Civilization needs a new operating system


One of my heroes is the writer, speaker, businessman, and sustainability activist, Paul Hawken. I first saw him speak over twenty years ago; a talk that it would be no exaggeration to say changed my life. For one thing, he closed with a Rumi poem that, in that moment, felt like it had been written for me.

He brings a rare mix of realism about how our civilization is wrecking our only home, this planet, and hope that we can turn things around:

“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 the 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.”

This pragmatic optimism motivated me for years; it still does. Yes, there are things we can do, and many, many people are doing good work all over the world. It’s true there are no guarantees, but that’s a condition of life in any case, right?

The other day, I ran across his commencement speech from 2009, given at the University of Portland. He opens with this:

“Class of 2009: you are going to have to figure out what it means to be a human being on earth at a time when every living system is declining, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Kind of a mind-boggling situation… but not one peer-reviewed paper published in the last thirty years can refute that statement. Basically, civilization needs a new operating system, you are the programmers, and we need it within a few decades.”

All those peer-reviewed papers suggest that Hawken is being generous with this assignment. A few decades in the face of escalating global warming and increased rates of extinction? Add to that the fossil-fuel race to the bottom in Canada’s arboreal forest, rural landscapes befouled by shale drilling, deep sea oil rigs and mountaintop removal coal mining, among many other activities of our “civilization,” and it seems like we have time for a couple of weekend hack-a-thons at best.

What fascinates me, though, is his characterization of our civilization running an OS, which is another way to say: it’s a story, and we can change it. In fact, we need to change it and — the best part — we are, even now. His book, “Blessed Unrest,” traces the roots of large-scale activism on strangers’ behalf to the eighteenth century, with the Abolitionist movement. Today, millions of people work in non-profits, social enterprises, NGO’s, and other organizations on behalf of beings — human and otherwise — they will never meet.

“If you’ve opened your loving to God’s love,
you’re helping people you don’t know
and have never seen.”
~ Rumi, from “Say Yes Quickly”

In contrast to others who, enmeshed in the old stories of human superiority and control, aspire to rewrite nature’s OS, our task is ultimately much more humble, which is good news for us. Maybe we have a hope of succeeding, if we set our sights instead on rewriting civilization’s OS.

Where, then, shall we begin? In my next post, I will share some more detailed thoughts about how the dominant stories show up, and what we can replace them with. For now, feel free to start with any act that conveys your profound gratitude for the gift and the miracle of life. Connection is the heart of the matter, connection and compassion and love. Hawken closes his 2009 speech with this:

“The living world is not ‘out there’ somewhere, but in your heart. What do we know about life? In the words of biologist Janine Benyus, life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. I can think of no better motto for a future economy. We have tens of thousands of abandoned homes without people and tens of thousands of abandoned people without homes. We have failed bankers advising failed regulators on how to save failed assets. We are the only species on the planet without full employment. Brilliant. We have an economy that tells us that it is cheaper to destroy earth in real time rather than renew, restore, and sustain it. You can print money to bail out a bank but you can’t print life to bail out a planet. At present we are stealing the future, selling it in the present, and calling it gross domestic product. We can just as easily have an economy that is based on healing the future instead of stealing it.”

Whenever I hear Paul Hawken or read his writing, I am seized anew by the conviction that we can do so much better than this as a species, for our planet and our own future. He liberates me from being motivated by guilt or shame about my participation in the ruination of earth; from anger and resentment about how evil corporations have stolen my power; and from paralyzing fear about my son’s future. Hawken reminds me that I know in my heart I can do better. May I continue to find the courage, inspiration and companions to make a go of it.

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