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PRI's Environmental News Magazine

Natural Capitalism

Air Date: Week of February 11, 2000

Paul Hawken joins host Steve Curwood to talk about the new book he co-authored along with Amory and Hunter Lovins. "Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution" offers guidelines on a sustainable economy which does not waste people or resources.


CURWOOD: The word "resource" has its roots in the Latin word resurgure , which means "to return." A new book, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, describes an economic system based on this notion of returning. Its authors argue that with life itself in serious decline, we must begin to create a sustainable economy in which nothing is wasted and resources fulfill their true meaning. To learn how this theory translates into good business, I spoke with Paul Hawken, who coauthored Natural Capitalism with Amory and Hunter Lovins. Mr. Hawken says the prevailing economic system just isn't working any more.

HAWKEN: What we're saying is that in such a system, you use more and more of what we have less of, natural capital, resources in nature, to use less and less of what we have more of, which is human beings. So on the planet today, we have a billion people who cannot work or have work that's so trivial that they can't support themselves and their family. And at the same time, every living system on Earth is in decline, and the rate of decline is accelerating.

CURWOOD: This book, to put it mildly, is radical in its approach on a whole bunch of things, including even the notion of ownership and appropriate private property. There's a quote -- here it is. "In an economy of service and flow," you write, "an entire company may end up owning little or nothing but accomplishing more, while being located nowhere to sell everywhere." Can you explain to me what you mean here?

HAWKEN: What we're referring to here is an economy where you and I as so-called consumers, rather than owning a TV or a refrigerator, or a car, what we would do is we would pay for the use of it, the services that we want; from a car, its mobility and safety obviously. And that the company that we lease these services from would provide them on an ongoing basis. And were they to not work, then we wouldn't pay for it. But the company is responsible for the physical property, that is to say, the material that's in it, in perpetuity. That is, when we're done with it and it no longer works, we want to trade it in, we want a new one or whatever, it goes back to the original maker, and they have to design and manufacture this in such a way that all the pieces, all the components, all the chemicals, compounds, and metals and plastics are to be reused and reincorporated into industrial cycles. There's no landfill in this world. There's no away here. We know that. But in this system, we actually act it out.

CURWOOD: Let's talk a little bit about this notion of designing things for recycling. You say a key part of this is biomimicry?

HAWKEN: It is, and I want to sort of -- it's not just recycling, because it's really reuse. And what you see in living systems is not ownership per se, but a constant flow of nutrients, of elements, of compounds, of energy if you will, from organism to organism, in a cycle that over time actually creates life. That creates more productivity. That is what we call evolution itself. So biomimicry is about saying wait a minute, you know, we have spiders, you know, that create webs, silk, you know. They're stronger than Kevlar, and they don't use boiling vats of sulfuric acid. But they just do it with digested crickets and flies. In other words, when we start to look at nature, we can see in nature the capacity and ability to manufacture enormously sophisticated, durable, and useful materials without the side effects and without the noxious and hazardous chemicals that are produced in our present manufacturing processes.

CURWOOD: You have a wonderful quote in this book. Dr.Janine Benyus, just sort of tucked away. And it says, "We don't need to invent a sustainable world. It's been done already." That's a very strong point you make and it's not something we always understand, even if it seems pretty obvious. And I'm wondering if you could share with us an example you cite in the book, a rather amazing example. I'm thinking of the sea otter story after the Exxon Valdez spill. Can you tell us that story?

HAWKEN: Yes. A hair cutter had seen on television, of course, the rather sad and doleful pictures of sea otters covered and soaked in oil, and made an obvious connection. That is to say, their fur was soaking up oil at a tremendous rate. And of course, sea otters have a million hairs per square inch, extraordinary fur. And so he tried an experiment. He went home to his little wading pool and he put in some motor oil, and he took hair that was on the floor of his salon, and he'd gathered it and he threw it in the wading pool. And it did the same thing, it soaked up the oil. And it soaked it up immediately. And so he came up with a very brilliant and now being implemented proposal of gathering human hair from barbers and salons and beauticians around the country and then storing it in sacks for the use of oil spills, whether they be in Alaska or Santa Barbara or, you know, off the Atlantic coast. And it's a wonderful example of observing keenly what we see in nature, and then applying those techniques and, if you will, technologies to problem-solving.

CURWOOD: Paul, this book in a lot of ways is about our extraordinary wastefulness, as a country, as a planet, really on all levels from the way we get from one place to another, that we heat our homes, the way that pumps work in factories and businesses use paper. But probably the most important waste you talk about in this, is the way we waste people. The social toll. There's a passage I'd like you to read from your book that speaks to this issue. It's on page 55.

HAWKEN: (Reading) In a world where a billion workers cannot find a decent job, or any employment at all, it bears stating the obvious. We cannot by any means, monetarily, governmentally, or charitably, create a sense of value and dignity in people's lives when we are simultaneously creating a society that clearly has no need for them. If people do not feel valuable, they will act out society's dismissal of them in ways that are manifest and sometimes shocking. Robert Strickland, a pioneer in working with inner-city children, once said, "You can't teach algebra to someone who doesn't want to be here." By this he meant that his kids didn't want to be here at all, alive, anywhere on Earth. They try to speak, and when we don't hear them, they raise the level of risk in their behavior, turning to unprotected sex, drugs, or violence, until we notice. By then a crime has usually been committed, and we respond by building more jails and calling it economic growth. The true bottom line is this: a society that wastes its resources wastes its people and vice-versa, and both kinds of waste are expensive.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering here, the typical business model says that businesses trying to be more efficient often end up firing people in order to do that. So, how does saving natural resources equal meaningful work for people in that kind of environment?

HAWKEN: What we're saying is that we are downsizing. We are laying off people. Every business in the world has this incentive to use less and less people. The point of this is, how do we do it? We use more and more natural capital to do so. So it gets to this fundamental issue. We have very deeply embedded in this industrial system the incentive essentially to make people redundant, which is to say, to waste them. To send them a message, these kids that I was reading about, that in fact we have created an economy where they're not necessary and they're not needed. And so, what we're talking about is an emergent change where the incentives are going to increase the productivity of resources. And to do so, you need more and more people. If you look at the difference in capital investment versus employment, from, say, extracting oil from Alaska and combusting it, or using windpower in the Midwest, the fact is that the capital requirements are about 75 percent less, but there's three to four times more employment. We need more and more people to do that, and that's the promise of natural capitalism.

CURWOOD: I get this sense reading this book that you feel that natural capitalism is inevitable. That the world will simply have to do this. Am I right?

HAWKEN: Yes. We think it is inevitable. Having said that, it doesn't mean that its uptake won't be preceded by tremendous loss. Losses in life, losses in biological diversity, loss of climatic stability. These things are happening, and they're happening quickly. But we do think it's inevitable, because humankind in the past has always responded to the limiting factor of human development. Sooner or later, we wake up, we figure it out. It's just a matter of time before we collectively realize that the limiting factor to our well-being is life. And when we do so, we will invest in increasing life itself on Earth. The restoring of natural capital.

CURWOOD: Paul Hawken is author, along with Hunter and Amory Lovins, of the book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. Thanks for taking this time with us today.

HAWKEN: Steve, thank you very much.



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