Re-Reading Drawdown


Now that I’ve read - not all but most of - “Drawdown: the most comprehensive plan ever proposed to reverse global warming” edited by Paul Hawken, I recommend starting at the back. Begin by reading the chapters at the end called “An Opening” and “What do the Numbers tell us?”


These two concluding chapters set up a more sober expectation, especially if you’ve come to the book after watching Hawken on Youtube where his light touch is positive and disarming. The title “Drawdown” leads one to search for answers to the question of how we remove, or draw down, the CO2 out of the atmosphere. We know that the effects of what’s already up there will last thousands of years. It’s this terrible fact that tempered, for me, the enthusiasm with which “solution” after “solution” is described. Most are ways to avoid or reduce emissions and nothing is more important!  But the only practical way of sequestering or drawing down carbon is through soil management and planting trees.

Wisely, Drawdown has no mention of hi-tech sequestering fixes and geoengineering. This is an omission with an important unstated message because these ideas absorb huge amounts of expertise and money in some areas. But none has so far been proven and some are politically as well as technically dangerous. Drawdown does well to ignore them.

Drawdown also avoids addressing another issue - one which is an essential aspect of Our Climate Declaration. But this time I see the omission as a failure. While we call for an urgent transformation of society to achieve climate stability with seriously reduced consumption of transport, energy and materials, Drawdown takes a “having your cake and eating it too” approach.

The book’s 80 solutions are sited within the existing globalised, western economic and social system. It assumes there is no going back on the transport of merchandise and people around the world that we as consumers take for granted.

Aviation, we know, was not included in the Paris agreement. Giving up or rationing overseas trips is for the pure-hearted. Drawdown’s pragmatic vision of hope lies in increasing fuel efficiency and in an offset scheme whereby airline companies support projects that sequester carbon. Participation is, as for travellers, voluntary.

Similarly with regard to shipping. More than 80% of global trade by weight is transported by ship, Drawdown tells us - thousands of huge vessels powered by the dirtiest of fuels cross the oceans. Conscience is now beginning to prick with the Sustainable Shipping Initiative’s plan to create a “completely sustainable shipping industry by 2014.” Meanwhile, it’s unsustainable business as usual.

Trucks, as we know in New Zealand, are the other major users of dirty diesel and here, too, the move towards greater efficiency allows freight transport to flourish.

And there’s the oxymoron: how, in a growth economy, can these fuel efficiencies achieve what they originally set out to do? As the consumer market grows so will emissions.

We need to change the system in which we are embedded. Somehow, we need to re-orient the economy – and how we live - to take account of the totality of so-called externalities. Even the much misquoted father of free trade, Adam Smith, was wiser than his current followers. He believed that the economy would reach a “stationary state” with its “full complement of riches” ultimately being determined by “the nature of the soil, climate and situation.”

Drawdown isn’t a treatise on economics or social change. Maybe we have to fill in the gaps ourselves. Maybe Hawken’s intention is to start the process. Here’s a key sentence from the section I recommend reading first – p.216:

“…in creating Drawdown…we wanted to captivate and surprise, to present solutions to global warming in a new way with an eye towards helping draw the threads of humanity into a coherent and more effective network of people that can accelerate progress towards reversing climate change….Climate solutions depend on community collaboration and cooperation.”

We couldn’t agree more. But the need to keep planting forests is clear.


Here are my recommendations for some deep thinking on these complex issues:

  •  Kate Raworth’s “Doughnut Economics: seven ways to think like a 21st economist”
  • Visit the fairly intellectual website
  • George Monbiot’s “Out of the Wreckage” is an accessible overview of the way ahead.