Save the planet & get rich

Nov 22, 2000 at 12:00 am

Slowly but surely, Detroit’s car companies are getting a bit greener. William Clay Ford, the young, new chairman of Ford Motor Company, dramatically demonstrated this earlier this month when he announced that, instead of tearing it down or letting it rot, his company was going to transform its Ford Rouge Center into the largest environmentally friendly industrial complex in the country. Complete with highly insulating ivy- and grass-covered roofs, skylights that replace power-hungry lighting fixtures, mustard plants that suck long-dormant toxins from the ground, and newly planted trees and bushes that attract songbirds and other wildlife, the new Rouge could become an icon of what’s being dubbed the next industrial revolution.

That’s precisely what Natural Capitalism, a groundbreaking book published early last year, argues for. The most encouraging thing about it — besides its amazingly optimistic message about the immense profitability of “going green” with virtually any business — is that it’s sold well enough to now be released in paperback. Clearly, Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins have assembled a set of ideas whose time has come if civilization is to avoid the effects of fossil fuel use — increasingly catastrophic global warming.

Detroit’s corporate car culture, along with big oil and big power, are pivotal to this utterly necessary next industrial revolution. But are Motown’s corporate leaders really getting the message? And are Bill Ford and his fellow captains of industry moving toward these changes as quickly as possible?

The Metro Times spoke with Hawken from his Sausalito, Calif., office. This visionary has owned and operated his own successful gardening implements business and has written The Ecology of Commerce and Growing a Business, the book that inspired the PBS series of the same name. Joining the conference-call conversation was Russ Carpenter, environmental program manager at the Michigan Manufacturing Technology Center, a Plymouth company that teaches small- and medium-sized automotive suppliers how to profitably “green” and “lean” their factories, in compliance with new mandates from the car companies. Folks like Carpenter are among the audiences Hawken and his co-authors were seeking.

Paul Hawken: We wanted business people, academics, policy people and nongovernmental organizations to read it. Bill Clinton is a big fan; Ralph Nader mentioned it often in his campaign. The mayor of Shanghai bought 700 copies; I was just with the prime minister of Queensland, Australia, last week, and he bought 800 copies. It sold out in China in two days, went to a sixth printing in this country with no advertising. It’s being adopted as a strategy by many governances and cities like Seattle. So it’s done really, really well.

Metro Times: Mr. Carpenter, do you think the book would hold the interest of the people you work with every day — engineers and business people trying to get their companies in compliance with the auto industry’s new mandates?

Russ Carpenter: There’s been a lot of discussion about this upcoming redesign of the Ford Rouge Center, so what the book is actually about is kind of a hot topic around here. But as far as the people at the companies I work with, I would say that the book itself is kind of advanced; these companies are more at the stage of just looking at cost savings by minimizing raw materials. It is a paradigm shift that they haven’t quite made yet. But I do see that with the mandate from automotive manufacturers to their suppliers to become more green and efficient, there’s automatically a higher level of interest now.

MT: Mr. Hawken, do you see the auto industry’s implementation of these new mandates as a step toward what you book proposes?

Hawken: Sure. But the thing that is really missing here is that business has to at some point stand up and say, “We are not going to sit at the back of the environmental bus,” and really lobby for a tax shift that gives them the right incentives. Right now we subsidize the wrong things, such as the use of our energy, clean air, water and forests; we subsidize the car industry with a huge $200 million-a-day habitat desecration called “new highways.” When businesses are serious about the environment, they will, like they do in Sweden, lobby for shifting costs away from people and profit and toward primary resources and waste.

The auto industry is still in the Iron Age. There is no blame here; the fact is those new mandates are great, but there’s no breakthroughs, no real innovation there. Technically, you could get a nuclear power plant to those standards, but what does that mean? Those mandates are a very powerful tool, but they have to be integrated into some other framework of understanding about where we want to go.

Carpenter: The companies that I work with currently are some of the old school — metal stamping, metal finishing, injection molders, steel manufacturing. These auto company mandates head them in that direction; but there is an incredible amount of inertia that will take more than mandates or the reading of the book to overcome. These companies need to really look at implementing some complete idea changes.

