None of us are individuals. We are part of a network. Your network is, again, your family, your friends, community. You have agency. It’s not just what you individually can do in the morning. You’re doing it right now. You’re doing podcasts. You do Tami Simon. You’re doing Sounds True. You’ve done it for a long time. That’s your agency. You are not one thing.
And so that’s a mistake we make, which is we think, “Well, somehow, we got to change Wall Street. We got to change Bayer, Monsanto.” You can’t. But what we can change is the conditions that create those institutions, but we can’t do it at the same scale they operate at. We can look at the inertia and the momentum of those institutions, going, “Oh man, that’s just crazy. I feel like an ant when a steamroller is coming on a road.” It just feels impossible. But because the change arises from the periphery, it doesn’t arise from the center. I’m not saying that concentrations of capital and money and corporate power and governments are the center—but they are actually the center and nexus of power right now. But that’s not where change comes from. It always comes from the outside in. What we know is those institutions—basically, they may be getting richer, but they’re failing. They’re failing, failing, failing, failing.
We can’t equate the accumulation of capital with success. If we do, then we’re thinking like they do. I may be digressing here, but that’s why you see Bayer, Monsanto, Cargill, ADM, General Mills, and these companies saying, “Oh, we’re into regenerative agriculture.” Why? Because they know that industrial ag paradigm is dead. They know it. They see it. And they go, “Oh, we’re going to do regen ag.” They’re not really going to do it, but they’re going to take on the moniker of it. That is one sign of that, the fact that that is crumbling. That’s changing. It’s not going to work. It can’t persist. It doesn’t mean we don’t want to have big institutions, but it doesn’t mean that you should wake up and say, “There’s nothing I can do about this.” There’s everything you can do about it.
We have to understand that really everything is community, and it’s community that changes the locus of power. What will happen in time? I don’t know. It’s not my business to know the future. My business is to act effectively to do the most I can, the best I can. What I do see is an emerging, burgeoning regeneration movement in the world. I mean, it’s much, much, much bigger than people understand and know. And you’ll see that at the website, in Nexus. You’ll see how big it is. I mean, it’s astonishing, and it’s growing much more rapidly than the things that are harming us are growing.
TS: Paul, you mentioned that people can have the feeling “I watched a Netflix documentary, so I’m doing something.” What I don’t want is someone to listen to this podcast and say, “Oh, I listened to Paul Hawken. I’m doing something.” I don’t want that. When you mentioned the actions that we can take in our home—put down a power strip, etc.—we realize this isn’t up for the task. People get that. I get that. Our listeners get that. This next step, though—how am I going to be part of an activated community? In what way? I don’t really know. I feel a little lost. Help us there.
PH: Yeah. So the book Regeneration is, I call it a neurotransmitter. Okay? Not a book. The last eight pages is called “Action and Connection.” That’s a worm hole. I’m mixing my metaphors here. It’s a worm hole to the website. In the website is a section called Nexus, N-E-X-U-S, Connection Point. That is the most complete listing and network of climate solutions in the world and how to do it.
How to do it is the most important thing, because again, again, and again I give talks, and people say, “Yeah, but what should I do? What should I do?” They don’t know what to do. I can’t tell them what they should do, but I can tell them that up until now, there hasn’t been a place where you can figure out how to do it.
Take degraded land restoration. There’s over 2 billion hectares of degraded land in the world. I mean, the potentials of this land when you restore it are extraordinary in terms of water, jobs, food, security, carbon sequestration, that is to bring carbon back home. It’s just amazing. Go find how to do it. You can’t find it now on Google anywhere.
What we have in Nexus is basically for every challenge and solution, challenges like plastics—that’s not a solution; that’s a challenge. But electrifying your home, or heat pumps, that’s a solution; degraded land restoration, that’s a solution. What you have in Nexus is call to action, description, and then you have what you can do as an individual for sure, what you can do as a school, a classroom, a church, a synagogue, what you can do as a community, what you can do as a neighborhood, what you can do as a city or a town or village, what you can do as a company, small company, big company, who you can influence. This is where you want to direct your influence. These are the bad actors—because the boreal forests: This is the name of the chairman of Proctor and Gamble. This is his phone number. Here’s his email. And they’re making plush toilet paper out the boreal forests. The biggest stock of carbon on Earth is on terrestrial—that is, Earth—on land, not in the ocean. You can write to them saying, “I don’t think making plush toilet paper out of the boreal forests is a great idea.” This is influence, saying, “I’m not into it.” Same with Kimberly-Clark and same with Georgia Pacific.
