An Interview with Paul Hawken on Regeneration


By Judith D. Schwartz

Paul Hawken is the kind of one-step-ahead thinker we need right now.  With the 2017 best-selling book Drawdown, the noted environmentalist and his team brought the notion of returning excess carbon to natural sinks—soils, living plants, and marine systems—into the climate lexicon. His new book, Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in a Generation, is stunning in ambition and scope. Every bit as encyclopedic as Drawdown, this volume adds another dimension: how we relate to the natural world and to each other. Like those of us already committed to the Regeneration, Hawken sees that healing the planet entails Nature’s immense power of self-renewal. In my recent exchange with Hawken, he shares why this irrepressible life force is at the core of climate solutions. Note: Once you’re primed to start your own path to regeneration, check out the organizations, opportunities, and resources on SoilCentric.org as a guide.

Judith Schwartz: We live in an age of buzzwords, with the result that important concepts can be watered down until they’re meaningless. (Who pays attention to the word “natural” on a label anymore?) I was struck by your defining regeneration as the default mode of life. Why did you choose this description, and do you feel it can withstand attempts to co-opt the word?

Paul Hawken: Actually, in the first sentence of the new book I describe “regeneration” as “putting life at the center of every action and decision”. The word “natural” is an adjective. “Regeneration” is a noun. It is the name of a process that suffuses and defines all of life, constantly, unceasingly, and ubiquitously. I am not worried the word will be co-opted because it already has been by Cargill, Bayer, Corteva [formerly DowDupont], ADM [Archer Daniels Midland], Bunge, Danone, and more. The difference here is that one can readily distinguish what is regenerative from what is not, regardless of the word’s usurpation and corruption by industrial agriculture companies. They have latched onto “regeneration” as an agricultural technique to sequester carbon in the soil. Big Ag thinks it can promote chemicals like glyphosate and be regenerative. It is still the kill-more-life-to-get-more-life paradigm that has ruined our soils and planetary health.  The goals and means of regenerative agriculture include soil health, water infiltration, pollinator diversity, erosion elimination, in-farm fertility, animal integration, agroforestry, nutrient density, and much more. Carbon sequestration is an outcome of regenerative agriculture: it is a measure, but not the goal as such. In the book, I apply the word regeneration to the whole of existence—not just agriculture—from oceans to neighborhoods, cities to cultures, forests to favelas.

JS: Your influential book Drawdown focused on strategies to reduce CO2. Regeneration brings in another dimension: our relationship with the earth, and, ultimately, with ourselves. What was your personal journey from Drawdown to Regeneration?

PH: The origin of Drawdown was the 3rd Assessment of the IPCC in 2001. At that time, I asked NGOs and universities involved with climate science why we were not naming the goal. “Fight”, “tackle”, “combat”, and “mitigate” are not goals. These are verbs—actions. I proposed using the word “drawdown”, a noun. In the context of climate, it means that point in time when greenhouse gases peak and begin to decrease on a year-to-year basis. The only goal that makes sense is to reverse global warming. The overwhelming focus of the IPCC was on reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I urged institutions to map, measure, and model existing solutions. I wanted to include solutions that bring carbon back home to earth because that is the only way to achieve drawdown. After 12 years of encouraging other institutions to conduct and publish the research, I decided to do it, and formed a small team that included Amanda Ravenhill, Chad Frischmann, and Crystal Chissell. While writing Drawdown I already knew I was going to create the sequel, Regeneration.

JS: The two books have similar formats, but a different feel. How would you characterize this?

PH: The difference between the two books is simple. Drawdown is mechanistic: map, measure, and model. Regeneration is systemic: connect, protect, and act. Drawdown is a what-could-be-done book. Regeneration is a how-to-get-it-done book. It leads to a website that is the world’s largest catalogue and network of climate solutions. Called Nexus, it spells out what everyone can do at all scales and levels of agency including how to find and implement solutions as well as how to connect with people and groups in your region and the world.

JS: A prominent theme in both books is the role of girls and women, notably the importance of girls’ education in boosting positive social and environmental outcomes. What is the story behind that?

PH: It is true we were the first to introduce to the climate world something that seems so obvious. With due respect to the IPCC and early solution providers like the Princeton Carbon Mitigation Initiative, their climate-solving proposals were missing a few things: Indigenous People, Agroforestry, Marine Protected Areas, Rewilding, Electrifying Everything, Regenerative Agriculture, Seaforestation, Plant-rich Diets, Degraded Land Restoration, and at least 40 other major initiatives, approaches, and practices. Notably, what was also omitted was an entire gender. With the exception of Eunice Newton Foote’s 1856 announcement of her discovery [that CO2 amplified solar heating], climate science has been dominated by men and male thinking. There has been a bias toward “fixing it”, as if there were an “it” somewhere to fix. This continues to characterize the dominant approaches to climate, as exemplified in Bill Gates’ work. Supporting the education of girls and young women was not our idea. It had roots in the work of Barbara Herz and Gene Sperling, and the efforts of Girls Rising. What we did was measure the impact in terms of emissions reductions that would occur due to changes in life trajectories of women whose lives were not pre-ordained by men, religion, cultural biases, or preclusion. It was dramatic. However, the one thing I regret about Drawdown was measuring the impact of Girls Education in terms of greenhouse gas reductions. Although the math may be approximately correct, we do not do this in Regeneration. We believe education is a basic human right. Using a CO2-based metric to measure the value of educating girls is a colonial mindset, no different from installing tree plantations in the Global South to offset greenhouse gas emissions in the North.

JS: Public discussions of climate solutions tend to favor technologies, as if people were passive spectators. In Regeneration, you call attention to the important work that needs to be done by people, from revegetating landscapes to building local food economies. While many, particularly young, people yearn to engage in this work, there are few paying jobs. Do you see this changing?

PH: I believe the climate movement will become the largest movement in the world due to one factor—the weather. No one is coming to save us. The only way to successfully reverse climate change is to regenerate life on earth. Does the capitalist/corporate/banking system that is extracting all value from the earth, seas, forests, and cultures see that? No. It is caught up in the system of degenerating life in order to create more capital: money. That said, the penny will drop—is dropping. We can see the end of the degenerative road we’re on. It does not go much further.

What you see around the world is young people taking this into their own hands and doing whatever they can, wherever they can, by whatever means they can to mobilize and regenerate life on earth. We can see these pioneers as another type of “essential worker” the world needs, and that they are rehearsing the future. This is regeneration. This is a burgeoning movement. It is only a matter of time before the world pivots to regeneration because there is no other way to secure our future. It is excruciatingly painful to see that the US spent $2.6 trillion on its misguided adventure in Afghanistan, with hundreds of thousands of deaths, a miserable ending, and over half of that money being spent on weapons. We are being home-schooled by the planet. The lesson plan is to align our activity with life itself, with the principles and miracles of biology. Clear choices will need to be made. My vote is that life will prevail.

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Judith D. Schwartz is the author of three books on regeneration —The Reindeer Chronicles, Cows Save the Planet, and Water in Plain Sight — each of which has advanced the regenerative movement. She is a founding member of Soil Centric’s Advisory Board.

Soil Centric was founded on the premise that everyone has a role to play in solving the climate crisis. By aggregating and curating opportunities, resources and examples of regeneration taking place around the world, we’re here to help you find your role! We’re releasing a new app to help guide you on your regenerative journey. Sign up below to get the invite!