We’ve long been interested in how teams and team leaders in organizations can most effectively contribute to ending the climate crisis. How do we need to change our practices? What can we do that will have the biggest impact in the shortest amount of time?
With the UN Climate Change Conference—aka COP26—opening today in Glasgow, we reached out to Paul Hawken to address this question. Hawken is an author and environmentalist who last month published Regeneration, a manifesto for ending the climate crisis through collective action. It, and a related website, catalog solutions, from regenerative agriculture to the 15-minute city.
Here is a transcript, edited for clarity:
What is regeneration and what are its implications for business?
Regeneration is putting life at the center of every act and decision. That's important because we have not done that in the past. We're in a degenerative state globally—climatically, politically, biologically. Every living system on earth is declining, without exception, and the rate of loss is accelerating, without exception. Degeneration is innate to our current business model. It takes, it harms, and it destroys life. Not the intention of business, but it’s the truth.
To me, the implication for business is either it starts to reimagine a path to viability or it accepts that is on a default path to failure. It's the difference between stealing the future or healing the future. When you pivot towards regeneration, it brings forth innovation, breakthroughs, creativity, imagination. Regeneration provides an entirely different framework for understanding what your business is. If you think your business is fossil fuels, you're in trouble. If you think your business is renewable energy, you're on the right path. That's the difference.
Is there a good example of the pivot to regeneration?
Well, that's one. You're seeing it in agriculture. You're seeing this explosion of emphasis on regenerative ag. Why?It's not because some liberal people think that's the right thing to do. It is, but it's because farmers have hit the wall. They've turned their soil into dirt, which requires more inputs, at a greater expense, in a commodified food system that is lowering their income. And they live with poisons—glyphosate, pesticides—that affects their water quality, their wells, their family, their animals, and their life. This switch to regenerative agriculture is what I call 'farmer smart agriculture.' It's about saving the farm, and it has all these other implications in terms of water infiltration, increases it 10-20x, makes soil a reservoir, it stops the desiccation of our lands.
It brings back pollinators and pollinator habitat. It prevents run-off of nitrates and other chemicals into waterways. It stops the dead zone in the Mississippi. If applied on a broader level, it produces more nutrient dense plants. The plants are healthier, more resistant to infestation, more easily competitive with what's called weeds by getting on top of weeds, so that you plant the weeds yourself. They're called cover crops. They actually restore the soil instead of competing with the plants. It goes on and on. There's a great farmer, Adam Chappell, in Arkansas who has 9,000 acres of cotton. I was on a program with him and some other farmers, and they were describing why they changed to regenerative agriculture. Adam Chappell said, 'we were going bankrupt, and now we're profitable.' That is a harbinger, not just an exception, of what we will do and have to do. The sooner you understand it, the better you understand it. Don't just usurp the word and plaster it on something and say it's regenerative. Really take that in and pivot. It doesn't mean you can accomplish it overnight, that week, or that year, but it means that that's the direction you're going. If you're going to survive as a company, that is the direction you have to go.
We're interested in how workplaces need to be transformed. What sort of workplace transformation can contribute to ending the climate crisis?
The workplace transformation needs to be one of permeability and learning, a workplace that's wide open to what's happening in the biosphere and society as opposed to one that blindly swears fealty to a static business model.
Once I served as a plenary speaker at Oracle to talk about the climate crisis. It was CIOs, and they were there because of the latest software releases for supply chain management, which is an incredibly complex task for big companies. My first question to the audience was, 'How many of you don't believe in climate science or global warming?'
I would say, out of 2,000-3,000 people, maybe a hundred raised their hand. I said, 'Whatever you think is cool with me. I'm not here to judge you in any way, so let me ask the question again.' A lot more people raised their hand.
I said, 'Well, this wasn't a trick question, but every single person in the room should have raised your hand because climate science is not a belief system. It's evidentiary. You work with data, not with belief. If you went into your CEO and said, 'I have this hunch that we should delay this shipload of containers with X, Y, and Z for our stores,' you'd be fired because believing is not your job.' What is happening to the earth today, the impact of an increasingly disruptive climate upon societies, economics and business, was predicted three decades ago. It is climate science. It's not about believing. It's about physics and biophysics.
It is crucial that the workplace be learning-based, where everyone can listen to points of view and ways of understanding that may challenge the business model, or that don't subscribe to corporate communications and advertisements. You want to have everyone’s ears and minds open and available today.
Are there specific things that people who are not in roles with the word 'sustainability' in their titles can do as part of the organizations that they work for?
An organization needs to create a context in which the job title of sustainability is irrelevant. It's everybody's job description, because sustainability is about the whole of the company. It's about continuing into the future and how to do it.
The reason you invest in a corporation is because it is investing in the future. Why would you buy the shares if that wasn't true? Investing in the future and ensuring that the corporation has that sensibility is everybody's job. It's not a division or title on a door.
Sustainability is not my favorite word because it's sort of a weasel word. It can mean anything. You need more definitive descriptions of what the goal and purpose of a company is and what the context is in which it operates. Is the company prepared and adaptive to the world that's coming? Is the company open to understanding the coming world? Or is it hidebound, based on past history because it's worked so far and the balance sheet and share price are fine?
We are in an era of rapid external change—socially, culturally, biologically, biospherically and atmospherically. Sustainability should be everybody's job description if that's the word you're going to use. I would use regeneration. Doing less harm is insufficient. The task at hand is to bring the world back to life.
Would you have a 'chief regeneration officer'?
Absolutely. He or she should report to the CEO. The motto of Nestle's as of five, six weeks ago is Generation Regeneration. It's the company-wide goal, not the agricultural goal. Why are they doing that?
Why would a 150-year-old Swiss company start to say that their goal is Generation Regeneration? Because it's pragmatic. That's why. They know very well what it takes,at this point in time, to be around for another 150 years. And it starts today. That's what corporate leadership is. That's what pragmatism is. They're the same thing. It's not like chasing fairy stars. It's not about belief; it's about biological understanding. In the case of Nestle, they looked at their commitments, and they realized that 64% of their emissions had to do with how they produce food. What you're looking at then is commercial agriculture, which is an extraordinarily energy intensive, polluting and greenhouse gas emitting type of agriculture. They're working with 1 million farmers to make a just transition. They've budgeted a billion and a half dollars to help those farmers change from one modality of agriculture, which is failing, to one which is enduring, durable and can persist—particularly in the presence of extreme weather: droughts, too much water, too little water, and heat—all the things that agriculture depends on but can crush agriculture if it's not resilient.
How should organizations approach business travel as we emerge from the pandemic?
Business travel is about sending personalities around, because it's mostly about sales. That's about relationships and personality. Does it really make sense to ship ideas and offers around embodied? To ship the body? It doesn't. It's a huge impact proportionate to the business world as compared to the rest of society. It's a hugely disproportionate use of air transport. It's not just the airplane or the jet fuel. It's getting there, running the airports themselves, getting to the hotel, staying in a hotel. All that back and forth needs to be accomplished in a much more efficient, effective way than it is is right now.
Business travel, oddly, has been both a curse and a reward. It's a curse to people because they have to leave and have jet lag, all that stuff. It's a reward because they get to play golf, drink, and do things. Neither of those are useful motivations or disincentives. What we need to do is be more effective in how we create our networks and diversify them. It doesn't mean no travel. It just means curtailing the travel that is really unnecessary.
Is there a link between fair treatment of individuals in workplaces and ending the climate crisis?
Yes. Fairness and justice are the bedrock of addressing the climate crisis. If there's not those qualities within a company, it's a pretty good bet that it's going to have a tin ear to the rest of the world.
Brilliance, imagination, and ideation are within everybody; it’s there on all levels, not just in R&D or leadership. All people can have ideas that are helpful, that change processes and outcomes, and that imagine new products and services. We are moving into a profoundly disruptive era of business as unusual. The workplace needs to be agile and open-minded.
You want to engage everybody to figure out how to make a better company, a different company, a more innovative company. The only way to do that is for everyone inside the company to feel included. Inclusion means feeling a sense of being honored; feeling that it's a fair and just company that isn't overcompensating certain people; a feeling that there is inclusion on all levels, not only in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, and sexual preference, but also in terms of points of view and ways of understanding the world. What I hear and see over and again are employees who say the c-suite doesn’t get it. Look at Facebook.
You’ve said that the net-zero emissions plans of companies are ‘totally insufficient.’ What is the right approach?
They are insufficient because:
- Even if we achieve net zero in 2050 there will be climate chaos given what we know about the global heating.
- The entire world would have to hit that target, not just big corporations who are committing to the goal. There are 213 million companies in the world. So far 201 companies have made a net zero commitment.
- The only path to a more stable and livable climate is to reverse greenhouse gas emissions. That should be the commitment.
- There are no incentives or penalties in place to ensure compliance.
- It assumes that carbon dioxide is the problem. Protecting life on earth is the deeper issue, and net zero takes for granted that existing business models and overconsumption may continue.
- Net zero commitments employ the purchase of offsets in almost all cases, rather than zeroing out a company’s actual emissions. Only 5 percent of current offsets sequester carbon. The rest either protect an existing forest or ecosystem or are payments for activities that would have occurred due to regulations or other reasons.
Net zero commitment is not particularly inspiring. There's no narrative in “zero.” It’s abstract. I'm not saying that commitments won't be internally tracked in companies. I'm sure they will. However, it is so far into the future that it will get lost in the national or global climate dialogue and reporting.
How do you recommend that individuals and institutions use punch lists as a way to help?
Two ways. The punch list idea came from Atul Gawande and his book, The Checklist Manifesto. He uses the checklists that pilots use when they're taking off in these huge passenger jets. The pilot and co-pilot go down the checklist. Then, they swap out and they do it again. That's failsafe, and it works. What he noticed in surgeons is that they have an idea that they're the hero and could make it up as they went along. Yet, there was a lot of malpractice and mistakes, like taking out the wrong kidney. He recommended that surgeons have a checklist, just like everybody else. They were resisted by surgeons when they were implemented in hospitals, but they had a dramatic drop in accidents and mistakes.