Then here’s the good actors. Here’s the people who are just leading as individuals, their voices. You know what I mean? You have had a lot of these voices on Sounds True, so you know what I’m talking about, those people who just have that way of bringing people together and exploring issues and ideas. And then you have all the NGOs and institutions that are just kicking butt. I mean, they’re doing such a great job. They’re on it. They’re informed. They need support. You can support them in different ways and so forth.
Then you have all the great videos that teach you about it. Then you have the documentaries of those docs there. You have the great books. You have the great articles that have come out in The Atlantic or here in The Post or whatever and so forth. And so basically what you have is—you want to know degraded land restoration? Here. And they’re links. They’re not us telling you what to do or how to do it. It’s the world showing you how to do it, what to do, where it’s happening. And this is for every single… the most complete list of solutions from Drawdown, from Regeneration, from Accelerated Pathways, all the different collectors of solutions in the world. This has never existed before, Tami, never before. So going back to you, which is it’s really about what lights you up. To me, you’re lit up. You’re doing Sounds True.
TS: Yeah. Well, I’m standing in also for all of our listeners, who I think have this gap. What is the website, Paul?
PH: Regeneration.org, www.regeneration.org.
TS: You said the book is a neurotransmitter, and then you write here towards the end of the book in this section on “Action and Connection,”: “The way to heal a system is to connect more of it to itself.” I thought that’s really interesting. Is that the way to heal a system? What does that mean to connect more of it to itself? It sounds like that’s what you’re explaining here.
PH: That’s how an ecosystem works. That’s how social and economic systems work. Systems heal by being connected to themselves. You could flip that and say the primal cause of global warming is this profound disconnection between people, between people and nature, and the disconnection we’ve caused within nature itself to have that fragmentation, acidification, pollution, degradation, deforestation, etc. So regeneration is in a sense reconnecting these broken stands. It starts with yourself for sure. We have broken strands within us, in relationships, in our own family, in our own understanding, but also in our communities and this and that and involves listening. That’s how you heal a system. We know that scientifically.
We’re a system. The Earth is one system. It’d be facile to say, although true, everything’s connected. That’s just a new-age cliche. What I try to do in the book is within specific subjects like marine protected areas or fire ecology or wilding or electrifying everything, all these different solutions, is to show connections to people that they might not have known about within those contexts of those solutions so that as you read the book from the middle out, back, forth, doesn’t matter what sequence you read it in, the point being is that as you read it, you say “Oh, that’s connected. I never knew that. How interesting. How does that work? Oh, wow.”
At the end of the book, what I’ve tried to do is create spaciousness. The spaciousness is so that you can go, “Wow, I get it. It really is all connected.” But you now have come to that conclusion. Nobody said at the beginning, “Listen up, everything’s connected, and we’re screwing up.” That is not a good way to talk to people.
TS: Right. But, Paul, let me just dig a little deeper into this. You said that we see in our immune system that the way to heal a system is to connect more of it to itself. And I think I just don’t really understand how it is that systems heal and how this connection is so critical for that healing to take place.
PH: Well, I mean, I got this from Francisco Varela when I was writing Blessed Unrest. What happened was I was giving a talk at Bioneers. And I said that the movement—I was describing the one million organizations in the world that were addressing social justice, environmental degradation, and indigenous people’s rights were like the immune system, humanity’s immune response to ecological degradation, economic destruction, etc. I said that spontaneously, and then when I got home, I thought, “You don’t know what you’re talking about. You don’t even know how an immune system works.” Then I really drilled down into the literature, reading Varela and other scientists. I discovered that really an immune system that’s not working as one, that’s out of touch with itself, it’s broken—and in various ways. The cytokine response, to get geeky, is an immune system [response] that goes way overboard when you get a COVID infection, a virus. And that cytokine response kills the patient, not the virus. We just know this biologically, Tami. I’m not a scientist.
And then I began to look at ecosystems, and the same thing. We know that when you remove certain creatures or plants from an ecosystem, the ecosystem starts to go into rapid degradation. And we didn’t understand why before. And then as we’ve gotten to be better observers, better scientists, better biologists, better ecologists, and so forth, we understood these connections that something we might have seen is marginal, like whatever. “We don’t need that bird, that frog, that plant—oh yes, we do.” It was knit together in such an exquisite way. Now when you removed one element, then the system started to break down.