Hawken: It’s the old thing; if you think you are a hammer then everything looks like a nail. We need to ask, “Are you in the car business or the mobility business?” If you are in the mobility business, huge possibilities open up. If you are just in the car business, then possibilities are much narrower. If you are an oil company and you think you are just in the oil business, that’s one thing; the Kyoto Accords (a treaty to reduce, among other things, worldwide oil consumption) become threats. But if you are in the energy business, then Kyoto is a huge opportunity. You could say, “Man, we can’t double-glaze the planet with CO2! So wow! What’s next? Let’s be first, let’s be competitive, let’s lead. Let’s be innovators!

But that’s not what so many business associations do. They are troglodytes; they defend themselves, they push against science, they say, “No it’s not true, its not happening.” They go out and hire lobbyists, elect corrupt politicians and have the idea we can just push reality away. We cannot. There is plenty of time for the transition that we all need to make. There is no time for denial.

People have to be able to see in Detroit that there is an extraordinary future possible that they can participate in. But if it is all positioned in such a way that environmentalism, Kyoto protocols and all these things are seen as a threat, you’re going to get a defensive reaction or a slow, begrudging acceptance. And the planet does not have all that time.

MT: I’m struck by how gentle the book’s tone is.

Hawken: If we are going to fix it, we need everybody on deck. Everybody. We can’t go around saying half the world is wrong and then say, “Now fix it!” That is not how we work as people. So we can all take responsibility. I understand the anger, the frustration, the despair environmentalists feel. I really do. I feel it myself. But because I’ve been in business myself I also understand what it is like to meet a payroll, meet analysts’ expectations, and your customers’ and your employees’ and your communities’. It is really hard. So we must speak truth to things that are not working, but we don’t have to make people wrong.

MT: So what can the average citizen do to help this book’s vision?

Hawken: The most important thing for the next year or two is to really, really, really learn and educate. When we’re all educated and on the same page together with the sugar cane growers, the fishermen, the tourist industry, and all the different vectors of the economy that are now in conflict with each other, then you can move. And act extraordinarily quickly. There is this highly dispersed but huge movement of 30,000 organizations around the world who are now working for sustainability.

MT: Mr. Carpenter, do you think the national election or politics in general have much impact in your immediate sphere?

Carpenter: Sure, but more from a local standpoint, especially in southeastern Michigan, where we have such a concentration of automotive suppliers and vendors. I think because of western Wayne County’s requirements for air emissions, there is even more of an emphasis on regulations and controls, so companies are more environmentally conscious because they are forced to be by threats of fines and litigation.

Hawken: Russ made a very important distinction; in most cases companies today move because of regulations and legal mandates. It harkens back to the birth of modern environmentalism — which has been very much about saying no: You can’t develop here, you can’t pollute this, you cannot clear-cut that. Not that that is unnecessary, but we have to understand that sustainability is about saying yes, it is about possibility, about design, about imagination, about what is being done at the Rouge plant. It’s really about creating entirely new ways of looking at things to benefit all parties. Those things come about by thinking about systems. Environmentalism and sustainability should go hand in hand.

The point we are trying to make is that businesses can start right now. You don’t need anybody outside of your company to do anything first. But ultimately on the global level, yeah, we have to stop subsidizing the use of the things we want to save and taxing the things we want to encourage.

We have to get money out of politics. Money in politics is toxic; we need a political environment that is free from corruption. I’m sorry, but I believe we have a corrupt political system. We need to grow up and return government and governance to a dialogue where money cannot buy a person, a campaign, more airtime than anybody else. Then we can get back to issues that aren’t just sound bites that are both hindered by and pandering to moneyed interests.

This conversation that the three of us are having right now is occurring all over the world and increasing in relevance and in number as every day passes. So when we talk about electoral politics, we have to talk about a system in which the conversation can really be healthier and more engaging. A lot of people have checked out because they feel their voices are not being heard.

Carpenter: It needs to be a grassroots movement and I think that is what we are seeing now in the U.S. It’s probably more in its infancy elsewhere, but at least it is gathering momentum. The grassroots part is there. I see it as having been driven by the legal mandates, I don’t have a warm, fuzzy feeling that it’s been being done because they felt it’s the right thing to do. I think that will happen after some results, for example, at the Rouge plant. When that shows success, that will be used as a pilot for other brownfield opportunities. Then we will get that momentum increasing.

Jim Dulzo is a Detroit-based freelance writer. Send questions to [email protected]. Russ Carpenter can be reached at [email protected]