Hawken's message is no less urgent 15 years after he wrote this landmark book on economic change. It is a message he refined as co-author (with the Lovinses) of NATURAL CAPITALISM: CREATING THE NEXT INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION (Little, Brown & Company, 1999), but this volume is more directly aimed at business owners. The author looks at the three ways that business interacts with the environment -- what it takes, what it makes, and what it wastes -- and shows that a fresh approach can be both profitable and life sustaining. If the book is dated at all, it is because things have gotten worse. Population was only (!) 5.8 billion when he wrote it, and humans were only (!!) using, consuming, clearcutting or burning, 40 percent of the net primary production (NPP) of the earth's land ecosystems. (NPP is the sum of all photosynthetic production minus the energy required to maintain and support those plants.) Both numbers have, of course, risen. Fortunately, during the 90s many of the world's governments have begun to embrace a new view of business and a new definition of profit and loss. The most significant holdout is, of course, the biggest taker, maker and waster -- us. (I must offer a disclaimer here: some Letterheads are not in the U.S.A., and therefore are absolved from this condemnation. Although, in owning computers, they are presumptively more like us than like the rest of the world.) Hawken's view in this book is so comprehensive, that it ought to be the blueprint for businesses in the 21st century. (I predict that it WILL be the blueprint for businesses that survive the 21st.) Ray Anderson, founder and CEO of Interface, the largest maker of carpet tiles in the world and a Fortune 500 company, clearly embraced Hawken's message when he revamped his company a few years ago: they are retooling with a stated goal of zero chimneys, zero waste pipes, zero landfill. Anderson took Hawken's message to heart and to the bank: waste is not just pollution, it is dollars down the drain. A business in tune with natural systems will not produce waste. Everything will recycle. In a neat resolution of apparent opposites, the author looks at optimistic claims that we can grow our way out of environmental problems -- viewing economic growth as the key to funding remediation -- versus pessimistic visions suggesting that we will exceed (perhaps have already exceeded) the carrying capacity of the planet. He notes that due to ever-improving extraction techniques, the pro-growth viewpoint is bound to work splendidly in the short term, and will do so right up until the day it fails. Because the pessimists are wrong in the short term, but are precisely correct about the more distant future. Unfortunately the pivotal point is hard to see coming. Hawken reminds us of the analogy of the twenty-ninth day, offered by ecologists including Dr. David Suzuki: "When algae take over a lake they grow exponentially, doubling every twenty-four hours, until the thirtieth day, when they effectively remove all oxygen from the water, killing all other forms of life. Since the algae bloom doubles daily, on the twenty-ninth day, it covers only half the lake, a reasonably benign condition as long as one does not take into account the nature of exponential growth." This offers not only a lesson in the speed with which collapse can come upon an ecosystem, but about the futility of technological fixes. If the oxygen in the lake were increased by 50 percent on that last day (a production boost that far exceeds human technological improvements in any short term) it would only forestall collapse by six hours. Businesses, governments and we ourselves ignore Hawken at our peril.
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About the reviewer
Cecil Bothwell (cecilbothwell)
Writer, publisher, Asheville City Council member, builder, gardener.
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Paul Hawken, the entrepreneur behind the Smith & Hawken gardening supplies empire, is no ordinary capitalist. Drawing as much on Baba Ram Dass and Vaclav Havel as he does on Peter Drucker and WalMart for his case studies, Hawken is on a one-man crusade to reform our economic system by demanding that First World businesses reduce their consumption of energy and resources by 80 percent in the next 50 years. As if that weren't enough, Hawken argues that business goals should be redefined to embrace such fuzzy categories as whether the work is aesthetically pleasing and the employees are having fun; this applies to corporate giants and mom-and-pop operations alike. He proposes a culture of business in which the real world, the natural world, is allowed to flourish as well, and in which the planet's needs are addressed. Wall Street may not be ready for Hawken's provocative brand of environmental awareness, but this fine book is full of captivating ideas.