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Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken
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Nov 13, 07

Read in November, 2007

This is a great book about natural resources, economics, and efficiency. The tone is upbeat, and a great deal of the book is storytelling of examples where things are cleverly engineered to make them astoundingly more efficient than their typical counterparts. One example: buildings engineered to need no heating/cooling systems, using things like great insulation, 'smart' windows, and shade trees to manage the temperature without conventional electrical systems. Another example: lightweight cars build mostly from carbon-fiber rather than steel that can get over 100 MPG. And lots of others, including carpet companies that recycle their carpets, better ways to make paper from wood, supply-chain improvements, etc.

The main thesis of the book, as suggested by the title, is that we need a market valuation of 'natural capital', which includes all those parts of the natural environment that provide value in the form of goods and services. Some parts of the environment (like that which gives the service of providing clean air and water, or biodiversity to mitigate risks) are more easily overlooked than others (like a forest, which has a more obvious valuation that can be assesed in terms of trees or sustainable tree-producing ability of the land). These resources are 'capital' in the economic sense, and whereas before now they have been so abundant that liquidating them for a profit was just easy money, now they are becoming depleted and such a strategy is too short-sighted. For a sustainable economic future, we need to find ways to make things we need without draining the rest of our natural capital. And so most of the book describes clever ways to do things more efficiently - consuming less, polluting less, and being an economic/marketable win with today's technology all at once. As a person concerned about the environment and someone that loves making things efficient, I loved the book, even if some of the examples were already slightly dated (1999).

A recurring side-theme that I also enjoyed is that over time it is easy for industries/practices to get caught in 'local maxima' that end up being inefficiencies/pessimizations when considered in terms of the big picture. Many of the examples in the book are so clever because they attack a problem in a new way, or challenge fundamental assumptions that are outdated but stick around due to inertia.
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