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Paul Hawken visits Penn State: Q&A --> Q&UA

Paul Hawken's book The Ecology of Commerce was a life changer for me 20 years ago. (The same book changed Interface's Ray Anderson's life and leadership as well) I have admired the breadth and depth of Hawken's work ever since.

But it was how he handled the Q&A that most struck me. There was a grace, humility and candor to his responses that I found wise and instructive.

Last night Hawken spoke at the State Theatre as part of Penn State's Environmental Colloquim organized by the Institute for Energy and the Environment. He was presenting the findings from his latest book and project: DRAWDOWN. The book is the culmination of 3 years and over 200 scientific collaborators who "did the math" to cull from current peer-reviewed analysis the best solutions to greenhouse gas pollution.

The findings surprised them. Refrigerants were #1 and other top 10 shockers were educating girls, family planning and food waste. Rather than confirming the usual narrative of solar, wind and electric vehicles, the project revealed what will really make a difference.

Question and Answer becomes question… and You Answer

After his talk, Hawken welcomed questions from the audience. The questions were mostly thoughtful and sincere, but, as often happens, the onus was put on him, the speaker/expert, to have the solution. This kind of status and power that is available to somebody in this position, can be compelling and taken advantage of. I was impressed that he did not do so.

He did provide his own perspective and helpful advice, but he also kept turning it back to the person asking the question. For example, one person asked him, "what do you think we should do…". The first thing he did was invite her to change the pronoun from you to we. He said he didn't know the answer because he doesn't know the local situation, her gifts and interests, local assets and opportunities and barriers.

This could come across as pretentious and dismissive. It could sound like: "I don't know the answer. You go figure it out." But in my view he accomplished more than that. He expressed a deep belief in the person asking the question and beyond that, in humanity's ability to rise up and come together and do amazing things.