The punch list is not so much that situation; its purpose to create a basis of orientation for you as an individual, for a group in the company, for the company itself, for a class, for a church or synagogue, for a community, for a neighborhood, etc. Usually, it's for an individual within a certain context.
The purpose of a punch list is to undo it. Here's my list. Here's my time frame, which could be a day, a week, a year, or 10 years. We respond to lists. Even making the list itself is such an important process. What you see in the punch lists on regeneration.org is the diversity. This is something I want to really show. We believe that, if we go to renewable energy and plant a bunch of trees, then we get a hall pass to the 22nd century. That's just categorically not true.
We can't get there without swapping out fossil fuels for renewable energy, for sure. It's a sine qua non. At the same time, we have to understand that we can destroy the world with renewable energy just as easily as nonrenewable. You can cut down the Amazon with renewably charged, lithium-ion-battery powered chainsaws. We have divorced the rate of economic growth and the consumptive patterns in our economy from our solutions. We have this idea that we can fix this, and it can be business as usual. It's not true, this othering of the problem and the solution. With the punch list, you can see people doing things and committing to things and identifying them as regeneration.
Regeneration is innately about caring in the human form, as caring for self, for your family, for your children, and for your community and the wellbeing of others. And that is an innate human quality. That's why we're homo sapiens and not neanderthals. We like to work together, cooperate, and solve problems together. That's who we are, and that's where regeneration comes from on a human level. It's also in nature. Our body, which is 30 trillion cells, is regenerating every second. We are walking, talking regenerative entities. When you externalize it and say, 'This is what I'm going to do,' it has an amazing effect on what you do and how you think.
You can publish it, you can share it, or you can keep it to yourself. Depends on what you want to do. But you get it done. I have a growing scar on my head that was bloody a week ago from putting in heat pumps. I'm taking away all fossil fuels from my house and electrifying my heat, water heating and cooking. I was in a cramped area where we're putting the heat pump in. I stood up where somebody had put a new cross piece and I hit my head, blood came out, and so forth. But I'm proud of that. If it scars, i'll refer to it as my heat pump scar. The point is, I'm excited about what I'm doing, I'm sharing it and others are learning from it. That's just one of eight things on my list. You can see it on the website.
Does ending the climate crisis require 'de-growth'? That's to say, is it possible to keep growing the economy and still end the climate crisis?
It requires a re-imagination of what growth means. Do we need to create a lot more stuff for the privileged? No, they have too much stuff already and they know it. Do we need to increase what the 4.3 billion people living in impoverished conditions have? Yes, absolutely. Do we need to restore 2 billion acres of degraded land on earth? Yes. That's one of hundreds of growth opportunities that is needed. That's jobs. That's economic activity. Can we create an economy that is healing the world instead of stealing the world? Yes. We can.
There's a new UN report this week suggesting that nations are not on track to avert the catastrophic consequences of climate change. What could generate the worldwide, collective, committed effort to head this off?
Well, that UN report is sort of boring. The world's never been on track. Thank you for sharing. Didn't we expect anything else? It's like saying, you're a human being and you're going to die. Thank you. That's true. That's what I consider the UN report right now. I'm glad it goes out there, but what impact does it have? To have an impact, we have to figure out why 98% of the world is disengaged—that's the secret sauce. Over 98% don't do anything. I'm discounting putting the recycling out on the curb every week or token kind of things. I'm talking about actually getting stuff done to reduce carbon footprints 45% by 2030, which is what is supposed to be happening in the conference of the parties.
Those types of commitments are not going to happen. Between these these huge meta-organizations, governments, and big corporations, is the individuation of responsibility onto a minuscule level. That goes to localization. Localization sometimes sounds like miniaturization, but actually, localization is regionalization. It's provincialization. It's going to the county, school district, or diocese. That is where we'll solve the climate crisis. It can't be solved any other way. There is no other place than the place you are. The people who are going to be the most helpful are the ones near you.
It doesn't mean that policy, subsidies and taxes from up high wouldn't be extremely helpful. They would be extremely helpful of course. But we shouldn't expect 195 countries coming together in Glasgow to come to an agreement that will make a difference. Each person there is representing the interest of their country. That's their job; they're employees. The interests conflict. Good luck on the agreement. I hope it happens. I don't think it will. What unites us is so much more important than what divides us on a local level. That is where change is going to happen. That is where the root of regeneration is. There are more regeneration organizations than there were six months ago and six months before that. It's a burgeoning movement in the world today, but you can't find any one of them that is trying to do it nationally or internationally. They're doing it in place, with the cultures, with the land, with the forest, with their food systems, and with the schools, That's where it's happening. The questions we ask are what can the government do? And what can you do? The answer is in between.