A wiser Earth movement

A wiser Earth movement

New WiserEarth site sees the forest for the trees

By Amanda Witherell

Have you ever wondered how many environmental and social justice nonprofits are really out there?

Noted local environmentalist Paul Hawken estimates there are at least one million and as many as 10 million do-gooder alliances throughout the world, toiling away at their local niche problems or tackling the grander crises of the day, staffed by volunteers sacrificing time and desperately trying to raise enough money and political will to rebuild from the ruins.

And while environmentalists often are derided — and even criticize themselves and their allies — for being too fractured, lacking focus and an overarching leadership, Hawken thinks that’s actually a good thing.

Hawken is the founder of the gardening and tool company Smith and Hawken and author of several books, including The Ecology of Commerce and Natural Capitalism (the latter with energy efficiency guru Amory Lovins). He runs the Sausalito research group Natural Capital Institute, and that is where the research began for his new book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming.

Hawken attempted to quantify the entire environmental and social justice movement. He quickly realized its ever-shifting nature would make that impossible, and instead he’s qualified the movement into 414 taxonomies, from prison reform to chemical pollution, from ecopsychology to worker health and safety.

Blessed Unrest is both a history of environmental and social justice activism and an account of its modern efforts. Hawken traces the roots of the movement back to a meeting of a dozen abolitionists in 1787, identifying them as the first group of people who fought to better the lives of others they didn’t know. He lays bare the chilling truth that business owners then made the same economic arguments in support of slavery that corporations now make to justify the continued extraction of natural resources at the cost of human and planetary health.

Hawken contends that the environmental and social justice communities, despite their different objectives, actually function with the same core values. He thinks this plethora of small groups is a good thing and likens the overall movement to an immune system for the earth. The immunology of the human body became an even apter metaphor when he learned that the ability to heal doesn’t follow any top-down management but instead depends on cellular growth and change.

Now, rather than trying to count all the organizations, he’s invited them to account for themselves through WiserEarth (www.wiserearth.org), a Wikipedia-like database in which groups can post information and outreach.

“WiserEarth is a tool,” Hawken told the Guardian. The “Wiser” part of the name is actually an acronym for World Index of Social and Environmental Responsibility, and Hawken hopes activists use the site to pool scant resources and spread their rich loam of knowledge. It’s a place where philanthropists can find organizations of a similar ilk, and perhaps most important, the Web site reflects the real identity of a group that could never find a room big enough to host all its members.

“It brings more awareness of the scope and diversity of the movement,” Hawken said. “You can see yourselves as part of a larger whole. That’s very assuring and helpful.”

The Web site is only a couple of months old, but there are already 106,000 organizations listed, and it’s growing daily. At his public appearances, Hawken now stands in front of a large screen scrolling a list of all the names. “People cry when they see it,” he said. “Repeatedly, everywhere I show it. And I don’t try to make it emotional. The reason, I think, is it’s a relief. The relief has to do with scale.”

Fighting the good fight can feel like an exhausting, frustrating, and lonely battle, an overextended run of a play called David and Goliath that should have left the stage long ago. Hawken said he never imagines an audience for his books, and though this isn’t exactly a rallying cry, there is an affirmation coming across that flagging activists, freedom fighters, and friends of the earth need to hear: keep it up. And add your org to WiserEarth.

Originally published June 20, 2007 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian