Book Review

Natural Capitalism, (1999, New York, NY: Little, Brown and Co.).
Written by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins

Reviewed  by: Theodore Ludwick, December 2007

Natural Capitalism tells the story of potential: the way the world is now and the way it could be, if human beings have the foresight, intelligence, and will to change.  The book is about optimism and opportunity in the face of growing environmental, social, and technological challenges.  These challenges are explored through a series of chapters that focus on the business opportunities present in key sectors of society: transportation and neighborhood planning, manufacturing, construction, the service model economy, agriculture, water, and climate.  Each chapter utilizes statistics, anecdotal evidence, case studies and thought exercises to reach similar conclusions: 20th century industrial capitalism has achieved enormous gains, but those gains are not sustainable.  The next evolution is natural capitalism, in which human and natural capital resources are fully valued, nurtured, and integrated into society’s actions.

There are three key concepts that tie the sections of the book together.  The first is the importance of a broad, systematic approach to problem solving: looking at issues as they relate to the parts around them rather than in isolation.  In this way, homelessness is not solved simply by building a home, but rather by providing the individual with the context to positively participate in society, which will then earn them the means to provide shelter for themselves.  The second key concept is an emphasis on resource efficiency: getting more from a given resource rather than simply producing more resources.  This is particularly important in relation to energy and water issues, where it is often more effective (from both a cost- and environmental- standpoint) to reduce consumption rather than to expand resource production. The third concept is the importance of combining forcing mechanisms that create the impetus for change (for example, raised prices on water usage) with education and alternatives that then give options for people to modify their behavior.  While each piece is useful in and of itself, providing both the motivation and the information to act empowers people to effect positive change.

The book concludes with a detailed examination of Curitiba, a Brazilian city that grew in population from 300,000 in 1950 to 2.1 million in 1990.   In 1980, the city’s per-capita GDP was only ten percent above the Brazilian average, but in 1996 it was sixty-five percent higher. As of 1990, the city posted impressive statistics (all achieved on a per-capita GDP of $7,827—27% of America’s):
-99% of the city’s populace did not want to live anywhere else
-95% literacy rate
-96% had basic vaccinations
-99.5% of households had drinking water and electricity
-98% had trash collection
-83% of the populace had at least a high school education
-75% of households were owner-occupied
-One-third the national poverty rate
-72-year life expectancy

These numbers were achieved through the consistent inclusion and empowerment of the populace in addressing social and environmental issues: recycling and litter programs that hired slum dwellers and paid them in food; land and building material grants to migrants that gave them a stake in the prosperity of the city; environmental education and training to integrate children into the protection and upkeep of the city.

The characteristic, however, that stands out most in the Curitiba case is that the Curitibans have pride in their city—many of the measures succeed because people want them to be successful.  To cite just one example  (education outreach to slum dwellers) both the providers of services and the recipients seem willing to meet in the middle, which creates a relationship of trust and dignity.  That feeling permeates the study, and can be almost comical at times: “when gangs initially tore up flower beds at the new Botanical Garden, interpreting their vandalism not as a venting of hostility but as a cry for help led to hiring them as assistant gardeners.”  Comical, except those actions are part of the framework that resulted in the impressive statistics stated in the paragraph above. The Curitiba study is useful not so much in that it provides a case that can be replicated everywhere, but that it is physical proof of what can be accomplished when people are willing to think outside the boundaries of traditional approaches and integrate systemic, sustainable, capital enhancing solutions.

The Strengths
Natural Capitalism does a good job of building the case and motivation for change.  The ideas laid out in the book are not conceptually hard to understand, nor are they implausible; in fact, much of the strength of the vision lies in the simplicity of the solutions.  As the authors state in their final chapter,

…the prospect of an economic system based on increasing the productivity with which we use natural capital, eliminating the concept of waste, and reinvesting in the earth’s living systems and its people is so upbeat that it calls into question its economic viability. To answer that question, just reverse it and ask: How is it that we have created an economic system that tells us it is cheaper to destroy the earth and exhaust its people than to nurture them both?

It is that simple questioning and optimism that are Natural Capitalism’s greatest strength.  If the book were a self-righteous denunciation of the current industrial system, it would be easy to have a knee-jerk dismissal of the examples and principles that it advocates.  But that’s not what happens.  Instead, the book leads the reader to re-evaluate many of the actions that we take for granted as simply being the way things are: aren’t wider streets safer?  Perhaps not, because they encourage both faster driving and more time spent in cars.  What if, when faced with the idea of traffic safety, society looked at ways to reduce the amount of driving that citizens had to do, such that we could take public transportation and walk to our destinations?  It is through such examples that the reader is left with a feeling of power and hope: the changes really are that simple, the drivers really are that real… the potential for change can be realized.

The Weaknesses
Perhaps in an attempt to remain optimistic (or to keep the book from doubling in page length), the authors often skip over significant issues in the actual implementation of their paradigm shifts.  They often seem to imply a world starting from scratch, one in which a shift to hyper car production does not involve corporations writing off huge investments, or one in which existing communities can be easily reconfigured around new design concepts.

The authors also seem to assume a society of smooth transitions, one in which more efficient technologies automatically gain market share, entrenched interests lose out to reason, and displaced workers from industry transformations easily find new roles in society.  While the reader wants to believe in that vision, it is often easy to point to cases of non-adoption (the authors predicted widespread adoption of fuel cells by 2000-2001, and the increasing traction of hyper-cars, neither of which have occurred).  Though they would be wrong to do so, the skeptical reader can use those failed predictions to undermine the entire argument of the book.

Finally, the book does not address the issues surrounding politics and legislation: lobbying, policy formation etc.  Many of the issues in the book hinge on effective policy, be that via the incorporation of externalities, the elimination or introduction of subsidies, or the definition of a carbon-trading framework.  Without those definitions, many of the sweeping societal changes become much harder to accomplish.  However, it is important to point out that an equal number of the examples described in the book were successful without being dependent on legislation—individuals acting upon new ideas because they make business sense.  In many of those examples, policy can help define the issue, but, because the challenges are real, proactive practices will be rewarded.

These weaknesses, however, are also part of the books strength.  It is idealistic.  It challenges the reader not to think only about the worst-case scenario, but also about the best case, the world and society that we would ideally create.  Further, it backs that idealism up with enough statistics, anecdotes and real world examples to show that, while it will take a tremendous amount of effort, leadership, and probably some luck, that ideal vision is both possible and attainable.

Who should read this book
Natural Capitalism should be read by anyone looking to utilize business to address environmental and social issues.  While it does provide specific examples, its greatest asset is the mental framework that it espouses: a systems wide approach to solving current environmental and social problems in ways that generate profit and lasting stability.  Natural Capitalism is not a “how to save the world” manual, nor does it claim to be.  Rather, it defines a belief structure, backed up by real-world anecdotes and case studies, that has the potential to change the way

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