Yes Magazine Book Reviews: Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawke

Natural Capitalism:
Creating the Next Industrial Revolution


by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and L. Hunter Lovins
Little, Brown, & Company 1999
396 pages, $26.95

For nearly a quarter century, Amory Lovins has been upending the received wisdom on how to supply energy, build houses, make stuff, and move people around, all with a good engineer's eye for reducing waste, costs, and hazards - particularly to the environment. Along the way, he and his wife Hunter have garnered a passel of awards and built a research center high in the mountains of Colorado where bananas grow (in a high-tech, high-altitude greenhouse) and solutions to the world's most discomfiting dilemmas issue forth with impressive regularity. There is an Edisonian variety and ebullience to their output, but without the great inventor's obsession with profits. Instead, the Lovins' are giving it all away from their non-profit Rocky Mountain Institute, including a design for a gas-powered and electric "hybrid" automobile that promises nearly 100 miles per gallon of gasoline and is just now rolling off the assembly lines of Toyota and some of its rivals in the auto industry.

To the west, in the San Francisco Bay area, Paul Hawken has passed the last 25 years growing a couple of businesses, after which he wrote a best-seller and produced a television show before turning full-time to developing his critique of conventional economics. Along the way, he started the US branch of a Swedish non-profit called The Natural Step which promotes a planet-preserving business philosophy. His previous book, The Ecology of Commerce, introduced to an enthusiastic lay audience the most egregious hazards of currently existing capitalism and some market-friendly solutions to the environmental crisis.

It seems natural, at long last, that the interests of these polymaths would converge on industrial ecology, a pursuit that, of all the current inquiries into our environmental and social crisis, is the most likely to offer genuine relief from the worst of our excesses. Industrial ecology is the science of examining how we might make our productive activities - growing food, making things, providing energy, transporting people - less destructive to the environment. Their book, Natural Capitalism, firmly establishes Mr. Hawken and the Lovins' as the leading synthesizers and popularizers of the Industrial Ecology (IE) movement.

Partly front-line reportage, partly a plea for attention, and partly a firm woodshed scolding, Natural Capitalism strings together every extant IE success story in a rollicking 400-page tour of the discipline. The authors provide a solid case that there is money, and environmental gains, to be harvested by subjecting current practices to an analysis that puts ecological health ahead of the health of the bottom line.

Natural Capitalism is first off a fun and surprising read. Where else can one find out that the "standby" mode of the countless electric devices, such as televisions, that use remote controls is responsible for millions of kilowatts of wasted energy each year? Or that suburban neighborhood roads are overly wide - and thus inhibit thoughtful and efficient use of space - because of some bureaucracy's Cold War concern about rubble removal? Or that just 1 percent of the energy generated by an automobile engine is devoted to moving the driver?

The book details the problems and their solutions, pausing on occasion to peer magisterially over its super-lightweight carbon-fiber spectacles to wonder why in heaven's name the world has not rolled up its sleeves and adopted the IE worldview whole cloth. Since finishing the book, I am unable to look at any manufactured product - a truck on the highway; the flimsy, single-pane, wooden windows in my living room; the shiny aluminum poles that commuters grip on a lurching subway - without wondering what Earth-friendly changes a good industrial ecologist could suggest.

The friendly drubbing is certainly warranted, particularly for a US audience. In much of Northern Europe, the key sub-disciplines of industrial ecology, such as life-cycle analysis (the analysis of a product's environmental impact from "cradle to grave") and tax shifting (moving taxes from social goods like employment to "bads" such as resource consumption, waste, and pollution) are taken seriously. Austria, for one, is looking at ways to reduce the volume of natural resources consumed nationally by a factor of 10. And Germany has begun to change its tax structure to account for environmental concerns. In the US, where corporate interests prevail and each American uses up roughly her body weight in natural resources daily, industrial ecology is an academic interest at best, save in a few pioneering companies.

As a call to arms, the book excels. As a comprehensive analysis, it falls short. The sunny tone and Panglossian vision, while perhaps necessary to alert the complacent reader, are in many ways the book's greatest flaws. The relentless good cheer seems forced, as if the authors were trying to exorcise the ghost of Jimmy Carter's cardigan-clad presidency from their keyboards. As described here, Hawken-and-Lovins-land is malaise-free, with no politically uncomfortable belt-tightening required. Issues of power and privilege are irrelevant, they seem to be saying, as long as someone with a white lab coat is watching inputs and outflows.

In their enthusiasm to convince, the authors deliver not only an engineering marvel but an entire aesthetic. No lightweight flywheel or triple-paned window escapes being characterized as more attractive, easier to use, and superior in every way to its predecessor. An insulated house offers "a cozy feeling of security from the harshness of the outside world." The sell is so relentlessly on in these pages that it becomes embarrassing, as when an examination of the various savings generated by relocating pipes and machinery on the shop floor is paired, with barely a pause for breath, to the pop notion of "psychological flow" as defined by best-selling author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. "Lean production makes people happier!" the authors, say.

As a result of all this armwaving, it is easy to misinterpret Natural Capitalism as an apologia for free market excess. Already the authors have picked up an unlikely ally in Bill Clinton, who hawks their book as a sugar coating for the bitter pill of his free trade agenda. In fact, the authors do speak to the distortions that result from capital at work - only to be drowned out by their own cheerleading. Hawken and the Lovins might have better covered their flank, and discouraged intellectual hitchhikers, by consciously ignoring power, declaring it not the province of this book, and letting the chips fall. Instead, they refer to the dilemma of power in passing, when they shouldn't have, or not at all, when perhaps they should have.

They extol the environmental benefits of selling services, such as floor covering, rather than products, such as carpet, for example. In the competitive carpet world, that certainly seems an unvarnished plus. But is the model transferable, particularly in a market dominated by one or a few niche leaders? I know that Microsoft, for one, would like nothing more than to sell software services, rather than software, so that the consumer would get a monthly bill from Seattle, like the phone bill. No more disposable CD-roms, for sure, but an unalloyed public good? I doubt it.

The authors perform a vital service. Shaking the trees on this critical subject is necessary, and the low-hanging fruit that may fall as a result will, without doubt, lighten the heavy toll human activities take on their environment. It is too bad that the authors don't trust us to appreciate an important, if partial, argument. By attempting a theory of everything, Natural Capitalism undermines the power of its central message. The main thesis, that modern life is in part an engineering problem, is a powerful one and can stand alone.

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