Bernie Krause, a great acoustic ecologist, has done work where he was just recording intact virgin landscapes, because the sounds were so beautiful. And then he’d go back five or 10 years later to places in the Sierra that were selectively and carefully logged, very carefully logged. The sound was completely different. The number of creatures had collapsed.
We understand this about ecosystems. And social systems are also systems, that is, they’re intricate, and […] they’re creating themselves all the time. It’s not like they’re being created or it’s fixed. Self-organizing systems is what we do. It’s what nature does. And we are nature as well. We see our social, economic systems as other, but we shouldn’t in terms of the basic principles that organize and rule the way systems evolve and change.
TS: Paul, when I was talking about this impotent quality I feel when it comes to structural change, you started your response by saying change comes from the middle. And then later you talked about change coming from the periphery. And I noticed I got a little confused about those two things, so I just want to really understand what you mean.
PH: Yes. I mean—because we top-down. We go top is power; the bottom is activists. And what I’m saying is everything in between is where the change comes from. It is still peripheral to the centers of power.
TS: OK, OK. And then there’s a quote from the book: “The number one cause of human change is when people around us change.” I thought that was really interesting, and I wanted to hear more about that.
PH: Well, again, this is just science. I mean, obviously sociology, but also neuroscience, both. And there is a hell of a lot of great scientists in the world today. There’s never been more scientists than there is right this moment. As Andrew Huberman talks about at Stanford—because they’re looking at the mind, the brain, and how it works—and that’s neuroscience and neurobiology. They look at how do people change? People in addiction also look at that. Well, how does somebody get addicted? What’s the impact of trauma? How do people change? So many people looking at this. And you’ve interviewed, talked to many of them, so you know what I’m talking about. But the thing that has the biggest influence is actually other people’s actions and who they are, not on belief system, which is squirrely and changes every other minute with our monkey minds.
The thing that impacts us is other people. If we live like a monk or like a hermit somewhere, well that doesn’t matter. Most people live in proximity to many other people. And so what would you see, like in the Trump phenomenon and so forth, is people changing other people. People didn’t start stupid. They were around other people where they felt simpatico, and the sympathy that they felt together was feeling that they’ve been victimized by this economy and by the way things are—and I think most people in the progressive movement would say, “Hallelujah. You’re right, brother and sister.” You know what I mean? They would agree actually on that thing. “This is not working.” But they then were influenced with the people who they knew. And somehow that got seeded. That got started.
That’s how fascism always starts, by the way, in politics. I don’t know how to say it other than that I think you have to look at your own life—and not you necessarily, but listeners—and say, “Who’s had the biggest influence on me? Or what.” It doesn’t mean trauma. Other things can have a huge influence. They can, of course, but in terms of your behavior, your direction, your vector, your understanding, wholeness, it’s usually another human being.
TS: OK. I want to make sure that our listeners have a good sense of the new book, Regeneration, what the book covers, and what you’re hoping to accomplish with it. So lay that out for them.
PH: Well, first of all, I’m not interested remotely in hope. Hope is not a plan. It’s just the mask of fear, and where we need to be now is fearless and courageous and not hopeful. I’m not trying to negate the question. It’s a good question, but I’m just saying I don’t hope for anything.
What I try to be is effective. What I try to create is the conditions for self-organization in the world. And what we (because it was my staff and researchers) were trying to do is create those conditions with the book, with the website, with the connections that we have with partners all over the world. But there are other aspects in what we do, which is to create a sense of—I wouldn’t say, not reversal—but it is reversal from the sense of anxieties, a sense of depression, a sense of fear, a sense of threat, the sense that this is happening to you, that you’re the object and that you got screwed or that you’re at the short end of the straw. That is what the 15 to 25-year-olds think.
Clover Hogan has some of these wonderful surveys in 50 countries with the American Psychological Association. Seventy percent of the people 15 to 25 are anxious and depressed. They have mental health issues—about climate. So our purpose, Clover’s purpose too, our purpose is say, “Look, I got it. Wow. This science is incredible, amazing. Who knew? I know. Actually, I didn’t do it. I just got here […]. And I could blame the baby boomers and prior generations and so forth for being so amazingly selfish and stupid, or I can actually work on the problem.”
