BUSINESS CREATES ECO-SIDE!
by WILLIAM GREIDER
Natural Capitalism is so informative
and provocative--and so unfashionably
optimistic about the future of the planet--that I wonder why
public life is not reading it and arguing over the implications.
did volunteer a nice plug for the book when it came out a few
but it has yet to be reviewed by virtually any leading publication.
culture doesn't grasp the high drama of industrial engineering.
editors, like other Americans, are transfixed by business stories
moguls and supermoguls from this gilded age and the previous
The book will find its audience, regardless.
It is that important. The authors are
setting out a boldly different framework for understanding the
crisis. It goes like this: The scale and pace of nature's destruction
far more life-threatening than is commonly understood, yet should
regarded as overwhelming. The basis for a fundamental transformation
industrial capitalism--new business concepts and technological
that can save the earth--already exists, not just as wishful
as a set of successful and even spreading practices. These new
to production and consumption will redefine economic life, not
out of noblesse
oblige but because they deliver dramatic cost-saving efficiencies
bottom line, that is, higher rates of return for capital.
This perspective has something to offend
nearly everyone: Business interests will choke on
the apocalyptic description of the earth in crisis but may be
by the suggestion that they have the means to solve it. Most
agree on the vast dimensions of the threat to nature but may
authors' can-do optimism as dangerously naïve. I have
of my own. Nevertheless, Natural Capitalism poses an intelligent
to lazy assumptions on both sides of the political divide and
ought to jump-start
a reinvigorated environmental debate.
Paul Hawken is a rare type--a green
entrepreneur who built a successful enterprise,
Smith and Hawken, on eco-friendly terms and who wrote The Ecology
of Commerce. The Lovinses are co-CEOs of the Rocky Mountain Institute,
which over a generation has famously generated a stream of innovative
ideas about how to save resources and eliminate the
vast industrial waste commonly known as pollution. If you know
works, a lot of this will sound familiar. Indeed, Natural Capitalism
important "new ideas" of the past two decades that
are well-known to serious
ecologists on several continents, though not to the American
public or its
political elites. The weight of this book lies in its comprehensive
Ecological destruction is essentially a problem of system design
be solved. The evidence for this proposition is accumulating
itself, and the book describes scores (maybe hundreds) of startling
The tone is slightly off-putting because it resembles the brisk
of a business-management primer, but the authors are clearly
trying to convince
corporate managers and investors, not eco-activists. Still, their
objective is radical. "Technology is revolutionizing our
lives," they concede,
"[but] our purpose is almost the opposite. We are trying
to describe how
our lives and life itself will revolutionize the technologies."
They start with the great fallacy of
orthodox economics exposed by economist Herman
Daly in his landmark work For the Common Good more than a decade
capital--finite elements of the earth itself: land, air, water,
of self-sustaining biosystems--does not appear anywhere in the
of capitalism. In the orthodox economist's model, nature is treated
infinite resource to be used as input for manufacturing and other
activities (when one mineral is exhausted, another will be found
it). Nature is "free" except for costs of extracting,
it. Nature is also a bottomless sink where the wasted materials
Among many startling facts in this book is the estimate that
in the vast
flows of natural materials devoured by the US economy every year,
percent actually end up in products.
In real life, the economic model is
nutty on this subject. But the system of false accounting endures
as a profitable illusion--everything is made to seem cheaper
than it truly is--and
very few "scientific" economists have the courage to
challenge it. If the world's
accountants accepted that "natural capital" is neither
free nor infinite,
the full crisis would become clear. Industrial capitalism (including
of us who consume its output) is rapidly devouring the one form
that cannot be replaced--not just air, water and the land's raw
but the life-supporting ecosystems themselves. Climate change
warming are a subset, not the whole, of what threatens. The evidence
frightening, but the point of this book is not to scare people.
* * *
The social imperative is far more daunting than most people imagine--the
of zero waste, zero destruction. We need (and soon) an economic
mimics nature itself, where waste of one species becomes food
where disruptions and imbalances occur but are self-correcting,
Thinking in these large terms does not trivialize the environmental
that has gone before, but it does make clear that the existing
standards--based narrowly on whether human health is threatened
business can "afford" to reduce pollution--are utterly
inadequate to the crisis.
