on April 22, 2003
When I first tried to read this book, I didn't even get past the first chapter. But when I picked it up again almost a year later, I absorbed it like a sponge. Even when I interviewed the president of a sustainable business for my website, SustainableWays.com, I found that the same thing happened to him. The fact of the matter is, this is an excellent book, but it's also somewhat of a pragmatic call to arms. It wasn't till I'd explored and developed my ideas about the environment and resolved to do something about it that I could fully appreciate this book. For someone who's still exploring their position on these issues, Paul Hawken's prescriptions for action will probably seem irrelevant and premature. But if your ideas are ripe and you're ready to put them to work, The Ecology of Commerce is an invaluable resource.
Before I read this book, I used to think that business and the environment were inherently at odds. But then I realized that this doesn't have to be the case. According to Hawken, the problem lies in our economic system's design, and no amount of management or programs is going to change that. In order to make things better, we're going to have to rethink our economic structure, and in that possibility is where Mr. Hawken finds hope. As he so eloquently put it:
"To create an enduring society, we will need a system of commerce and production where each and every act is inherently sustainable and restorative...Just as every action in an industrial society leads to environmental degradation, regardless of intention, we must design a system where the opposite is true, where doing good is like falling off a log, where the natural, everyday acts of work and life accumulate into a better world as a matter of course, not as a matter of conscious altruism." (Hawken, p. xiv)
The Ecology of Commerce is dedicated to envisioning such a system, and discussing how we can get from here to there. The restorative economy contemplated by Hawken may seem like a long shot, but he demonstrates that it IS possible because his approach is to work WITH natural processes, not against them. That not only includes those processes existing in ecosystems, but also the ones present in ourselves, like our unique ability to innovate. You see, what makes these ideas inspiringly hopeful, and what I love most about this book, is the author's willingness not just to acknowledge the way things really are, but also to use them to our advantage. For example, he's smart enough to know that any system, program, or law that asks people to sacrifice happiness, comfort, or convenience ISN'T sustainable because ultimately, it just won't work. "Humans want to flourish and prosper," he explains, "and they will eventually reject any system of conservation that interferes with these desires...[A sustainable society] will only come about through the accumulated effects of daily acts of billions of eager participants" (Hawken, p. xv).
This is the kind of book I'd encourage you to buy if you are even remotely concerned about the state of our environment, which is intimately tangled with our own. On a personal level, it's one of the most motivating books I've ever read--in fact, its concepts form the foundation for my website, SustainableWays.com. My copy is now riddled with highlighter marks, astericks, and dog ears. It's just one of those books you come back to again and again and again, every time learning something new.
This is easily one of the top ten books on the pragmatic reality of what Herman Daly calls "ecological economics" (see my list of Environmental Security).
The author excels at painting a holistic view of the realities that are not being addressed by the media or by scholars in anything other than piecemeal fashion.
The bottom line: what we are doing now in the face of accelerating decay (changes and losses that used to take 10,000 years now take three years) is the equivalent of "trying to bail out the Titanic with teaspoons." On page 21-22 the author states that we are using 10,000 days of energy creation every day, or 27 years of energy each day.
This is a practical book. In brief, we can monetize the costs of the decay, we can show people the *real* cost of each product and in this way inspire both boycotts (of wasteful products) and boycotts (Jim Turner's term) of solar energy and long-lasting repairable products.
The author appears to be both pro-business and very wise in seeing that the cannot save the environment by destroying business, but rather must save business so it can save the environment--we must help business understand that doing more with less is what they must do to survive.
The author includes a recurring theme from the literature, that diversity is an option generator, and hence one of the most precious aspects of life on Earth. Diversity is the ultimate source of wealth, and anything that reduces diversity is impoverishing the planet and mankind. In a magnificent turn of phrase, the author states that the loss of a species is the loss of a biological library.
At its root this book is about missing information, needed information, about the urgency of making all inputs, processes, and outputs from corporate production transparent. He quotes Vaclav Havel on page 54 as saying that this is an information challenge, a challenge of too much (or too little) information and not enough actionable intelligence supporting sustainable sensible outcomes.
