Book Review: Natural Capitalism

natcapbook.jpgNatural Capitalism was published at a poignant moment in human history. As we edged toward the new millennium, it appeared that the unintended consequences of industrialization were finally getting the spot light: the U.S., along with several other countries, was on the verge of joining the Kyoto Protocol; electric and hybrid cars had hit the market and gained popularity, and Ray Anderson of Interface Carpet became the poster child of the business case for sustainability.
There is no doubt that this monster of a book contributed significantly to the sustainability movement that was gaining huge momentum (and continues to do so today). At the time it was written, when others felt the need to be revolutionary, Natural Capitalism was evolutionary. Without leaving the capitalist system, it gives us a framework to re-organize our market-driven economy around valuing all forms of capital: natural, human, manufactured, and financial. Hawken and the Lovinses propose Natural capitalism as the means to have both a prosperous economy and thriving natural environment, while meeting all human needs.

The authors begin by asking us to imagine a utopian world where, for example, OPEC ceases to function because electric vehicle technology has surpassed the efficiency of oil production, or forest cover worldwide increases while atmospheric CO2 levels are on the decline. They go on to systematically prove that these are not mere hypotheticals, but emerging and real possibilities, and that there are available technologies ready to be implemented. The concepts are non-partisan in nature, and appeal to both business professionals and environmentalists alike.
The four primary strategies of natural capitalism are:
· Rapid Resource Productivity: by using natural resources more efficiently, one can obtain more utility from the same amount of material or product (this is the cornerstone of natural capitalism)
· Biomimicry: biologically inspired design; eliminates the concept of waste; closed-loop cycles of material use
· Service and Flow Economy: shift our perception of the value of goods from product-based to service-based
· Reinvest in Natural Capital: reinvest in stocks of natural capital in order to sustain our growth on the planet
These four strategies are covered in great detail in the first chapter, and the rest of the book explores endless and inspiring case studies that support the shift to sustainability in the business arena. Natural Capitalism is timeless; a critical read for anyone interested in having a full grasp of the impact of “business as usual” on life as we know it, as well as a full grasp on the scope of solutions available for all types of businesses.
+++ reviewer bio follows +++
Kate lives in San Francisco, and is currently earning her MBA at Presidio School of Management. Her motivation to engage sustainability in the arena of business started six years ago with books like “If Women Counted”, by Marilyn Waring and “Natural Capitalism”, by Paul Hawken, Amory & Hunter Lovins. She is particularly interested in working with the small business sector to promote sustainability and localism.

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2 responses

  1. ‘Natural Capitalism’ is indeed a timeless and essential(monster of a) book. Each of the four strategies on their own are a trove of ideas and opportunities. I felt like I had read four books by the end of it! To me, it’s like a trunk which numerous other books branch out from — e.g. ‘Mid-Course Correction’ by Anderson, ‘Biomimicry’ by Benyus, ‘The Ecology of Commerce’ by Hawken, ‘Cradle to Cradle’ and so on. Of special interest to me was the chapter about Curitiba, Brasil’s urban planning and rapid development. Cheers,

  2. The idea that we can maintain and even extend to the developing world our lavish standard of living by simply re-designing the way products are made is inherently flawed. While the anecotal projects cited in the book are noteworthy, try extending such good practices to industries like steel production, cement manufacturing, surface mining, industrial chemicals, biotechnology…the list goes on and on.
    The real problem is the embrace of a system hell-bent on WEALTH CREATION, individualism and perpetual growth on a planet with finite resources. Even if every tenant of the philosphy of natural capitalism were fully implemented, the economic growth would eventually overcome any incremental efficiencies per unit of growth. After all, the sky cares not about efficiency, but simply the aggregate amount of CO2 in the atmosphere. The forests care not how many homes are build more efficiently with less wood per dwelling, but for the number of trees still standing and the services the complexity of natural systems provide. Until we acknowledge the sickness inherent to the system itself (which is highly unlikely) we will simply delay the inevitable collapse of natural systems by a decade or two, leaving a world in shambles for subsequent generations to inhabit. Gee, thanks Paul, Amory and Hunter!

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