The Ecology of Commerce

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Well-read readers may recognize the headline as the title of Paul Hawken's 1993 book, which I recently read for a book group started by fellow members of Sustainable Arlington, a group committed to helping the town become more ... sustainable. We met to discuss it a week ago; here are some thoughts from my notes:

First, it was amazingly current, despite having been published better than 15 years ago. It made me wonder where I was for much of that time — I'm reacting today to some of the issues he raised then as if they are new and urgent. Certainly they are urgent, but they aren't new, and I'm a prime example of why they're still problems instead of emerging solutions — I was paying attention elsewhere.

Some examples: He was talking about compact fluorescent light bulbs (1993!) and suggesting they be sold by utilities at cost (utility programs such as MassSave now gives them away in energy audits). He references superglazed windows that would leak less energy, which are in greater use but have yet to dominate our built stock. 

I had a similar reaction to some of the people he cited as he made his points: Amory Lovins, for example, was a visionary back then, and he still is, if only because such a small swath of America has picked up on the vision. I was also surprised to see Michael Braungart and a guy named Justus Englefried talking about what sounded like the Cradle to Cradle concept, and wondered where Bill McDonough was. In fact, I then wondered if Braungart and McDonough hadn't ripped off "cradle to cradle" from Hawken, until I got to the acknowledgments and saw that they all had consulted beforehand.

Another fellow I was surprised to see, and not in a good way, was Larry Summers, Obama's chief economic adviser. I've previously written about my concerns about him because of his role in promoting deregulation in the financial industries while Clinton's secretary of commerce. But Hawken's reference, which I've since realized is all over the Internet, is another chagrinner. (Not a word; oughta be.) When he was chief economist at the World Bank, he wrote a memo saying that Africa could use a few good doses of pollutin':

"Underpopulated countries in Africa are vastly underpolluted, their air quality is probably vastly inefficiently low [in pollutants] compared to Los Angeles or Mexico City."

I've read some of the extensive Web verbiage surrounding this episode, and it just doesn't wash. So what if it was leaked by a foe, or whether he was just on his way to making some other point. It's an ugly thought and there's no room for it, even if rhetorical.

The book is leaden at times, has some great flourishes, and is well worth reading, both as a historical document and as a statement of current needs. I could go on at length, but I just wanted to include two last mentions, both from near the end of the book. Hawken offers three guiding principles to live successfully by, and I could sign onto them today:

  1. Our processes become cyclical, instead of linear, so that waste becomes food for another process. (Very early in the book he says, quite cleverly: "We call ourselves consumers, but the problem is that we do not consume. Each person in America produces twice his weight per day in household, hazardous, and industrial waste.")
  2. We begin to live on current income instead of on savings. Stated like that, it's a no-brainer, but he's talking about using the energy we get every day from the sun, instead of digging up the stored energy of millennia.
  3. We create systems of feedback that support restorative ability. Broadly, this would include a price on carbon — so that price-resistant consumers (i.e. everyone) would seek to buy less of it. (As an aside, Hawken couples a carbon tax with an easing of payroll taxes — raising corporations' price for what we don't want while lowering the their price on what we do want — employment. I'd thought that was Al Gore's idea from a couple of years ago!)

My other parting thought (his thought, my parting) is this:

"By being dominant, business is bringing woe and tribulation upon itself and society. It must submit, not to any one demand, but to a process that is meditative, healing, and imaginative."

If he's right about that, then we may well be cooked. Even 15-plus years later, I don't see many companies doing that, and I can't conceive of most of them going that way anytime soon.

Author and wellness innovator Michael Prager helps smart companies
make investments in employee wellbeing that pay off in corporate success.
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