This is also a financial problem that has not been monetized properly. Although E. O. Wilson takes a crack at the strategic or gross costs of saving the Earth in his book "The Future of Life," this author looks at the retail level and describes the waste inherent in our military system. He reminds me of Derek Leebaert's "The 50 Year Wound" when he notes that the US and the USSR spent over 10 trillion dollars on the Cold War, enough to completely re-make the entire infrastructure of Earth, including all schools. As I myself like to note, for the half trillion we have spent on the war against Iraq, we could instead have given a free $50 cell phone to each of the 5 billion poor people, and changed the planet forever.
The author is compelling in pointing out that conservation alone would save more energy than drilling in Alaska, and that President Reagan not rolled back gasoline mileage expectations, we would today be free of any dependency of Middle Eastern energy.
A good part of the book focuses on the need to eliminate waste, what some call "cradle to cradle" (waste must be fully absorbed of other pieces of the system), and where waste cannot be eliminated, to include the cost of its storage in the price of the product, requiring producers of products to take them back (e.g. refrigerators).
I am inspired by the author's view that not only is technology NOT a complete solution, but that full employment is possible if we REDUCE our excessive acquisition of technology that not only replaces humans, but also consumes energy and produces pollution.
This is an extraordinarily clever and useful book that fully integrates discussions of feedback loops and especially of financial and legal feedback loops that are now misrepresentative. One example the author uses is the GATT demand that there be no discrimination of "like" products based on methods of production. This is code for blocking labor laws by imposing high tariffs on products made by slaves or under sweatshop conditions.
I completely agree with one of the author's most important opinions, that we must end corporate claims of "personality" and the rights of a person. This has had two pernicious effects, the first allowing corporations to dominate the public debate; and the second of exempting managers from legal liability and transparency.
The book emphasized the restoration of human and natural capital as vital foundations for evaluating investments--this would dramatically reduce the financial criteria's dominance and emphasis on short-term returns that do not reflect the cost of natural resources and lost jobs to the future and the community.
Distressingly but importantly, the author notes that a major component of the cost of goods is in advertising, where corporations spend more on advertising than the government spends on all secondary schools, and on packaging, much of which is designed to last vastly longer than the contents.
I especially liked the author's suggestion that insurance costs be included in the price of homes and of gasoline, essentially making universal insurance affordable for all. I also liked his idea for indexing Nations by their sustainability, i.e. Most Sustainable Nation (MSN).
The author ends with a restatement of his three fundamentals:
1) End waste
2) Shift to renewable power (solar and hydro)
3) Create accountability and feedback
Although this book was published in 1993 and the author has now published "Natural Capital" (next on my reading list), I did not discover it until recently and am now very enthused about the author's newest project, the World Index of Social and Environmental Responsibility (WISER). I am certain in my heart that a bottom up Earth Intelligence Network is forming, and that end-user voluntary labor--social networks--are going to place enough information in the hands of individuals to restore participatory democracy and moral communal capitalism. This author is extraordinary in his understanding and his ability to teach adults about reality and the future.
on June 28, 1999
It seems some are skeptical of Hawken's book because his ideas are too radical and no one will actually adopt his idealist suggestions. But this is the first book I've read that has made concrete suggestions that please both the business world and the environment. Yes it's radical, but the world is soon going to require radical solutions. I loved this book and admire his ingenuity.
on March 27, 2006
Our planet is threatened on the one side by pressures of overpopulation and on the other side by pressures of nearly exhausted natural resources and pollution that are threatening to make our world uninhabitable. Paul Hawken does a masterful job of explaining the problems we face and suggesting creative solutions to these problems.
Hawken points out that our pursuit of material gain has grown to be such an accepted goal and one that has been so successful for the industrial nations of the world, that it is difficult for most people to realize that the western standard of living cannot be sustained much longer.
Hawken suggests that it is entirely possible to create companies that are profitable but do not destroy the environment - either directly or indirectly. The problem in most Western countries is the limited vision of environmental proponents. They are doing a good job addressing recycling and reducing pollution, but are missing crucial broader principles.
