Environment & the World

Sunday, January 7, 2007

Natural Capitalism, Chp. 1: Karen’s comments

Filed under: Corporate Sustainability, Reading Group — kwolfgan @ 5:07 pm

When I start reading a new text, I usually want to know something about who wrote it, so I seek out background information on the author(s). Knowing even a little bit about their lives helps me to put what they say in context.

To get started on these missions, I am a fan of Wikipedia.org. Some of my college professors saw Wikipedia as a perfectly reasonable source; others seemed to think the site was the work of nefarious forces and should not be taken seriously. I leave it up to you to take advantage of the encyclopedia (or not): interested parties are encouraged to visit http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Hawken and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Amory_Lovins, in addition to http://www.natcapinc.com/core_hunter.htm, for background info about the authors of our chosen text. One of many tidbits of information available there: Natural Capitalism “has been referred to by several heads of state including President Bill Clinton who calls it one of the five most important books in the world today.” This makes me think we hit upon an appropriate text to discuss.

As a precursor to joining this conversation, I investigated Hawken and the Lovinses on and beyond Wikipedia because I know that their work has broken new ground and set trends within and outside of the environmental(ist) community. I have been acquainted with all three (through their writings and through media coverage of their work) for several years. My most recent interaction with the founder of Smith & Hawken garden supply company, Mr. Paul, was via projection screen: I attended the Oregon satellite of the 2006 Bioneers conference. For whatever reason, I did not expect to be thoroughly impressed by his keynote. But I was. Check it out: it’s entitled “Biology, Resistance and Restoration: Sustainability as an Infinite Game.” The audio can be purchased for the lowlow price of $1.99 on the Bioneers website; it can also be viewed for free on Hawken’s website. I highly recommend it as a complement to the proffered Wikiorientation to these authors’ lives and works.

Now that you have some of the same background information as I for this endeavor, let’s see what these guys (affectionately termed H & L by Amir and Cathy) have to say.

H & the Ls carefully define their terms in the first chapter of this book: natural capital, which includes both resources and living systems, is one of four capitals that make up a healthy economy. The others (human, financial, and manufactured) are factored into the industrial system currently in place, while natural capital is left out of the picture. In a sense, the purpose of this book is for H & the Ls to jumpstart a concerted effort to bring natural capital back into existing economies—not just as one of the four, but as the form of capital considered primary. There are no known substitutes for natural capital, they are quick to point out, and this (along with the facts that 1. valuing natural capital is difficult and 2. there is likewise no substitute for human ingenuity) make it impossible to simply correct the deficiencies in the present system by placing monetary value on natural capital. (For more on that, see earlier posts.)

The bulk of this chapter centers on the suggestion that four central strategies be pursued in order to bring about a “natural capitalist” state of affairs: radical resource productivity, biomimicry, a service and flow economy, and investing in natural capital. H & the Ls contend that some efforts in this direction are already taking place, and in the second half of this chapter give glimpses of the hoped-for future. However, perhaps the most interesting idea of the chapter comes at the transition point between the description of what is and the elaboration of what could be: there, the authors ask “what if, in the absence of a rigorous way to practice [accounting that accepts the biological realities of nature], companies started to act as if such principles were in force?” (9).

“Acting as if” is one of the fundamental techniques used in twelve-step programs; people newly in recovery are encouraged to fake it till they make it, so to speak—to behave as they have seen others (who are further into the program) behave, and in the course of doing so, acquire the habits of mind and heart that go with those behaviors. The connection between recovering from addiction and recovering from the industrial economy here is subtle. I understand the rest of the chapter as an attempt to show concerned businesspeople examples of what businesses that operate in line with natural capitalism look like so that these readers can take the plunge and start reforming the ways they do what they do. They don’t have to have all the internal pieces in place when they take that plunge, but perhaps the hope is that those pieces will start to fit after the external operations have changed.

I have not participated in a twelve-step program myself, but I have heard from several people who have been in recovery for years that the practice of “acting as if” has been of major importance for them. And if it works for people who have substance abuse problems, it can work for businesses dependent on unsustainable practices. Can’t it?


1 Comment »

  1. Hi. Thanks for posting this. Nice work here. I bumped into your blog while looking for this quote:

    Natural Capitalism “has been referred to by several heads of state including President Bill Clinton who calls it one of the five most important books in the world today.”

    I shared the book, Nat Cap, with a friend and wanted to pass Clinton’s quote on to her to motivate her to read it. I would have to agree with Bill C. on his assessment of the book. It’s an amazing piece of work. Just started reading “The Natural Advantage of Nations”. Looks very promising also.

    Keep up the good work.


    Comment by Bill Farren — Saturday, April 19, 2008 @ 10:29 am

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