And there was that quote, that Wendell Berry quote, “Be [joyful] though you [have considered] all the facts.” To me, it’s about embracing the facts. This is, again, the homeschooling, Mother Earth saying, “Hey, here’s the facts.” And then saying, “OK, now what do we do?” And creating a culture of optimism, a culture of possibility, because we’re drowning in the probabilities of what’s going to happen. And they’re not good. What we’re not drowning in is the possibilities of what we can do and what’s effective and what’s working.
Regeneration is hopefully trying to help and serve and offer people the idea that you can do this 180 pivot and do what the first sentence says in the book, which is to put life at the center of every act of decision and see where that takes you and takes us, takes our companies, takes our families, takes our cities, takes whatever it is that we’re involved with and to ask a different question and to proceed in a different way.
The thing about people changing, the thing that changes our beliefs about—you started the program talking about people believing it’s game over, that it’s done. That’s a belief. That’s not true. It’s not untrue. It’s just a belief. But the thing that changes our beliefs is action, not beliefs. Beliefs don’t change your actions. Our actions change our beliefs.
The way to change ourselves and our effectiveness in the world is to start acting. Regeneration is very much about the cheerleading squad to do that. We’re doing it ourselves, our whole team, in very specific ways, besides the book and the website itself, but to really create a sense of “team Earth,” and to, in a way, pull back the curtain so that people can see that this is a burgeoning movement, that it’s extraordinary how diverse and widespread it is and how fast it’s growing—much faster than the things that are harming us are growing.
Is it in time? Who knows? There’s no point in trying to answer unanswerable questions. You can think about them. You can ponder them. I do all the time. I feel grief and sorrow and loss, just like anybody else. I’m a fifth generation Californian with grandchildren of seventh generation. I see it being destroyed by fire, going from France to Spain ecologically. I feel that loss. It’s not like we’re just being Dr. Pangloss […]. We’re taking that grief, that sense of loss, which Joanna Macy talks about, and transform it into something that gives meaning to our life and gives meaning to others.
I think the number one cause of depression I have heard actually is having no purpose, that was feeling you are purposeless and [that] the world sees you as having no purpose. There’s no meaning there. And then you have a job that is frankly meaningless. You do. You know it is. It gives you money in order to survive. When you imagine a life of regenerating life on Earth, it’s creating more life. Bringing the world to life brings us back to life, and it gives us a sense of purpose and meaning and dignity. And one of the things I say and emphasize in the book is this idea that there’s future existential threat—but can we just time out on that one? Most of the world deals with current existential threat.
The thing about the solutions that are in Regeneration and in Nexus and brought on as well in different ones, is that if there wasn’t a climate scientist alive, if we had no idea what was causing extreme weather, we would want to do all of these solutions because they have cascading benefits for the future, for children, for water, for health, for education, for wellbeing, for connecting us, for bringing us together. The list is so long. You don’t need to believe “in climate change,” whatever, or figure it out, to understand that these solutions are the most meaningful way that we could express ourselves in our life. That goes back to, you’re here for a short time. What are you going to do? And who are you going to be? It goes back to Wendell Berry. If you know the facts, got it, but do you want to lead a life of being, again, a victim? No. Why would you do that? You’re here. It’s an amazing place. This planet is a miracle. So, that’s what Regeneration has got, is having bigger arms—and those bigger arms, you talked about, it’s in your body. Can we look at this from a different point of view than one of—not just victimization— “Oh, we’re in trouble. We may not make it.” You can wake up with that every morning if you wish. Or you can wake up every morning saying, “This is what I’m going to do today. I work with the most wonderful people, and I have the most wonderful ideas. And no, I haven’t made tons of money, and no, that is no longer what is motivating me. What gives me meaning is purpose. What gives me meaning is what I’ve devoted myself and my heart to.”
It sounds maybe blissful or something. I don’t mean it that way. I mean it in a very practical, pragmatic way. We need to understand that the four-and-a-half million people who are poor in the world right now and wake up every morning worried about education, about food security, about safety, about clothing, about books, can they afford books, can they be safe when they go out and get firewood, all those sorts of things—poverty doesn’t want to be fixed. It wants to fix itself. And when we look at these solutions, the regenerative solutions, they give people the tools to change and transform their lives. It gives people who are robbed of dignity, robbed of meaning by systems that are extractive, economic systems, a way to reclaim their life.
TS: Paul, I want to give our listeners a little bit of a sense of some of the exciting regeneration-in-action solutions that the book sheds a light on, illuminates. There were a few I wrote down that really, for whatever reason, captured me in terms of their sense of magic. One that I’d never heard of was the Azolla fern. I don’t know if I’m pronouncing that correctly. Tell our listeners—what is the Azolla fern? And how might it be able to help us?
PH: Well, my whole staff got hung up on that one—not in a bad way, but we did sort of wind down the deepest rabbit hole ever because we were so fascinated by it. But there was an Azolla event 49 million years ago. And the Azolla event was on the Arctic. At that time, it was so warm. It was 25,000 PPM in the atmosphere of CO2. And starting in the spring, all through the fall, the winter ice melted. It was freshwater lens. Okay, it wasn’t salt water. It was fresh water. And you had this Azolla event.
An Azolla is a fern. It’s very tiny, like a little floret. It doubles in size every two to three days. It draws nitrogen from the air, and it floats. It makes omega-3 oils, which is unusual for a plant. And it sequesters carbon really, really rapidly. It’s a plant. Every plant sequesters carbon. But it sequesters rapidly because it doubles in size every two to three days—so boom, boom, boom, boom, boom, boom.
What we know about the Azolla then is it went from 25,000 PPM in an atmosphere of CO2 to 6,000 in very relatively short time. That was Azolla. And that Azolla, when the salt water came back in the fall, and the ice started to melt, and the freshwater lens was gone, the Azolla died—it dies in salt water—and went to the bottom. When we’re drilling for oil in the Arctic, the oil we’re drilling is the old Azolla fern that actually carbonized in the bottom of the ocean and so forth, in the Arctic Ocean. So, we looked at it from a different point of view—which is it’s seen as invasive. It gets in your ponds. It’s hard to get out. Okay? So that’s seen as invasive. But it has, as I said, omega-3s. You can eat it, put it in your salad. You can use it as food for chickens or cattle or goats, whatever. You can actually top dress your soil with it or use it as a fertilizer.
We didn’t put this in a book, to be objective, but we all got so excited about it. And we said, “Well, what if you put it in Bismarck, North Dakota, at the headwaters of the Missouri River and you put in a kilo of Azolla fern? And we know in the spring, it’s going to double every two, three days and so forth. We did these models, and we tracked it. And it was getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And then we had to take it out. Ever so often, we had to do a takeout, [because] it’ll clog the river.
So, we took it out. And then what did we do with it? Well, we made fertilizer. We can make fuel with it. We made vitamins or oil, omega-3 oils with it. Or we fed it to chickens, and we had omega-3 eggs, all that sort of stuff. And then keep doing it all the way down the river, because it becomes the Mississippi and then through Missouri and then all the different states, Louisiana, and then it goes to the ocean. And it goes to the ocean and dies and goes to the bottom. But all along the way, it has sequestered basically phosphates and nitrates that are run-off from the Midwest and from farms. And so therefore it brings the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico back to life.
And then we started thinking, “OK, this is the undammed river, the Missouri, Mississippi, so [what if] we do that for every undammed river in the world.” And it’s not invasive in a stream. It’s invasive in a pond. Because a stream is flowing water; it goes to one place—the ocean. The amount of carbon we can sequester is amazing, amazing. That’s Azolla fern.
Practically speaking, you can use it if you’re a farmer, you have a pond, you can use it there, and then have a skimmer and take it off and feed your cows—you can eat it yourself. You can use it as top dressing on your garden. You can use it in so many, many ways. And it’s just a plant that hasn’t really been fully embraced or understood as something that can be so helpful. That’s rather arcane, but its potential is extraordinary.
TS: Well, I think it serves as an example. I mean the book covers lots and lots of illustrations like this of things that maybe have been overlooked that have a lot of potential to help us. One that I’d never heard of as well was this notion of carbon architecture.
