Blessed Unrest in the Green Building Movement

Bill Walsh | September 12, 2007 | Policies

In his latest book Blessed Unrest [1] Paul Hawken recalls the summer of 1962, when the New Yorker magazine began publishing installments of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, igniting what he calls "the seminal confrontation" in which industries doing violence to the health of the planet employed public relations experts to devise the strategies that marginalize scientific data, polarize public opinion, and retard democratic decision-making processes that conflict with their financial interests. [2] Forty five summers later this alliance, dubbed "the denial machine," their techniques now proven and perfected, made the August 13, 2007 cover of Newsweek magazine.

In "The Truth About Denial" a Newsweek team spends seven pages documenting how this "well-coordinated, well-funded campaign by contrarian scientists, free-market think tanks and industry has created a paralyzing fog of doubt around climate change . . . continuing to shape both government policy and public opinion." [3] Hawken more pointedly observes, "The argument in favor of fossil fuels pretends to be about science and policy, but it more accurately involves a question of rights: the debate over business rights versus the rights of citizens is claiming public attention once again." [4]

Blessed Unrest cautions people like me "not to squander all our attention on what is wrong," [5] -- like the current dominance of the well-oiled "denial machine" -- because "the story of what is going right on this planet . . . is where the movement is." [6] The movement, according to Hawken, is the "largest social movement in human history" marked by a "fierceness of knowing we are human and intend to survive" [7] the gravity of our environmental and social condition. On this and many other points, Hawken provides insightful context and analysis to reconcile that fierceness with the compassion that is also required of us.

In a chapter called "Immunity," the US Green Building Council (USGBC) is located within a metaphorical "global immune system" of environmental and social justice activists whose "ultimate purpose . . . is to identify what is not life affirming and to contain, neutralize or eliminate it." [8] It is an inspired analogy that signals how the body politic of the green building movement might resist and prevail in the face of the cancerous assaults of the denial machine on its flagship institution, the USGBC.

The latest assault, championed by the American Forest Product and Paper Association (AFPA), a timber industry trade association, targets the highly successful LEED credit for FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified wood. Nobody questions that the FSC system is positively transforming both the building materials market and global forest stewardship. The timber industry frames their critique of LEED in technical terms. Ostensibly they want to see more products certified and obtain LEED recognition for other third party certification systems. [9] But behind the technical debate about FSC & AFPA certifications lie profound differences on ethical issues central to the affirmation of life and culture. The FSC respects indigenous cultures, refusing to certify wood from forests on disputed land. The timber industry classifies these disputes as "political," not relevant to "environmental" certifications. [10]

In perhaps the most inspired chapter of Blessed Unrest, "Indigene," Hawken observes: "A world wide cultural siege is being undertaken by a global economy hooked on growth, and resistance to it represents the heart of the movement this book addresses . . . there is a choice to be made: to promote economic policies that despoil indigenous land, or to support culture and the remaining biological sanctuaries." [11]

Blessed Unrest provides an alternative framework that lets us see the old debates with new eyes and new hope. In this case, the eyes of the people who inhabit Earth's dwindling primary forests, and the hope that we can see clearly the action that is ultimately the most compassionate, even to the people who inhabit the AFPA.


[1] Paul Hawken, Blessed Unrest, (Viking Publishers, 2007).

[2] Ibid. p.53

[3] Sharon Begley, The Truth About Denial, Newsweek, August 13, 2007.

[4] Blessed Unrest, p.67

[5] Ibid. p.189

[6] Ibid. p.4

[7] Ibid. p.165

[8] Ibid. p.145

[9] "As USGBC Tackles Wood Issue, Are Any Forests Out of Bounds For Green Buildings?"

[10] "The Great Debate Over Certified Wood: FSC, SFI, Green Globes and the USGBC"

[11] Blessed Unrest, p.103