Evolving capitalism

by Carolyn Chase


Bookstore shelves are crammed with rosy forecasts of economic opportunity and dire warnings of environmental decline - at opposite sides of the store. Here at last, is a book that reconciles these seemingly contradictory views and offers a practical strategy for solving environmental concerns while fulfilling economic opportunity. San Diegans will have a chance to hear first hand about "Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution" on Monday, November 8th. Dr. Amory Lovins, one of the three authors, will be speaking and signing books beginning at 6pm at the City of San Diego Environmental Services Department "green building," 9601 Ridgehaven Court in Kearny Mesa.

Frances Cairncross, reviewer for The Economist, described it this way: "How can ecological and economic goals be reconciled, so that the world can grow simultaneously richer and greener? That is the challenge that Paul Hawken and Amory and Hunter Lovins have courageously faced in a series of books that culminate in Natural Capitalism. In it, they seek to describe 'capitalism as if living systems mattered', an eco-friendly economy in which the world's doubling population might live-and live better-within the planet's natural constraints. Brimming with examples and anecdotes, the book will exasperate some and excite others-but leave every reader with the hope that the old battle between business and the environment can reach a peaceful and constructive conclusion."

Natural Capitalism assumes no environmental bias on the part of its readers. It doesn't preach or bash business, but instead builds a relentless case for the money-making potential of a more environmentally-friendly business model. It doesn't call for more regulations or "belt tightening" - in fact, following its recommendations would eventually make environmental regulations irrelevant.

Lovins' view of the future is of interest to all businesses: "... historians may write a history of our times that goes something like this: Now that the private sector has taken its proper place as the main implementer of sustainable practices simply because they work better and cost less, the late 20th century approach of micromanagement by intensive government regulation is only a bad memory." This is something we should all work for.

Natural capital refers to the natural resources and ecosystem services that underlie all economic activity. These services are of immense economic value and some are literally priceless, since they have no known substitutes. Yet, current business practice typically fails to take into account the value of these assets. As a result, natural capital is being degraded and liquidated by the wasteful use of energy, materials, water, fiber and topsoil, to name a few.

The basic thesis of Natural Capitalism is that most businesses still operate according to a set of assumptions that hearkens back to the first Industrial Revolution, when natural resources were abundant and labor was the limiting factor of production. Now, however, nature - land, resources, the capacity to absorb and recirculate wastes - is in decline, while information and population continues to grow. This shift creates a whole new business climate with its own challenges and opportunities. The "next industrial revolution" is already being led by companies that are learning to profit and gain competitive advantage in this new operating environment.

Because this integration of economic and ecological goals is becoming profitable as well as necessary, it will replace traditional industrialism with a new paradigm of production, just as industrialism previously replaced agrarianism.

Natural Capitalism also looks at more effective approaches to integrating social issues into the economic and environmental context. A chapter is dedicated to "Human Capitalism" and observes,

"What destination does our society want to reach, and how will it get there? Lessons in what not to do can often be found in cities, where most officials, overwhelmed by a flood of problems, try to cope by naming and solving them one at a time. If they are faced with congestion, their answer is to widen streets and build bypasses and parking garages. Crime? Lock up the offenders. Smog? Regulate emissions. Illiteracy? Toughen standards. Litter? Raise fines. Homelessness? Build shelters, and if that seems to fail, jail the loiterers. Insufficient budget to fund all these competing priorities? Raise taxes or impose sacrificial austerity, to taste."

This certainly reminds me of San Diego! Lovins has determined that there can be smarter approaches.

"Are there ways to restructure economic activity that reward social enrichment and that reinvest in social systems' capacity to evolve ever more diverse and creative cultures? Can reversing the waste of resources and of money also reinforce efforts to stop wasting people? How can ways of eliminating all these three kinds of waste reinforce one another? How-most challengingly-can we accomplish these goals in places where the population and its problems far outweigh available funding and time? "

Dr. Lovins will also be the keynote luncheon speaker at the Industrial Environmental Association's annual conference, "Environmental Management Perspectives for the 21st Century," on November 9th at the Westin Hotel at Horton Plaza.

Businesses face increasing demands on all fronts, including globalization, shorter product life-cycles, the internet, overcapacity, complex regulations, currency volatility and changing governmental policies. Lovins points out, "..any attempt to form a coherent assessment of the future that does not take into account what is happening to the natural and human capital is incomplete strategic thinking.... No matter what future one believes in, building the principles of natural capitalism into our planning will make the foundations of society firmer."

Dr. Lovins is renowned for his wide-ranging intellect and unique problem-solving approach that have led to major breakthroughs in fields ranging from automobiles to energy. His work has consistently focused on harnessing market forces to promote resource efficiency as a solution to a variety of social economic and environmental problems.

This is a unique opportunity for San Diego. Amory Lovins is a brilliant and engaging engineer, scientist and practical genius! Don't miss these chances to see him in person.

Carolyn Chase is editor of the San Diego Earth Times and founder of San Diego Earth Works, organizers of Earth Day in Balboa Park. She may be reached at .