Book Review â€“ The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability by Paul Hawken
Quick Review: Sustainability isnâ€™t enough â€“ as business and the world population grows, society needs to move away from the current system of waste and resource extraction and towards closed loop ecosystems and green taxes and fees to restore the environment and the economy.
Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution is one of my favorite books, one that made a huge impression on me. Despite many other books I have read since I read it last year, it remained my mind and I decided to look up other books by Hawken. I was looking for Growing a Business, which was recommended by Joel Spolsky, one of my favorite tech bloggers, but my local public library didnâ€™t have it, so I settled for Ecology of Commerce instead. I certainly was not disappointed by it!
Hawken starts out by sharing an experience where he was accepting an environmental award on behalf of the company he worked for, when he realized that conventional sustainability measures like household recycling, refilling ink cartridges, and the â€œpaperless officeâ€ would not save the environment or heal the planet. There were fundamental issues of far greater magnitude that have to be changed. The three problems are linear rather than cyclical resource cycles, externalized costs, and large corporationsâ€™ insatiable need for growth.
In the richest, most diverse, and most productive ecosystems on the planet, there is no waste; any byproducts from one organism are food for another, so the entire system is a closed loop where the same resources are cycled through over and over again. Once the ecosystem has reached this mature state, the only ingredient necessary to make it run is sunlight. This is true for all types of systems, from rainforests to tundra to tallgrass prairies and coral reefs. Our economy and society function like a different type of ecosystem â€“ invasive colonizing weeds. We donâ€™t seek a stable equilibrium â€“ we take more and more out of the environment and emit wastes that are unusable and even deadly to nature. If our manufacturing and economic systems were redesigned so that any byproducts could be used by other businesses could use them as raw materials, then waste and natural resource extraction would be greatly reduced or eliminated. This would benefit the environment and the economy as the inefficiencies of harvesting and waste were removed.
Hawkenâ€™s second point is that although our market system is unmatched at setting prices for an efficient economy, it does not include the full cost of any goods or services. This means that because companies arenâ€™t required to pay the costs of environmental or cultural damage, they can offer a lower price (and therefore have an advantage in business) than a responsible company that avoids causing that damage. For instance, a farmer that uses lots of fertilizer and pesticide on a single crop monoculture can sell at a lower price than a small scale organic farmer that builds up topsoil and biodiversity and employs more labor and fewer machines. If the first farmer had to pay for damages to soil, water, and air, his costs would be higher than the second farmer and his farming methods would no longer be competitive. If damaging activities were taxed according to the damage they caused, then all the advantages and efficiencies of the market economy would be harnesses to heal and regenerate the environment instead of destroy it.
The final point he makes is a rather damning assessment of the impact large corporations have on society and the environment. Because they exist for one purpose and one purpose only, to grow and make more money, they have the incentive to take drastic and destructive measures to meet that goal. This includes the usual cost externalization he talked about in his second point, but taken to another level. The worldâ€™s largest corporations have grown so large that they supersede any level of government and so have gained power over governments. They can avoid countries that have costly environmental protection laws and play countries and governments against each other when planning to locate factories and offices. They have so much money and the stakes of their business are so high that they infiltrate and influence government for their benefit, and to the detriment of the environment and citizens. He argues that although this single-minded pursuit of efficiency has been used for destructive ends, that application of proper taxes and fees would channel that single mindedness for good. However, the scale of the largest corporations and their ability to operate in multiple countries means that those green taxes and fees would have to be instituted at an international level.
Overall, this book was excellent, thoughtful, provocative, and well researched. Some of it was familiar to me because Hawken gives a similar, more developed argument in Natural Capitalism. If you havenâ€™t read Natural Capitalism yet, then Ecology of Commerce would probably be even more striking. Anyone with any interest in the environment, business, economics, or social issues should read these books and find out more about what Paul Hawken is up to.
About the Author:
Paul Hawken is an environmentalist, entrepreneur, journalist, and best-selling author. At age 20, he dedicated his life to changing the relationship between business and the environment, and between human and living systems in order to create a more just and sustainable world. His work includes starting and running ecological businesses, writing and teaching about the impact of commerce upon the environment, and consulting with governments and corporations on economic development, industrial ecology, and environmental policy. (from Wikipedia)
Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things, by William McDonough
Other books by this author:
Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Movement in the World Came into Being and Why No One Saw It Coming (available May 10, 2007)