February 17, 2000
Book Review: Natural Capitalism
by Philip Johansson
Three visionaries give practical steps toward the next industrial revolution, where business is NOT
In 1993, Paul Hawken revolutionized economic theory with the publication of "The Ecology of
Commerce," a book that pioneered the concept of sustainable business practices. Now Hawken has
teamed up with Amory and L. Hunter Lovins, founders of Rocky Mountain Institute, to put that
economic theory into more practical suggestions for companies to pioneer a sustainable future.
In "Natural Capitalism," the authors
replace the world's economy to its rightful position within the larger economy of natural resources
and ecosystem services that sustain us. This is done simply by attributing value to things not
normally found on the books, from human intelligence and cultures to hydrocarbons, minerals, trees,
and microscopic fungi.
The authors firmly plant the idea that only through recognizing
this essential relationship with the earth's valuable resources can businesses, and the people they
support, continue to exist.
"We believe that the world stands on the threshold of basic
changes in the conditions of business," they write. "Companies that ignore the message of natural
capitalism do so at their peril."
According to the authors, the "next industrial
revolution" depends on the espousal of four central strategies: the conservation of resources
through more effective manufacturing processes, the reuse of materials as found in natural systems,
a change in values from quantity to quality, and investing in natural capital, or restoring and
sustaining natural resources.
But Natural Capitalism is more than a philosophical
discourse expanding on the tired old "three Rs", Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. It provides concrete
suggestions and examples that can bring this message home to business leaders, in the areas of
transportation, house construction, materials development, design, and more.
Amory and L.
Hunter Lovins bring a wealth of practical experience from Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit
resource policy center and startup incubator that advises dozens of leading firms on sustainability
issues. For example, they have pioneered the design of hybrid-electric cars, or Hypercars, that
stand to produce negligible pollution and reach fuel efficiencies of up to 200 miles per gallon.
"The automobile industry of the late twentieth century is arguably the highest expression
of the Iron Age," write the authors. Hypercars, on the other hand, would require about 92 percent
less iron and steel, one-third less aluminum, three-fifths less rubber, and up to four-fifths less
platinum, nominating them as the flagship for the "next industrial revolution."
many of the suggestions in "Natural Capitalism" may seem intuitive to some readers, such as using
natural lighting or recycling wastewater, the fundamental changes encouraged by the book will not
be easy for businesses to accomplish. But easy or not, the authors make a convincing argument that
natural capitalism may be the only thing between our future and the Earth's imminent demise.
"To make people better off requires no new theories, and needs only common sense," write the
authors. "It is based on the simple proposition that ALL capital be valued. While there may be no
'right' way to value a forest, a river, or a child, the wrong way is to give it no value at all."
Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution By Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins,
and L. Hunter Lovins. Little, Brown and Company. 1999.
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