Hawken recommends taxation on pollution. Hawken cautions that the public must stand vigilant guard on issues of protecting the environment, because our government is run by those who have vested interests in corporate profits rather than in the general good of all.
This is an outstanding book about healing our environment, the conduct of business, governmental management of both - and most importantly, about healing our indifference to the crises of planetary pollution and our limited healing of these problems. This book is very highly recommended - despite its publication a dozen years ago.
on February 1, 1998
Don't get me wrong: I agree with the vast bulk of this book. Yet Paul Hawken's attempt at a new vision of corporate behavior and business ethics is more mirage than masterpiece.
I have two main criticisms of this otherwise eloquent book. First, although Hawken bravely tries to bridge the ideological gap between his two different audiences (the rapacious businessman and economically-uninformed environmentalist), he ultimately has to pull punches on both fronts; this is okay for political compromise, but not for building vision or revealing "inherent" truthes (which seem to be the book's aims). Second, and more important, the book has almost no helpful detail, either for policy or for corporate behavior. Perhaps I'm really just complaining that the book is too short, but a call for Pigovian taxes and a vague yet comprehensive overhall of business philosophy does not a vision make.
But read the book anyway, since there's little else out there in this vein (though I recommend When Corporations Rule the World, David Korten). ;-)
on August 22, 2002
In the current economy we seek to minimize economic costs and maximize profits while ignoring most everything else. Virtually no aspect of the economic equation factors in the true cost of anything - the toll it takes on the environment, the massive amount of energy consumed to maintain our lifestyle, or the biodiversity of the planet, which is continually diminished.
The Ecology of Commerce addresses these issues from both business and environmental points of view. It recognizes there will be immediate, sometimes substantial, economic costs during the transition to a sustainable economy. The point is made, however, that should the strain on the planets resources exceed carrying capacity, the consequences would be devastating.
We don't, and probably can't know the precise limit till we get there. At that point things are likely to get ugly. Really ugly. Paul correctly argues that we need to move toward a sustainable economy that more closely mirrors biological systems. He suggests production processes that begin with the end of the useful life of a product in mind so that waste can easily and continually be recycled into new products.
The book seems to be overly optimistic that business will see the light and move to adopt sustainable business practices. While some are moving in this direction, they are not moving fast enough. As the most powerful nation in the world and the one that uses far more resources than any other in the world, the US must lead the way. Some companies are taking positive steps, but efforts need to increase dramatically.
The Ecology of Commerce is a good start. It lays out the direction in which we need to move. The vision is an economy in which the full economic AND environmental costs are factored into the cost of goods and services. This book lays out where we need to go; now we just need to figure out how to make a smooth transition to get there.
on June 28, 1996
The Ecology of Commerce is not easy reading, not because Hawken's prose or style is difficult, but because it is difficult to remain optomistic or hopeful in the face of the overwhelming case made by him about the certainty with which our current system of business is doomed to destroy us. The changes he proposes are both incredibly simple, yet incredibly unlikely to be implemented or even paid attention to in the next twenty to thirty years. It will take virtual eco-collapse in the Industrialized nations before the wise words of Hawken and his colleagues will be heeded. And of course it will be much, much too late. Should you have the stomach for it however, you will find the Ecology of Commerce an extremely well crafted argument for some simple logical principles that could save the life that we love and actually improve business and our standard of living in the process
on June 3, 2005
The author, co-founder of Smith and Hawken and several other ventures, brings to light the inevitable conflict between "business as usual" and environmental and social sustainability. After this analysis, he posits that things needn't be so gloomy; rather, with proper encouragement from government and a committed citizenry, business can become a force for positive change. My two cent critique is that the author's solution counts on drivers external to business and does not explain what steps would lead to creating these drivers. In other words, we can easily picture how things could be better in a world run by the likes of Paul Hawken but how do we get there from here? I found the book a worthwhile read, inspirational and fact-filled.
on August 1, 2001
Written in 1994 Paul Hawken describes some visionary changes to the way we measure and conduct commerce. His core philosophy revolves around sustainability. What is most important is not that we stop taking from the environment, but that we do not take more than we can replace. Hawken also asks for a reduction of the levels at which we consume, and for each of us to seriously look at the products we consume. We as consumers say the most with our dollar. Please spend it wisely.
