Blessed Unrest: Hawken, Lopez & Solnit at the Gerding Theater

hawken72bw_lg.jpgWe did not find out how or when the State will wither away, but perhaps it was enough that Paul Hawken, Barry Lopez and Rebecca Solnit –- gathered together last Monday, April 14, by Literary Arts to explore the ideas in Hawken’s recent book, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming –- proclaimed the possibility that we’ve reached “peak” Empire. It was a stimulating intellectual adventure, a noisy and crowded philanthropy of good ideas, and my initial misgivings dropped away in the audience’s collective exhalation – of relief, astonishment, long last recognition of all that’s been there right before our eyes if only we could have seen it – which rose past the slanted timbers of the set to Sometimes a Great Notion at the Gerding Theater, which formed the backdrop for the trio’s discussion. But something nagged. I asked myself, “Why does hope, so freely marketed, seem like a sub-prime mortgage?”

But I wander too far ahead, and afield. As Lopez, the moderator, noted, the three were gathered in our “little part of the world” for a conversation about what they know (and what of it they could pass on in memorable form) about the forces they see leading to reconciliation and re-invention of community in the world at large. Hawken sees a common thread in community groups –- non-profits and non-governmental groups (“NGOs”) –- around the world: a restorative impulse in the face of the inability or unwillingness of governments to address the plethora of social and environmental crises. In Blessed Unrest, Hawken describes the emergence of these groups all over the world as a spiritual awakening, or the creation of a new “civil society,” a term that means the “third sector” of voluntary organizations that functions alongside government and the marketplace.

Hawken’s recognition of this phenomenon sparked the creation of the World Index of Social and Environmental Responsibility, “WiserEarth,” an online directory of international social justice and environmental organizations, more than 100,000 of them cataloged and indexed in user- and contact-friendly fashion. Its breadth and utility as a searchable database is astonishing. One wonders how many contract employees in Homeland Security it must take to re-index this information in terror-threat priority and monitor the activities of the organizations, as well as the interests and contacts, of those who use the site. (The enormity of that task may account for some of the State’s withering.)

The trio’s theory is two-edged. First, the growth of NGOs is the direct result of the marginalization of government in the essential affairs of communities, what Solnit described as the growing “inutility” of the federal government, which, in her view, has become merely the “scaffolding” for the economic ventures of the few, while ignoring the problems of the many. The prime example is the federal government’s failure to provide an adequate response to the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina.

Second, the “blessed unrest” movement in turn will result in the marginalization of government in a more radical way, as group volunteer efforts effectively replace bureaucracies. In fact, Solnit suggested, President Bush has presided over the effective dismantling of our Empire’s military, economic and political hegemony in the world –- the mere suggestion of which inspired spontaneous applause and whoops of concurrence from the audience –- and the consequent release of NGO energy. We can expect nothing less than a revolution in consciousness, a dispersal of power in the form of a different kind of democratic practice — listening and consensus-building rather than winner-take-all majoritarian rule.

This happens at a time when we’ve reached the limits of growth and critical resource thresholds across the board, a process the current administration has forwarded by accelerating the rate of decay in all meridians. But this, in turn, has opened pathways to meaning, allowing us to re-imagine what it means to be human. After all, as Solnit notes, wealth is a “pathetic poverty” in any event. Still, my bet (and perhaps the source of my misgivings) is that the market “scaffolding” supporting many of the government’s most destructive and misguided policies will not be dismantled so easily.

Perhaps it was irony and the stretch for comic relief typical in such gatherings of the like-minded, and not the whiff of Armageddon, that I sensed in the either/or tone of this discussion, especially as each of the trio sought to leave us with some riveting and hopeful sense of imminent change, something to secure on behalf of our children. But is the withering away of the State what we really want, as opposed to reform –- even if what we need is radical reform? All of the organizations in WiserEarth eschew use of force, violence or coercion in carrying out their activities. But there are rogue states and many types of NGOs that do use violence (and don’t make the WiserEarth list): organized crime, drug cartels, and terrorist organizations. See Jeff Baker’s story about Misha Glenny’s book, McMafia: A Journey Through the Global Criminal Underworld. Only a strong, efficient centralized government can organize effectively against these forces, our current government’s muddled efforts notwithstanding. And the broad financing of infrastructure rehabilitation –- roads, sewer and water quality systems, etc. –- require federalized funding that redistributes tax revenues to isolated or poorer communities.

The trio’s enthusiasm for “blessed unrest,” and the hope for a radical shift in the balance between voluntary social organization and centralized government, called to mind a scattering of literary visions of the future that only deepen my skepticism.

There’s the future-world projection conjured in Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, where the U.S. government, the “Fedlands,” is remaindered as islands of public institutions surrounded by “franchise ghettos,” areas that have been sold-off, franchised, or simply occupied by “extraterritorials,” rogue, quasi-nation states such as Narcolumbia, or Caymans Plus, or Uncle Enzo’s Cosa Nostra Pizza, Inc. Even public services (law enforcement, fire protection and medical relief) have been franchised. “Outsourcing” gone wild, Snow Crash is an exciting and spirited tale, and only a step or two away from the post-nuclear holocaust world depicted in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

always_pb.jpgBut I also thought of something no less fanciful but much less grim, Portland author Ursula K. LeGuin’s novel Always Coming Home. The fictional editor/translator of the book, who calls herself Pandora, is an ethnologist piecing together a socio-psychological history of the Kesh, a people “who might be going to have lived” in the Na River Valley sometime in the distant future. She calls her work an “archaeology of the future.”

Always Coming Home, is as interesting for the issues it raises as for the story it relates, although the slim heart of the novel—Stone Telling’s coming-of-age narrative—is engagingly and gracefully told. The story is set in a narrow valley in northern California, homeland of the remarkable (and imaginary) Kesh. The valley, described with a naturalist’s discriminating eye, is a demanding but nurturing pastoral environment — oaks shade the hills, wild oats and thistles blanket the meadows, willows line the rivers and creeks.

The time of the novel is a point in the future when the world is beginning to recover from some unspecified ecological or nuclear catastrophe. Discrete and self-sufficient cultures like that of the Kesh develop independently in isolated ecosystems. They all have access to the City of Mind, an autonomous computer network which, in the form of a universal computer language, TOK, contains the elements of knowledge necessary to duplicate our own industrial-scientific world. The urgent question posed by Pandora is whether it is possible for humanity to turn away from technology and live in peace in one world.

The Kesh represent the “loose, light, soft network of the human cultures, which in their small scale, great number, and endless diversity, manufactured and traded more or less actively, but never centralized their industry, did not ship goods and parts far, did not maintain roads well, and were not engaged in enterprises requiring heroic sacrifice, at least on the material plane.” The Kesh select what they need from technology in order to live in relative comfort — but in isolation– and leave the rest; it is, in effect, unilateral disarmament practiced by the Kesh and neighboring cultures, except, of course, the Condor, a race of people who threaten to invade the Valley to oppress or exploit its in habitants.

Is it Pandora’s hope that humanity will forget (perhaps through genetic change) or ignore the impulse towards technological change and progress? Is it “possible that in thus opting not to move ‘forward,’ or not only ‘forward,’ these people did in fact succeed in living in human history, with energy, liberty, and grace”?

It is an incredible challenge, resisting the temptations of progress and empire, and an even greater challenge to live within limits and trust others to do the same, without the deterrent threat of violence or coercion. In other words, Always Coming Home is an imagining, or pre-imagining if you will, of “blessed unrest” in action.