The usual conservative skeptics who
front for business will attack
this formulation as a back-to-poverty recipe for destroying modern
But that leads to the truly radical core (and new evidence) of
argument. The industrial transformation is not only technically
and already under way in some business practices but promises
returns, both for shareholders and workers. If industries would
possibilities aggressively in their own self-interest, environmental
may not even require negative incentives like "green taxes"
on energy consumption
that are politically difficult and penalize the less affluent
the cost of living.
* * *
Could this be true? In the $9 trillion
the authors explain, around
$2 trillion in spending is devoted to waste,
that is, activities or materials that yield literally no value
to the buyer.
If that estimate is correct, there are incredible opportunities
efficiency--the engineer's version, not the stockbroker's. Because
enhances productivity and will create new sectors of positive
it should expand employment too.
Cost savings will flow from mundane
the factory plumbing and designing energy-efficient buildings--as
esoteric realms like nanotechnology, reconstituted materials
integration. The payoff, as some industrial pioneers have already
can be a factor of ten-, fifty-, even 100-fold. Steelcase, the
of office furniture, created an upholstery fabric that is disposed
composting. Remanufacturing firms in the United States now generate
revenue than the consumer-durables industry. Anheuser-Busch saved
pounds of metal a year by knocking an eighth of an inch off the
rim of its
To take an especially compelling example,
consider the idea
of making manufacturers take responsibility for what ultimately
to their products, whether it's an automobile or dishwasher,
toxic chemicals. In the US political context, that sounds way
but actually, the principle is already in widespread use (and
known as leasing). Whether it's Volvo, Boeing or Carrier, the
title to the leased car, jetliner or air-conditioning system,
conscientiously and eventually reclaims it for resale or disposal.
of the relationship puts responsibilities on both producer and
but especially gives the producer incentives to pursue the efficiencies
of long-life design and to minimize the costs of eventual disposal.
is far ahead of the United States in exploring this mode of reform;
nations already have "takeback" laws for cars, packaging
and other goods.
America is not the world leader on eco-reform and hasn't been
for many years.
The Lovins-Hawken perspective is a good fit with what's beginning
at the community level in some places, where either private groups
governments are promoting dialogues on "redefining progress"
aimed at reforming
industrial and consumption patterns. At a minimum, the book provides
activists with a robust checklist of possibilities for waste
the evidence that major firms are actually making dramatic savings
the right thing. These points seem especially relevant if public
are being used for a new factory or project. If the company gets
a tax break,
shouldn't it be required to apply the best practices in design?
Other technological examples are numerous
and fascinating (though a slog for readers
who don't have an appetite for this kind of stuff). As Natural
Capitalism moved from
one domain to the next, piling up the success stories, I was
eager to be
convinced. The more I read, however, the more unwanted doubt
crept in. I
don't quarrel with their facts or have the expertise to judge
claims. But the stories inspire this nagging question: If these
so obviously benefit the companies as well as nature and society,
they being adopted everywhere? If the payoff is so darn good,
why are major
sectors of industry still fighting the old wars, gutting environmental
when they can, stalling on compliance, propagandizing with scare
about how environmental values kill growth, jobs, profits?
* * *
The book, alas, doesn't confront the
question squarely (a concluding chapter does
critique the blindness of markets but doesn't satisfy my doubts).
I was otherwise so impressed, this bothered me, so I called Paul
to ask about the gap between potential progress and the disappointing
This gaudy financial boom, he observed, does not offer a propitious
to talk about the larger crisis and long-term solutions.
"Inertia momentum," he said
with a sigh. "Business has so much inertia now that speed
such a premium. This boom is masking worldwide deflation, so
people do not
see conserving energy or any other resources as cost issues."
The innovations that some companies
have pioneered are still "unknown choices" to corporate
managers in general, he said, and especially to the Wall Street
who judge their performance. Even if companies were aware of
I would add, investing capital in systemic reforms must compete
other opportunity for profitable investment, which may make long-term
look like a loser.
"The people who control the flow
of funds in this country
have a very narrow understanding of where you obtain financial
Hawken observed. "They have no familiarity with any of the
subjects we describe
in this book. They have no training in these matters; they receive
from institutional investors or even the government to consider
They have no accountability for the results of not considering
OK,that takes the edge off the optimism expressed in the book.
But it should
not discount the ideas and the abundant evidence that a larger,
approach to the ecological crisis is plausible. If Wall Street
leaders won't take up the possibilities, others of us can talk
about how their indifference
might be changed.
William Greider, The Nation's national affairs correspondent,
is author of One World,
Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (Touchstone),
among other works.
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