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Paul Hawken Knows Exactly How We Can Reverse Climate Change

Paul Hawken
September 7, 2017
Paul Hawken
Environmentalist & Best-Selling Author
September 7, 2017
Written by mbg Sustainability Editor Emma Loewe

Words like "slow" and "ease" are often used to describe what needs to happen in regards to climate change. For Paul Hawken, one of the most prominent environmentalist leaders of our time, those words don't go far enough. To him, "reverse" is more like it.

"If you're going the wrong way, you don't want to just start going there more slowly. You want to turn around," Hawken tells mbg from his longtime home in Marin County, California. "And we're going the wrong way."

Hawken's latest project, Drawdown, ranks 100 climate change solutions based on their ability to actually reduce humanity's greenhouse gas emissions year over year by 2050. They range the gamut from family planning programs to green roofs to plant-based diets. All of them, however, are doable. In fact, most of them have already been done.

In exploring what would happen if initiatives that are already in place are expanded upon, Hawken is painting a more realistic picture of the future of our planet.

Planting the seeds of activism.

Hawken has been an environmentalist since before he could even identify himself as such. As a young boy, he found respite and release in nature, and time outdoors imparted him with an insatiable curiosity. "When you're outside, you really don't know what's going on. You don't know the names of things, the creatures, what happens when you pick up a rock and look underneath it at things that creep and slither. It develops curiosity because everything is a question," he says.

This fascination with the natural world led him to become an avid hiker and outdoorsman who traversed mountains to get closer to the mysterious landscapes he'd grown to love. It wasn't long before he realized that not everyone shared his desire to bridge the gap between man and wild. "The first time I saw an RV in Yosemite, I was shocked. You're supposed to sleep on the ground, not have lights or a motor running. I just remember seeing this and thinking, 'What happened to the idea of wilderness?'"

His early career as the founder of Erewhon—one of the first natural foods companies in the United States to sell organic products—spoke to this commitment to bringing people closer the land. Once Hawken began investigating environmental negligence in the food industry, he noticed it popping up elsewhere too. There began a career partnering with businesses, NGOs, and activists to identify viable, tangible solutions to the environmental crisis. Since that first food store in the '60s, he's gone on to write best-sellers on the business of sustainability, receive six honorary degrees, and kick-start two more environmentally minded companies.

As someone who's been entrenched in the environmental movement for decades, Hawken has faced his share of frustration. He's felt temperatures climb and megastorms tear down communities. He's watched President Trump withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and seen our national parks put in danger. But along the way he's also come across hundreds of lesser-known visionaries and companies making big, sustainable changes, not because they are in the public eye or feel like they have to but because they are passionate about protecting our planet.

"If you look at the science and you're not pessimistic, in a sense you don't understand it," Hawken says in a slow, unwavering voice. "But if you look at the people who are addressing the problem at hand and don't feel hopeful, then you don't have a pulse."

The drawdown solutions.

It's these unseen, unsung heroes that Hawken is celebrating with the Drawdown project website and book of the same name. In order to put the list together, he called on dozens of research fellows across 22 countries to help compile all the climate research out there, and present it a way that people who aren't in science fields can understand. First, the team whittled down every action humanity is taking to lower environmental impact into a list of 100 scalable solutions. Fellows conducted deep dives into each one, reviewing the literature and peer-reviewed science to map out exactly how much greenhouse gas it can reduce by 2050 under three possible scenarios: the plausible scenario (in which it is adopted at a "realistically vigorous" rate), the drawdown scenario (in which it is adopted at an even faster rate), and the optimum scenario (in which it is adopted to reach its full potential). They also present a conservative forecast of how much money each initiative could save in the long run. The final product is filled with actionable ways individuals, utilities, businesses, and governments can help reverse global warming—with more than 5,000 citations to back it up.

This comprehensive new way to approach climate change is already making waves. Perhaps most notably, Patricia Scotland, the secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations and a personal hero of Hawken, has adopted Drawdown as a template for an ambitious climate plan she will be announcing for the nations next year.

While sweeping, government-backed adaptations like this one are particularly exciting, there is plenty of Drawdown-inspired action we can take on an individual level too. Things like reducing food waste (No. 3 on the list), composing (No. 60), and eating a plant-based diet (No. 4) can start with your next meal, while switching over to an electric vehicle (No. 26) and supporting wind energy (No. 2) are longer-term goals. No matter how seemingly small, every action taken on this list will ultimately have far-reaching effects. Reducing food waste has an impact on hunger, methane emissions, and deforestation, for instance. And if you're looking to skip ahead straight to action No. 1, it's time to get proactive about managing refrigerants. Yep, it turns out that disposing chemicals used in refrigerators and air conditioners is the most effective way to reduce greenhouse gases in the environment.

Hawken remains cautiously optimistic that we can band together to carry these solutions to their full potential. And until then, he'll be longingly dreaming of his next mountain ascent—a voyage 15,000 to 20,000 feet to a place where his eyes get big, his lungs get bigger, and he's immersed in the nature that started it all.

mbg is honored to share that Paul Hawken will be speaking at revitalize 2017—a three-day event where the top minds in wellness will gather to hash out the future of health. Click here to learn more about how you can tune in, get involved, and ask Hawken and the rest of our incredible speakers your burning questions.

Paul Hawken author page.
Paul Hawken
Environmentalist & Best-Selling Author

Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and author. Starting at age 20, he dedicated his life to sustainability and changing the relationship between business and the environment. His practice has included starting and running ecological businesses, writing and teaching about the impact of commerce on living systems, and consulting with governments and corporations on economic development, industrial ecology, and environmental policy.