PH: Yes. Well, and I have to say, here, architects are on [top of] it. There are two aspects of a building. One is embodied carbon. How much carbon did it take the build the darn thing? Now, how much carbon does it use on an operating basis in terms of heat and cooling and hot water and changing out the air? And most of the LEED standards and all those things have looked at operating systems as how much can you reduce the amount of carbon and so forth? And that’s great. Very few have looked at embodied carbon and the steel, the concrete, the machinery, how it’s built, all that sort of stuff. And that’s by far the largest source of carbon emissions, is actually the very building itself, not the heating system, HVAC systems. And so now you have a whole school of architecture, which is the living building system: Jason McLennan; you have it in Sera, S-E-R-A, which is a very well-known green architecture firm in Oakland and Seattle and basically looking at the building as a possibility to sequester carbon. The materials you use are already sequestering carbon. They call it carbon negative. I don’t think that’s the right word, by the way, but nevertheless they’re not emitting—they’re doing the opposite.
You look at the building as something where it has at least zero carbon emissions, embodied emissions, and then you have systems that further that. The building itself is like a tree, and that is a tree is a carbon sequestering machine; it’s not a carbon emitting machine. And so you can make a building like a tree? And the answer is yeah.
Carbon architecture is using nature as the design, the leitmotif of creating structures that are light-weighted, that are different, they use different materials that provide a sense of dwelling or gathering that is actually in alignment with biology. We have to retrofit most of the buildings on Earth too. It’s not like we can build all new buildings. But we are building new buildings, and this is where we’re going. And the tallest timber building—it’s built entirely of timber—is in Vienna. And I think it’s, if I remember from the book, it’s 26 stories. The master builder and designer was a woman, and there’s a picture of her in the book. She’s great—[going] like, “Yeah.” But it’s happening all over the world, this shift in architecture.
TS: Paul, I’m going to make myself vulnerable here. You write, “The most important and effective action a person can take is something that lights them up, that they want to know more about, that they care about, that fascinates them.” So as I was reading Regeneration, I was looking. What lights me up? Yes, obviously, disseminating spiritual wisdom. Let’s leave that alone for a moment. What lights me up about all of these different regeneration-in-action?
The place where I had the moment where I was like, “I want to work on that,” had to do when I was reading about Paris and how Paris is determined to be the first plastic, waste-free water system in the world and the whole idea that there are vending machines where you can get your water bottle that you can then use with the water that’s being distributed. I think this is very simple, very low to the ground. I hate buying plastic water when I’m at the airport. And yet I do it. I do it a lot. So, I would like to solve this problem. And I thought, “Boulder. Boulder should be a city like that. Come on. That’s where I live.” So that’s where I got. And then I thought, “What am I going to do? Go talk to someone on the city council? Oh God, I don’t want to do that.” And I started like kind of sinking myself, even as my energy was rising. And I want to use this just as an example. So people, they get the book—
TS: —Regeneration. They have this inspiration, but probably like me, then they’re going to have that moment where it’s easy. I mean, I hit an obstacle before I even made my first phone call, just in my mind.
PH: Yes. So, the result, the outcome that you—not the solving. That’s fine. One of my examples of regeneration is a young man who looked at basically these huge refugee camps in Syria, in Bangladesh for the Rohingya and so forth. What he does is he goes to there, and he makes these big canvases for murals, and he brings paints, and he teaches children art. That’s what lights him up. These are children that have not being taught anything at all. There’s no schools there in these camps. And they are lit up. He’s lit up. I mean, who doesn’t get lit up with children that are alive and giggling and creative and happy? And so I’m trying to expand the sense of regeneration. The idea that somehow that book contains all the things that are regenerative is nonsense. It doesn’t. That’s why I say it’s a neurotransmitter. It just kind of lights something up in you, rather than saying, “This is the list. Choose one. No, you choose, and you decide what it is that lights you up.” What you said about lighting up people about spirituality, go for it. That is regeneration [at its] core.
Again, for different people, it’s going to be different for everyone. And that’s what we’re trying to emphasize, the big arms of regeneration. So rather than seeing what you do is not related to climate, of course it is. Of course it is. Because as people get in touch—I mean, that’s a pretty reductionist way of talking about spirituality—but in touch with ourselves, with the spirit, the heart. As Jack Kornfield would say, and Tara Brach, “The one who knows is in every one of us.” And so inasmuch as spirituality starts to open that up and touch upon that, who knows what happens after that? There’s no after that. I mean, I know I’m going away. So, to me, you just nailed it right there, which is like, “Oh yeah, I like that. And what a great idea. It’s not what I want to do.” So, it didn’t light you up.
