Sustaining Our Planet: The Paul Hawken Interview

Author Paul Hawken, who remains optimistic about the survival of our planet, believes we are close to realizing an economic transformation as far-reaching as the industrial revolution.

| February/March 1994


Modern industrial systems are linear; they take extracted resources, make a product of some kind, and create waste.


Somehow along the way, interviews have fallen from the pages of MOTHER EARTH NEWS. But subscribers, who have never been shy about telling us what they'd like to see, have vocalized their request for their return. So we spent a good deal of time seeking out the right person to lead the way, and we finally found him. His name is Paul Hawken, and he is both the founder of Smith & Hawken Tool catalog and author of the recently released The Ecology of Commerce (HarperBusiness; 1993). His thoughts on sustaining the planet are as radically visionary as the practical solutions he offers, and we hope you are as impressed with his mind as we were. Let us know if you enjoyed this piece and who you'd like to see interviewed in upcoming issues.—The Editors.  

MOTHER: How has being a small business practitioner and cofounder of Smith & Hawken, a gardening tool catalog, affected your outlook on what a sustainable society should look like?  

PH: Well probably the most profound influence in terms of sustainability is that while I was involved in the company, we believed we could do things demonstrably better. Not only better than other companies, but better than ourselves. We believed we could keep improving the way we related to the environment and how we conducted ourselves.

One of the things that I realized—in retrospect, rather late—was that even though by conventional standards what we had done was far more progressive than 99.99 percent of all companies in the United States, if you took the sum of all of our environmental initiatives and transplanted them into every other company, we would still have a commercial system that's rapidly destroying the world. In fact, the pace of degradation far outstrips the capacity of the environment not only to recover but to sustain life on Earth.

MOTHER: So even though you started a company that emphasizes doing the right thing, you don't think the ultimate impact was as large as you might have thought?  

PH: Exactly right. If you look at the environmental impact we had, you'll see that many things we did were good in terms of publicity. We were the first catalog company to go to recycled packing materials, and the first to ban Styrofoam. This made good copy and was picked up by newspapers and magazines. That looked great to us and to customers. But from a strict input/output model energy and resources in, waste out—we probably solved less than one percent of the problem.

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