Willy's Reviews > Natural Capitalism

Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken
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May 31, 08

bookshelves: environment, non-fiction
Read in May, 2008

I chose this book for my reading list this quarter because it is one of the most widely discussed books on the transition from our current unsustainable economic system to a more sustainable system. Natural Capitalism is listed amongst the books on Evergreen’s sustainability webpage, so I thought it was important in my path to understanding the various aspects of sustainability. It was then so unsatisfying then that this book is so significantly flawed. The author’s believe that the transition will be awesome and profitable that, by golly, everyone and every business will want to help out. The author’s maintain a position that the market will drive this transition to a sustainable market without unwanted and unwarranted government intervention.
Their preface states: 'We believe the world stands at the threshold of basic changes in the conditions of business. Companies that ignore the message of natural capitalism do so at their peril....(We) show that the move towards radical resource productivity and natural capitalism is beginning to feel inevitable rather than merely possible.... If at times we lean more to enthusiasm than reportage, it is because we can see the tremendous array of possibilities for healing the most intransigent problems of our time'.
According to the authors, David Brower, the American environmentalist and mountaineer, once proposed a user's manual for those buying an Earth. 'This planet has been delivered in perfect working condition, and cannot be replaced. Please don't adjust the thermostat or the atmosphere'. The author’s do recognize the need for change from the unsustainable course we are on but believe that the answers lie in technology, if we but adopt what the authors call 'Natural Capitalism' - 'the next industrial revolution'. The question is do the author’s really believe in this position or are they cajoling us to act. They call their approach natural capitalism because it's based on the principle that business can be good for the environment. If natural capitalism continues to blossom, so much money and resources will be saved that societies will be able to focus on issues such as housing.
Admittedly this is an informative, visionary and thought provoking book that I would recommend. It is their faith in a technological solution to what I have come to view as a cultural and political problem, that I take issue with. They do have a plan that seems en face, very plausible and hopeful. It seems that they really do believe that the carrot approach will work without needing a stick at all. Natural Capitalism is a assemblage of successful entrepreneurial anecdotes of how more service can be gotten from less materials and less energy. In Natural Capitalism the authors expand the range of anecdotal information, gloss them with science, and extrapolate diminishing dollar costs into the distant future. In this rosy future there will be so much energy saving that oil will scarcely sell for $5 a barrel. To arrive at this sate of affairs they make some assumptions cast with an incredible reach. One example is asking the reader to interpret generalities such as '92% less energy use ' or '100% saving', or the claim that electricity from photo-voltaic devices is of 'higher quality' (p97), or that 'combined cycle gas turbines are not subject to Carnot's Law', or phrases like 'useful work extracted ... to more than 90% of the original fuel energy'? I asked someone more familiar with energy consumption statistics and she scoffed that the author was forgetting the laws of thermodynamics. Since Hawken is a physicist, this seems problematic.
They surmise that is waste was eliminated we would have a raw energy surplus. Those of us that have kept track of our time and then made (or tried to make) adjustments to wast less time, recognize the difficulties in eliminating wast. The technique is simple, recent technological developments are reported which can cut the energy and materials needs by half. Then new ways of doing things can cut the need for that energy by a further half (half of a half equals a quarter), then, since we have cut some inputs to a quarter, other economies follow. This is a very dangerous argument. Here is a quote from page 244:
"Over the next half-century, even if global economy expanded by 6 - 8 fold, the rate of releasing carbon by burning of fossil fuels could simultaneously decrease by anywhere from one third to nine-tenths below current rate. This is because of the multiplicative effect of four kinds of actions. Switching to natural gas and renewable energy, as fast as Shell Oil planners consider likely, would cut by one half to three quarters the fossil-fuel.”
The allure of this argument is clear- we don’t have to change we just have to think smarter and develop more and better technologies. Like Lomborg in The Skeptical Environmentalist they use a process that Daniel Sarewitz criticizes as attempting to “support a view where appropriate action is determined by scientific inquiry.” Sarewitz explores the problems inherent with using science to articulate, define and solve environmental controversies requires scientists to focus on reducing risks from uncertainty. Hawins and the Lovin’s blithely reduce these risks by painting a very rosy future. Interestingly enough, in looking at the book, written nearly a decade ago, I did find the book outdated, particularly with regard to automobile technology.
In viewing this book from another angle, I have another concern. In economics, the theory goes that when you get more from less, you take advantage of the slack, this is know as the rebound effect. Common sense tells me that human greed with take advantage of this rebound effect and capture any possible savings.
The many happy solutions to energy problems did not convince me of their solution paradigm; in fact, I found much of the book redundant. I absolutely appreciate the author’s for their optimism; I hope that corporations, business and consumers drive the revolution for change. I allow for the possibility that change can come from a utopian and peaceful adoption of appropriate technologies. I can understand that many students of environmentalism would hold this book with reverence and hope. Perhaps it is too cynical of me but I maintain that the revolution for a sustainable planet will only occur when we reduce what we want to what we need. And even then, it might be too little-too late.
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