Monday, June 25, 2007

The Ecology of Commerce

As I flew back from a cousin's wedding in Chicago, co-spewing tons of CO2 into the atmosphere with one hundred + other AirTran passengers, I finished Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce. As I mentioned in a previous post, it is hard to believe that this book was written 14 years ago. I am also disappointed that I read it so recently. While Mr. Hawken gives into some left leaning rhetoric at times, I found the book to be fairly even-keeled. I am sure others would have a different opinion, but that's OK.

As I have learned from other books (Natural Capitalism, Cradle-to-Cradle, Eco-Economy, The Sustainability Advantage, & The Sustainable Company) like Mr. Hawken's, there are some common threads to sustainability that are not all that difficult to comprehend:
  1. Waste = Food. Taking Nature's lesson that what falls, flops, rots, splats, or is cast aside turns back into a form that can be reused completely; we need to change our relationship with resources from a linear to a cyclical one.
  2. Migrate from a carbon based economy to a hydrogen & sunshine economy. We are quickly extracting stored energy in the form of hydrocarbons that we are not capable of replacing. See thermodynamics.
  3. Get the pricing right. We need feebates, tax structures (carbon tax?), and pricing that reflects the true cost of resources and therefore encourages the preservation of resources and the long-term viability of our economy.
So we are not doing this now. It doesn't mean we can't. The biggest roadblock in the good old physical force of inertia. No one wants to change. Us, political parties, NGO leaders, unions, energy companies, the list goes on and on.

Furthermore, on page 144, Mr. Hawken provides his insight into what a sustainable business is

  1. Replaces products sourced from "away" with those sourced locally and regionally
  2. Takes responsibility for the effects they have on the commons
  3. Does not require exotic sources of capital
  4. Engages in human-scaled production processes
  5. Creates products of practical use and enduring value
  6. Changes consumers to customers

This is a list the omits many, many corporations. Perhaps in the future, businesses will progress to a smaller more local focus. This is not regression, it's progression.

There are many perceptions to change and assumptions to challenge. An example is the CNN report I saw over the weekend. The reporter, in that light-hearted "can you believe it" tone that is clearly not neutral, informed us of San Francisco's mayor banning the purchase of bottled water by city employees for environmental reasons. Water will be supplied in reusable containers (like it used to be). When the attitude of the newscaster makes a statement about the story, what's happening?

If the environment is wound and integrated into our lives, whether we (or economists) like it, how can it be ignored in our business calculations? We inherently derive all economic value from natural resources. How can we ignore that and expect to continue with the status quo?


Michael Spalding said...

For everyone that is a Paul Hawken fan, I recommend checking out his latest book, Blessed Unrest. Which is both a description of the unprecedented number of organizations and people working towards social justice and environmental restoration and a history of the intellectuals that inform their work.

I think one of the most important analogies Paul makes is between this new type of social movement and the immune system. The success of the immune system depends on the quality of its connections and the social movement's success depends on the same. Connections, rather than the strength of any individual organization or person, will set the stage for our success. And as a result of Paul's research, his staff created WiserEarth, an online tool to improve the quality of the connections between the millions of organizations and people that work in social justice, the environment and indigenous rights.

Anonymous said...


Thanks for reading, taking the time to post a comment, and sharing your knowledge. I like the immune system analogy. I'm no immunologist, but I can certainly see the similarities between a singular living organism's white blood cells working in cooperation and small pods of humans working in cooperation to restore our natural capital.

It's amazing how the internet has changed the landscape of interaction. We have access to unprecedented amounts of information. The challenge becomes filtering the data and finding what's useful. I'll be adding a link to WiserEarth.