Economy of ecology

Making business green — in more ways than one.

Nov 22, 2000 at 12:00 am

Melting polar ice caps, summer-long forest fires, a continuing string of record-breaking downpours, dying coral reefs — the predicted effects of global warming keep showing up and stacking up. Given the “What, me worry?” reaction of so many people, at least in the United States, and the at best weak response from both the federal government and most of the business community, it’s no wonder many environmentalists often find themselves fighting hard against complete despair.

Now comes a book with a very fresh take on this end-of-our-world scenario, written by three visionaries who argue that there is a way out of our collective predicament that almost anyone besides Darth Vader could embrace. Indeed, Natural Capitalism is startling in its optimism. While the book insists that industrial civilization had better do something drastic, and very quickly, about both the greenhouse gases it’s pumping into the atmosphere and the natural resources it’s sucking from the biosphere, the authors’ remedies seem downright pleasant. They call on capitalists, socialists, politicians, engineers, managers, everyday workers and, yes, even environmentalists to step outside of the conceptual boxes they’re stuck in and work toward planetary survival from a new perspective. Most amazingly, Hawken and the Lovinses — all three of whom have been on the forefront of the sustainablility movement since the 1970s — insist that the next industrial revolution they tout will not only make the planet much more habitable, it will make its entrepreneurs tons of money.

The biggest key, new technology, has pretty much arrived, the authors assert. They’ve stuffed the book with examples of new technologies and business practices that are already pumping up the bottom lines of innovative companies around the planet by drastically cutting their energy and raw material consumption — and thus their costs. A carpeting company in Atlanta, a building in the Rocky Mountains, a cluster of interdependent factories in Sweden, a hybrid car in Japan, a reconfigured oil company in England, an entirely redesigned city in Brazil — Natural Capitalism writes about each of these, and literally hundreds of other certified, real-world examples.

Pointing to these, the book says industry can cut its energy and other resource use and waste by 75 to 90 percent while improving standards of living. Because they will save so much money even as they dominate their markets with much better prices and profits, everyone else will be scrambling to catch up.

This would all seem fatuous if the authors had not compiled so many examples and footnoted them so assiduously. Their exhaustive research should force even the most business-first capitalists to take note. And, unless they’re dumber than a dubyah, even the hard-hearted will find poetry in these pages too. The authors sustain a tone that’s bereft of blame, doom or gloom, and instead reflects their wonder at our miraculous planet. They quietly and eloquently argue that not only is building a utopia possible, it’s absolutely necessary.

So what’s holding up the parade? Partially, they say, it’s a matter of just getting the word to the right people that there are new, much more profitable ways of doing business that respect, rather than rape, the earth.

But for this green juggernaut to really get rolling, fiscal policies must change. Currently, because of what the authors call “perverse subsidies,” it’s cheaper to cut down a whole forest, chop off the top of an entire mountain, dam up an entire river valley or build yet another expressway than it is to install, wholesale, technologies that make such ruinous practices unnecessary. Progress is occurring without such help, but eliminating subsidies that encourage this pillage, assigning value to natural resources beyond the mere cost of their extraction, and offering tax credits for the installation of newer, greener technologies would greatly accelerate the currently too-slow rate of change.

So why should anyone besides a policy wonk read this book? First, because it isn’t very wonky; in fact it’s fascinating in both scope and interdisciplinary weave. Better yet, it offers badly needed hope to those in despair about what’s really going on with our planet. This book can rally the troops — except, perhaps, those who’d rather continue arguing about just how greedy and unrepentant those nasty industrialists are.

Perhaps most importantly, the book offers a vision that few would reject — a cleaner, quieter, saner world; replacement of resource waste with expanded and more stable workforces; and recovery of the sense of community that modern industrialism has largely destroyed. The more people share that vision, the more quickly we can reach it.

The book closes with a fascinating visit to Curitiba, Brazil, a city that has transformed itself along many of Natural Capitalism’s lines without dipping very far into the new tech bag. A radical redesign of its bus system, a steadfast refusal to build more highways, an ongoing swap of food for recyclable goods in its poorest neighborhoods, a population that demands incorruptible, efficient city government — the success of these and countless other innovative and common sense tactics are terrifically heartening. But they also underline the book’s essential point: new thinking about systems, and how they interact, is what’s most important. It has transformed a slummy, traffic-choked city into a beacon of hope for people everywhere. Couldn’t Detroit, with its infinitely more powerful connection to the rest of the world, do the same thing?

So, read it closely and pass it along to the biggest wig you know in the auto industry, even if it’s just a used car salesman. Given what Bill Ford is up to renovating the Rouge plant, he may have already read Natural Capitalism. Let’s make sure that all of his comrades and competitors do, too. It would be sad to leave someone behind, wouldn’t it?

The book is available for download, chapter by chapter, at

See our exclusive interview with Paul Hawken.

Jim Dulzo is a regular Metro Times contributor. Send comments to [email protected].