Monday, October 24, 2011

Bioneers and Occupy Wall Street

These past few days I've been reading Nature's Operating Instructions: The True Biotechnologies, a series of essays edited by Kenny Ausubel. The essays have their origins in presentations given in the 1990s and early 'oughts at the Bioneers Conference. It was published in 2004, and intrigued me when I found it in the catalog of my local public library last week. I was looking for a way to learn about bioremediation and similar approaches to fixing ecological messes.

I'm excited about this book for a number of reasons. One is the clarity and practicality of the ideas presented in it, which resonate with deep wisdom I've learned from great teachers of our time like Gary Snyder (about whom I blogged in Books everyone should read), Robert Laughlin, Robert Bly, and Annie Dillard. Not to mention Lao Tzu. Another is the fabulous fit of this book -- and its bibliography -- to my immediate purpose, which has to do with the new fiction project I've been conceiving and reconceiving this year.

I won't summarize Nature's Operating Instructions..., I'll cherry-pick.

The reason that the book seems blogworthy today has to do with weather forecasts. Not as in rain or snow, but as in "You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows," the classic Dylan line from Subterranean Homesick Blues.

Thing is, my scalp went all prickly when I read what one of the most prominent bioneers, Paul Hawken, had to say about Occupy Wall Street many years before the kickoff to last month's dramatic occupations in New York and across the United States. According to his own on-line records, Hawken began speaking about Natural Capitalism in about 1995. In Nature's Operating Instructions... he wrote about it in an essay titled Natural Capitalism: Brother, Can You Spare a Paradigm?, and dates his coining of the term to 1997.

Word to the wise? Hawken is not talking about the capitalism you already know and love or loathe. As he puts it, "When I coined the term 'natural capitalism in 1997, the modifier was 'ism' not 'natural.'" That is to say, the noun is compound: "natural capital." Natural capital, as Hawken describes it, is characterized by four cornerstone principals: radical resource productivity, biomimicry, conceiving industry as provision of a flow of services rather than as episodic manufacture of goods; and restoration of natural capital. I don't suppose that'll make a lot of sense if you're not familiar with Hawken's ideas already, but perhaps that's all the more reason to read his essay and the book in which it appears. Alternately, you can find a PDF of his 1997 article on Natural Captialism for Mother Jones on Hawken's website.

In any case, I'm going to quote at some length from his essay in Nature's Operating Instructions... and let the connections show themselves:

In other words, the intelligent manufacturing systems of the future -- those that sharply reduce our impact on the environment -- also will create a resurgence of meaningful employment around the world. This shift is of critical importance, because not only are one-third of the world's workers unemployed or unable to support their families, but within the next twenty years there will be another two billion people coming into the workplace.

In the United states, more than thirty thousand nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), foundations, and citizens' groups are addressing the issue of social and ecological sustainability in the most complete sense of the word. Worldwide, the number of organizations exceeds one hundred thousand. Together they address a broad range of issues [...]. These groups follow Mahatma Gandhi's imperatives: some resist, while others create new structures, patterns, and means. The groups tend to be local, marginal, poorly funded, and overworked. It's hard for most not to feel palpable anxiety that they could perish in a twinkling. At the same time, a deeper pattern is emerging that is extraordinary.

If you ask all of these groups for their principles, frameworks, conventions, models, or declarations, you will find that they do not conflict. This has never happened before. [...]

These groups believe that self-sufficiency is a human right. They imagine a future where producing the means to kill people is not a business but a crime, where families do not starve, where parents can work, where children are never sold, and where women cannot be impoverished because they choose to be mothers. These groups believe that water and air belong to us all, not to the rich. They believe seeds and life itself cannot be owned or patented by corporations. [...]

[...] No one started this world view, no one is in charge of it, and no orthodoxy is restraining it. It is the fastest and most powerful movement in the world today, unrecognizable to most American media outlets because it is not centralized, based on power, or led by white, male, charismatic vertebrates. [...]


Our children will look back fifty years from now and wonder at what they accomplished. They are avidly reading Harry Potter books, and what they know from these books is that today's world is run by Muggles. Muggles represent a hyperrational, mechanical, and authoritarian world devoid of magic. Muggles worship things, money, economic motives, and hypergrowth at all costs. What these children reflect is the reemergence of a celebratory resistance to what visionary activist Caroline Casey calls the "reality police," the angry columnists, vacant politicians, incensed economists, and others who cannot see that what is emerging now is the possibility of being fully human.

Employment as a paramount concern. Who owns (and patents) the world as a core issue. Nobody in charge. Some resist, others organize. No orthodoxy. The mainstream media doesn't get it.

Does that sound anything like the emergence of power and possibility that has people streaming out of the woodwork in support of OWS? Does to me.

Speaking of which, did you see the poll numbers reported late last week? The Washington Post's headline on the AP article says it all: AP-GfK Poll: 37 percent support ‘Occupy Wall Street’ protesters; politics angers most people (media watchers will want to consider the difference between the headline and the WP's URL to this article).

From nothing to 37% in about a month.

Can that be so unless, like the "fruiting bodies" Paul Stamets writes about in Nature's Operating Instructions..., mushrooms that poke their heads up every so often from "overlapping mosaics of mycelial mats" that "permeate all the landmasses on the planet", this movement was coming to a boil long before anybody thought to pitch a tent in Zuccotti Park?

The essay that follows Hawken's is titled Natural Capitalism: Where the Rubber Meets the Road. In it, Amory and Hunter Lovins provide a laundry list of examples in which industrial behemoths like Dow Chemical, British Petroleum, Ciba-Geigy, and DuPont have applied principals of natural capitalism and made considerable profit doing so. Is this good? Is it bad? I'd say the examples net out to 'complicated' -- but you can decide for yourself after reading at the Lovins' essay, in which they write:

Implementing the elements of natural capitalism tends to create an extraordinary outpouring of energy, initiative, and enthusiasm at all levels of an enterprise because it removes the actual and perceived contradictions between what people do on the job and what they want for their kids when they go home.
Now that can't be a bad thing.

Nature's Operating Instructions... is easy to read and worth anyone's while, whether you check it out from a public library, order it from the bioneers website, or pick it up from a local independent or used bookstore. It's a different and far more illuminating lens than the one through which television media are covering Occupy Wall Street and its siblings across the nation and the world. Is there a perfect 1:1 mapping? I don't think there ever is between one thing and another. I mean, in a world where you can't even step into the same river twice....


I've already started to read it a second time.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Birth of a movement?
Katinsf says: Ordinary People Can Change the World
Things fall apart


  1. I'm glad you find things worth reading in your local library.

    The Harry Potter generation. It would be nice to think Potter is the seed from which grows the new world.

  2. @Glenn -- It would be hard not to find things worth reading at the library. All you have to do is look! RE: Hawken, Harry Potter, and the new world ... well, honestly, that bit is more optimistic than I am. But here's hoping Hawken is right and I'm just crabby.......