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Orion Magazine.



Guest Editorial
by Erik Hoffner : Orion Grassroots Network

Grassroots Good, Communities of Change

The release of Paul Hawken's new book in May was a watershed moment for grassroots activism in general and my work in particular. Chronicling the spread and scope of the global movement for sustainability, ecology, and social justice, Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came Into Being and Why No One Saw it Coming (excerpted here in Orion magazine) is a fascinating look at the enormous global groundswell that’s arrayed itself to create positive change in the world.

Colorado River Convergence group.
  A group of environmental thinkers, writers, and activists at Orion Grassroots Network's 2006 Colorado River Convergence.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

The book’s premise is that there are more people-powered grassroots groups than we can possibly count at work in every country for the good of people and planet. On aggregate, it’s bigger than any social movement ever seen. And yet it flies largely under the radar, untracked by governments (especially where such activities are illegal) and largely unheralded by the media, so its true scope has remained a mystery. Grassroots groups form and disband often, sometimes operate remotely, or function underground when necessary. But after a lot of research, Hawken estimates that there are easily a million organizations at work for ecological sustainability and social justice in the world today. Or perhaps double that.

This is something I’d been trying to put my finger on as coordinator of the Orion Grassroots Network. The Network connects and supports the full diversity of such grassroots groups in North America with tools and services that help them do their work more efficiently. With 1,000+ member groups in 49 states, this Network is one of the largest on the continent, and yet we’ve always been well aware that there are many more groups out there than are in our ranks. There are easily 50,000 in the U.S., I thought, but when I imagined all of the other countries, too, the number made me dizzy.

The Orion Grassroots Network is a microcosm of this global movement, then. From land trusts and watershed councils to worker rights campaigns, community gardens, alternative schools, and environmental justice programs, this Network connects all of the impulses and efforts we need to shape a sustainable world. And it all has to be done. Our member groups are aligned no matter their daily missions, as the values that underscore each group’s work are so clearly interdependent. Realizing that we’re in such enormous company gives me great hope for our future, and challenges me to imagine how we can all work together to an even greater extent.

Concert in front of Vienna's City Hall.
The Canyonlands Field Institute in Professor Valley, Utah, hosted the Colorado River Convergence, and is a member of the Orion Grassroots Network. Sleeping in tee-pees is optional.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

But what’s even more mind-boggling is the simple realization that the million or more organizations of Hawken’s book are of course made up of people, sometimes many people. Consider a conservative estimate that each has a staff of 2 or 3, plus 500 or 1,000 individuals who are members, supporters, or volunteers. Multiplying them by a million or perhaps two yields a number that starts to approach a noticeable percentage of the planet’s population. Each of these people, many of us, really, are grassroots forces for change in multiple ways. From the support we give to such groups, to where we work, to the way we raise our kids, these small things add up to a very big picture.

Further, it’s an easy wager that most folks who support or are employed by a group that aims to improve the world are also engaged in other such activities. I’ve got fewer commitments than most people I know, but I do serve on two boards, including a member-owned renewable energy cooperative in western Massachusetts, Co-op Power. This coop works to deliver renewable products and services (like solar panels) to its members on the one hand and on the other uses the members’ shared equity to build renewable energy assets that are owned and rooted locally. Its first major project is a biodiesel refinery which will collect and convert recycled grease into a liquid fuel. The benefits of this will be many: co-op members will receive dividends for their ownership, the sale of the fuel will benefit the local economy, the product will clear the air, and local jobs will be created. We’ve been working on this for three years now, and we get closer all the time to beginning production. It may be the first project of its kind in the nation.

Of course this one project represents a drop in the bucket of our community’s energy needs. But once the biodiesel plant is established, we aim to create electricity-generating projects, probably powered by the wind and the sun. And whatever else our community wants to tackle. Our goal is to take responsibility for our energy use, and to stop assuming corporations or governments will lead the way to a sustainable future. Creating local assets like this and benefiting from the slice of independence they bring will also help us build the know-how to help other regions do the same.

The first real (and I hope most enduring) accomplishment of Co-op Power, its biodiesel plant aside, is that we’ve built a large community of people who are actively discussing sustainability and are volunteering their time and personal assets to make it happen. Put this together with the tremendous local agriculture movement in the region and a vibrant local currency project, and we’ve got an interesting recipe for sustaining community.

Colorado River Convergence participants.
  The natural setting of the Colorado River Convergence combined with the energy of grassroots participants to create an outstanding event.
Photo by Simmons Buntin.

I feel tremendous optimism that another world is possible, one where we take responsibility for our actions and our needs, and see to the needs of the people and planet around us. It’s truly a privilege to work every day on building this movement for change through the Orion Grassroots Network, through Co-op Power, and in concert with so many others unknown to me.

Hawken makes a very interesting point in his book that this global movement has no name and no leaders, and therefore cannot be pigeon-holed, targeted, or neutralized, and he ends his piece in Orion this way:

Inspiration is not garnered from litanies of what is flawed; it resides in humanity’s willingness to restore, redress, reform, recover, reimagine, and reconsider. Healing the wounds of the Earth and its people does not require saintliness or a political party. It is not a liberal or conservative activity. It is a sacred act.

And that’s exactly what’s most interesting about this moment in time. How we’ve gotten here will not help us move into the future. It’s now up to all of us to start steering the ship.


In addition to coordinating the Orion Grassroots Network, Erik Hoffner is a regular contributor to Orion magazine and Grist.org. Erik is also a photographer whose work appears regularly in Orion and The Sun, and he is an exhibiting member of the Vermont Center for Photography in Brattleboro, Vermont. To see more of his personal work, visit www.erikhoffner.com.

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Paul Hawken

When Dreams Become Reality: How a grassroots biodiesel group can show the way for others


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