"Each person in America produces twice his weight per day in household, hazardous, and industrial waste, and an additional half ton per week when gaseous wastes such as carbon dioxide are included. An ecological model of commerce would imply that all waste have value to other modes of production so that everything is either reclaimed, reused, or recycled." P 12
"The act of restoration involves recognizing that something has been lost, used up, or removed. To restore is to bring back or return something to its original state. This can involve rebuilding, repairing, removing corruptions and mistakes; it allows for the idea of bringing a person or place or group back to health and equilibrium; it can mean returning something that originally belonged to someone else, whether it is returning lands taken from other cultures, or dignity stolen by bureaucratic regulations and offialdom; it encompasses the idea of reviving and rejuvinating connections, relationships, and responsibilities. Honor can even be retrieved. It can be as simple as replacing something that has aged and died away. Above all it means to heal, to make whole, to reweave broken strands and threads into a social fabric that honors and nurtures life around it. To restore is to make something well again. It is mending the world. People have to believe that there will be a future in order to look forward." P 59
"The purpose of all these suggestions is to end industrialism as we know it. Industrialism is over, in fact; the question remains how we organize the economy that follows. Either it falls in on us, and crushes civilization, or we reconstruct it and uleash the imagination of a more sustainable future into our daily acts of commerce."..."It also means doing something now. It means trying things that may fail. It means shaking up city hall. It means electing people who actually want to make things work, who can imagine a better world. It means writing to companies and telling them what you think. It means never forgetting that the cash register is the daily voting booth in democratic capitalism. We don't have to buy products that destroy or from companies that harm or are unresponsive. If we want businesses to express a full range of social and environmental values in their daily commercial activities, then we, too, will have to express a full range of values and respond to the presence or absence of principle by how we act in the marketplace. It may mean being obstreperous or conciliatory, and knowing when to be which. To go back to our nature can also mean becoming 'sour, astringent, crabbed. Unfertilized, unpruned, tough, resilient, and every spring shockingly beautiful in bloom.' It may mean a meticulous reinventorying of our lives, and our country. It wil mean, in the words of Vaclav Havel, trying harder to 'understand than to explain. The way forward is not in the mere construction of universal systemic solutions to be applied to reality from the outside; it is also in seeking to get to the heart of reality from the inside, through personal experience.' It is time to clean out the closet, both conceptually and materially, and to reexaming our priorities and beliefs. We can't wait until the guardians wake up, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to wake them up. We cannot wait for business to set a new course. We have to educate our businesses, and, wherever appropriate, let them educate us." PP 212-213
on February 28, 2006
What a fascinating book! There are so many concepts to ponder and concrete ideas on how to turn the economy toward sustainability. The heart breaking things is these ideas have not been put into practice, and for 13 years the US and world economies have headed fast in the other direction. Paul Hawken has not given up though, he is working with Amory Lovins of The Rocky Mountain Institute, one project at a time, doing the work, building a base of change.
"But forgotten is the true meaning and purpose of politics, to create and sustain the conditions for community life. Politics was not intended to be the province of money, but the arena wherein individuals could collectively discuss and manage those elements of life that affected the whole of their town,city,or state."
"The main function of green taxes is not to raise revenue for the government but to provide participants in the marketplace with accurate information about cost. They achieve both goals, of course, but their underlying purpose is to undo the distortions created by the relentless pursuit of lower prices, and to reveal true costs to purchasers."
"I cast my vote with those who feel humans take the shape of their culture and that shifts in culture can occur in rare moments with remarkable speed and vigor."
Replace nationally and internationally produced items with products created locally and regionally.
Take responsibility for the effects they have on the natural world.
Do not require exotic sources of capital in order to develop and grow.
Engage in production processes that are human, worthy, dignified, and intrinsically satisfying.
Create objects of durability and long-term utility whose ultimate use or disposition will not be harmful to future generations.
Change consumers to customers through education."