Paul Hawken’s new book, REGENERATION: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation, is deeply informed by his Buddhist practice, by the newest findings of climate scientists, and by muscular hope.
Hawken writes, “Regeneration means putting life at the center of every action and decision. It applies to all of creation—grasslands, farms, people, forests, fish, wetlands, coastlands, and oceans—and it applies equally to families, communities, cities, schools, religions, cultures, commerce, and government. Nature and humanity are composed of exquisitely complex networks of relationships, without which forests, lands, oceans, peoples, countries, and cultures perish.”
The book delves deeply into these exquisite networks, showing how each contributes to the whole. Schools of fish rise to the surface, feed, poop, sink, and die, cycling cold waters into warm surface waters, keeping ocean pH from becoming too acidic, and sequestering carbon. Salt marshes also sequester carbon, as do mangroves and sea grasses, all the while feeding and sheltering fish and taking up excess nutrients. Forests send bacteria and pollen into the air to seed rain, and sugars into the soil to sink carbon. Grazing herds and grasslands interact to cool the planet and impact the water cycle.
These life systems are in peril, but Hawken sees each peril as an opportunity. Seaweed farms, marine protected areas, wildlife corridors, pollinator gardens; each improves planetary health. So does improving the lives of poor people. Jane Goodall, in her introduction, notes that the forest surrounding the Gombe reserve had disappeared by the mid-80s, cut for farming and charcoal. Goodall’s organization, guided by the local people, helped them improve soil fertility, water management, schools, and clinics. People prospered while protecting nature. Their lives are better, and the forest is back. According to an article in Science Direct, the benefits include improved water and forest resources for both people and wildlife. The success here has inspired other conservation projects in Tanzania and across Africa.
Industry and businesses, including banking, clothing, big food, healthcare, and the poverty industry (including for-profit prisons and refugee camps, and human service corporations), is a big problem, one Hawken does not shy away from. “Cynicism is understandable, given the process of greenwashing. But underneath these [regenerative] commitments are people, just like the person reading this page. People who have children, families, and communities, people who see the looming crisis writ large…[t]here is no point in tiptoeing around the causes of global warming. We are either in a crisis or we are not…We know what needs to be done. The question is how do we come together, get it done, and make it right?”
One way is by using offsets, or as Hawken prefers, “onsets.” An offset is a promissory note, to balance your current greenhouse gas emissions by an equal amount in the future. But offsets do “almost nothing to chip away at the legacy carbon that has been accumulating in the atmosphere for decades.” Instead, Hawken urges, convert offsets to onsets. By buying twice or three times as much as is needed to simply make your activities carbon-neutral, you help pay down our society’s accumulated carbon debt. ” . . . [I]nstead of simply neutralizing the emissions from the twenty thousand miles you put on your car for a hundred dollars, double the amount and pay forward . . .to a verified project that draws down extra greenhouse gas emissions while restoring degraded land and improving the well-being of humans and nature…[i]f two people paid their debt forward—or four people, or four hundred—measurable reductions in atmospheric carbon dioxide will occur.” He advocates choosing fast-acting onsets, such as protecting forests or giving people clean cookstoves, to immediately eliminate emissions, protect life systems, and sequester carbon. Speed matters; do it now, do it fast, and do as much as you can.
The last section, “Action + Connection,” offers a checklist of twelve questions. Does the action create more life or reduce it? Does it heal the future or steal from the future? “Most of what we do does not tick all the boxes. However, like a compass, it shows us the directions…by employing the guidelines you pivot.”
Next, create a punch list. “The true top solutions are what you can, want, and will do.” Hawken offers two sample punch lists from a homeowner and a small food company, each committing to seven regenerative changes. You can go on the Regeneration website to read other punch lists and prepare and share your own.
Individual actions are important, but Hawken notes that as social creatures, humans work best in groups. We’re not great at responding to abstract threats, but ‘humans are notably brilliant at joining together to solve problems. Give us immediate threats like an impending cyclone, flood, or hurricane, and we’re all over it…[t]o reverse global warming, we need to address current human needs, not an imagined dystopian future.”
And enjoy ourselves doing it. Hawken finds beauty even in our current peril. “The earth’s biological decline is how it adapts to what we are doing. Nature never makes a mistake. We do. The Earth will come back to life no matter what. Nations, peoples, and cultures may not. The earth is homeschooling us,” he says. This is a watershed moment. But we created this moment, and we can respond to it, not in a joyless, puritanical way, but regeneratively, bringing ourselves back to life as we transform the world. “The agent who can head off the climate crisis is reading this sentence.”
Jessie Haas has lived in a tiny, off-grid cabin in Vermont for over thirty-five years. She’s the author of forty-one books, including The Hungry Place.