Adam's Reviews > Natural Capitalism

Natural Capitalism by Paul Hawken
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's review
Apr 13, 2012

liked it
bookshelves: abandoned, dystopia-utopia, mudd-library, non-fiction, school-reading, the-problem-of-civilization
Recommended to Adam by: Jeff Clark
Read on April 13, 2012

I just skimmed this book to find the essence of its argument and pick out excerpts for my Jensen tutorial. The main thesis is that natural capitalism can do things better for people and the planet in the long term. The premises of natural capitalism are of course intuitive and appealing. However, the book ends up being a bundle of great individual ideas masquerading as a plan for saving the whole economy/society. The ideas on offer could and would be picked up by individual entrepeneurs and make them a bundle of money while saving the planet and helping people. Hawken and the Lovins seem to believe that that's all they can or need to do (which is fine, if that's what they want to accomplish).

Yet their unbridled optimism pushes them to go further and assert that business owners who don't adopt natural capitalist principles will be left behind by the new wave; that the economy will simply shift on its own in the same way that it shifted from coal to oil or into industrial capitalism. I looked through the whole book and came to the conclusion that this is simply an article of faith: they never discuss its likelihood or any evidence about the question. Since natural capitalism is predicated on system-level design and shifts in high-level political policy, this is a startling omission. Individual business owners might make some money using resources more efficiently, but natural capitalism won't come about unless systemic change occurs, and this book offers nothing but faith and optimism about that. They don't even exhort readers to lobby for those system level changes – they seem to think that would be a waste of time, since it's inevitable anyway.

That said, the evidence they marshal is rich and great, and they really do have some great specific concepts and ideas in here. It's just framed in a really idiosyncratic way that makes it seem like more than it can really be.

It was also interesting to me that Hawken just treats the course of history as this series of brilliant innovations that solve engineering and distribution problems, coupled with all these bumbling errors and clumsinesses that cause all these mishaps and make the whole thing fail to achieve its real potential and true goal (which he asserts is to make everyone happier or whatever). What's interesting is that he doesn't ignore social inequality and racism and these issues - he clearly cares about them deeply. But he doesn't ever engage in a class analysis or something that would show that these problems are caused by some to benefit themselves at expense of others. This precludes him from addressing the fact that those who benefit might try to influence the growth of natural capitalism away from the social and environmental values he sees it creating towards a more or less sustainable version of today's social order.

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