Hawken and McKibben on the State of Change in the Green Movement

Hawken and McKibben on the State of Change in the Green Movement

Paul Hawken and Bill McKibben, two leading environmentalists who've taken two different paths to addressing our greatest environmental woes, met Thursday in a forum hosted by Climate One, the environmental programs arm of the Commonwealth Club in San Francisco.

The conversation, led by Climate One director Greg Dalton, ranged from the economy to the underside of solar technology to the weather extremes hitting much of the country. Infused through all of these were ruminations on the power of social actions and technological solutions in addressing climate change.

McKibben, who leads the youth-powered environmental activist group 350.org, was one of some 1,250 people recently arrested during Washington, DC protests of TransCanada's proposed 1,700-mile Keystone XL pipeline project, which would deliver Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in Texas. McKibben said this may be the longest-sustained act of civil disobedience since the civil rights era.

But the arrests -- which included not only that of McKibben but also NASA climate scientist James Hansen and a few celebrity activists -- didn't get much play in the media (though The New York Times did write a high-profile opinion against the pipeline), and those that did cover it often noted that Obama wasn't even in the White House during much of the protesting. Outside of the environmentalist circles, does the American public, asked Dalton, even care?

Photo by Ed Ritger"Most understand that climate change is a serious problem," said McKibben. "I'm not worried about the average American people being able to step up, I'm more concerned that the fossil fuel industry has resources to keep moving in the direction it's headed, even if it means the ruination of the planet. If we can't break the power of the fossil fuel industry … we can't do anything."

Following the forum, Hawken told GreenBiz.com that it's important to note the differences between the current movement to decelerate climate change and the civil rights movement (in which he was involved).

"During the civil rights movement, there weren't other, simultaneous movements, aside from the labor union movement," he said. Today, the environmental movement is competing with a stream of other social movements. Plus, he added, the emotional climate around environmental concerns is different. Absent is the hatred and violence that fed the civil rights movement and which civil rights activists were viscerally compelled to act against, he said.

Dalton asked Hawken during the event how much social change is needed and how much technology must play a role in bringing about solutions to environmental problems. Hawken -- who, aside from authoring the seminal environmental business book Ecology of Commerce and co-authoring Natural Capitalism, is also a longtime entrepreneur -- said that while we've "gotten ourselves into a technological fix" from which we'll need different technology to emerge, "the biggest power lever is social change."

But Hawken's day job today is more focused on the technological lever. He's the CEO of OneSun, a start-up that's developing next-generation solar technology that's focused on green chemistry and biomimicry.

"Incumbent solar is a failed technology," said Hawken, because of the greenhouse gas intensive and energy-intensive processes that go into making today's photovoltaic panels and the poor return on energy that they deliver.

Hawken pointed to the failure of Solyndra to deliver on its promise of affordable solar as a "perfect case in point" of where support for solar has gone off-course. "Progressives gave a pass to solar power, but it's not renewable when it can't support itself."

Of course, lost along with Solyndra are more than 1,000 jobs. But the real way to help the economy, McKibben and Hawken agreed, is to make a systematic change to the way we run it, not relying so heavily on outsourcing, while also putting consumers closer to the production of goods.

"Food is where the new economy is emerging," said McKibben, noting the strong local food movement and the growth of small farming operations and farmers' markets.

As to whether it all -- the civil disobedience, the new technologies, the re-imagined economies -- is enough to lead to a reversal of the environmental course we're on, Hawken noted the answer won't come at any one time. Nor will it ever come, unless change is attempted.

"Incrementalism will tell us [whether things are improving] and there's no way to get there without increments."