I understand it. Who wants to deal with bureaucracy? Some people love it. They really do. They love to be the person that makes that kind of change. They have the patience. They have the social skills. I don’t, by the way. And they do it. Then what happens, they have this sense of satisfaction. The people who did that in Paris are really, really happy about what they did and proud of what they did. They can see the effects and impacts every single day in their hometown and home city. You asked the right question, and you answered it perfectly, because you’re the same. Who’s to say what is the regenerative act that you should do? Not me. That’s for sure.
TS: Okay. Here’s a note I’d like to end on, Paul. You write in the book, “What is holding us back today is not a lack of solutions. It’s the lack of imagination of what is possible.” Share with us your imagination of what is possible, what you imagine.
PH: I imagine this, that number one, that the climate movement will be the biggest movement on Earth because of weather, no other reason, OK, and that it will coalesce and organize itself in ways that exist right now and that to create a sort of the catalyst for one billion people to become activists in the world and to completely change what we understand to be economic value, to understand value itself. As I said, we have an economy built on this value. I just see it’s like, if you’re a good gardener or a good farmer and you see soil and you say, “Oh my God, what am I going to do with this soil? I can grow things. I can do this.” You imagine the garden or this or that that you want to create. The same thing holds true of our society right now, which is it’s in crisis, it’s depressed, it’s anxious, it’s worried, it’s fighting, it’s divisive, it’s divided, all the things that come out of fear and isolation and so forth.
To me, I see that as the soil that we can use in a regenerative way, want to put people and make them solve it. The beautiful thing about soil, what industrial ag never figured out, is that it’s a community. It’s a community of organisms. We are a community always, and we’ve been completely fractured by systems and greed and corruption and politics and ways of doing things that we didn’t understand the full impact of. I just feel like, one-by-one, people are going to wake up to that, and either they’re going to go with demagogues and populists and fascists, which is possible by the way, Tami, that’s very possible, or they’re going to go with people who offer a possibility of coming more alive. It’s kind of like when we were kids—those sandboxes in the playground. Over there, they were hitting each other with their Tonka toys. And over there, they were giggling. Where did we go? We went to the ones who were giggling. And I just feel that that childlike understanding and intelligence has been lost in us.
When I say be joyous, it’s not about being Panglossian. It’s about being a person, a human being that brings people together to you, not because you are offering them anything other than who you are in that moment, in that day, in that life, in what you do, what you stand for. That’s my imagining, but as I said, right now, we have technology, which is not imaginative so much as it is a manipulative. I don’t know how much time we have left, but just another way to look at this is that if you have a reasonable goal—“My goal in life is this”—it’s reasonable because you know exactly how to do it, how it’s done. OK, that’s why it’s reasonable. What we need to share, what brings us alive is unreasonable goals. And to end the climate crisis means to be going at that rate by 2030 that will take us to where we want to be in ’40 and ’50, where we need to be on all levels, socially, economically, and scientifically in terms of climatology.
The thing about unreasonable goals is you don’t know how to do them. That’s why they’re unreasonable. “I have no idea. What should we do? What do you think?” And that brings us together in a way, but it brings out creativity, imagination, and innovation. If there was ever a time when we needed that—and we’re getting it—then that is now. By ending the climate crisis in one generation, as I define it, and reversing global warming and so forth, which is Drawdown, those are the goals we should share. And then when we have goals like that, then we can share our lack of knowing, that is we don’t know how, and then we can come together and learn together, because that is what humans do best. They love to solve problems as a group. They learn faster as a group, and they like to do things in a group. We’re social animals.
TS: Calling on Team Earth—Paul, I love that phrase that you offered. I really, really loved talking to you. Your book, Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, I have to say it lifted me up. Being with the book, reading all of the stories, seeing all of the examples filled me with a sense of being connected, being part of the fabric of this regenerative Team Earth. Thank you so much. In my view, you’re a great bodhisattva in our time. So thank you.
PH: Thank you, Tami. And thank you for all the work you do and have done. You are a focal point. And if anybody understands what agency is, you do.
TS: All right, let’s take it, everyone. Sounds True: waking up the world. Thanks for being with us.
Thank you for listening to Insights at the Edge. You can read a full transcript of today’s interview at SoundsTrue.com/podcast. If you’re interested, hit the Subscribe button in your podcast app. Also if you feel inspired, head to iTunes and leave Insights at the Edge a review. I love getting your feedback, being in connection with you, and learning how we can continue to evolve and improve our program. Working together, I believe we can create a kinder and wiser world. SoundsTrue.com: waking up the world.