Ecology and Commerce, Revisited

Paul Hawken on what has and hasn’t changed since he first challenged business to embrace environmentalism

Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce is one of the most influential books of the past two decades. It inspired Ray Anderson’s now famous ecoconversion and the subsequent transformation of his company, Interface, and in turn helped jump-start the nascent green-building movement. But when the book first appeared in 1993, it wasn’t exactly embraced by corporate executives or business magazines (which, for the most part, declined to review it). It did, however, find a sizable audience. And it continued to draw new readers as concern about climate change began to gain traction in the mainstream media.

Eighteen years later, the book’s central premise—industry is the chief cause of environmental degradation and the key to ending it—is widely accepted, even by significant portions of the business community. The underlying problems, of course, not only remain unaddressed but loom even larger today. This may account for the release of an updated edition of The Ecology of Commerce. Metropolis’s executive editor, Martin C. Pedersen, talked to Hawken via e-mail about the revised book, the emergence of China, his new start-up, and the problem with solar panels.

Why did you decide to revise the book now?
Some of the data was getting a bit long in the tooth, yet the underlying thesis had stood up pretty well. Unlike most books, The Ecology of Commerce didn’t get remaindered and slink away into dustbins. It just kept on selling, especially in colleges as a classroom text. So I felt that since the book was living on, I wanted to provide the next generation of readers more contemporary facts.

How much did you have to change?
That was the tricky part. It was important that the book have newer data, but it was equally important that people read a book that was written in 1991–92 so as to see how much had and had not changed since then. On one hand, I tried to hew to the original, but I also had the opportunity you rarely get as an author, which is to cut out the dead wood and prolix passages. That was a pleasure. It is a much tighter book now. I must have cut 20 percent.

What has changed since the book’s original publication, and what has not?
The fact that it is still being assigned and read in colleges to students who read it as new information means that the rate of dissemination about environmental issues, specifically in relation to business, has been slow. I have teachers calling and writing me today about how students respond to and debate the issues in the book. What has changed is literacy on the corporate side. There is hardly a major company in the world that has not changed its culture, production, design, and communication in order to become more environmentally responsible. Of course, the degree to which they do this varies greatly, but the commitment is there, from greenwashing to sustainability light to transformational resolve.

One of the trends that wasn’t apparent in 1993 was the emergence of China as the world’s next industrial power. Is China the key to the world’s ecological salvation or its destruction?
China is so complex that you almost need ten words for it instead of one. We are Asia-illiterate in America. You constantly hear catchphrases about China as if it were one thing. There is politburo China, entrepreneurial China, cultural China, peasant China, Western China, Hong Kong China, not to mention Mongol, Uighur, Tibetan, and Manchu China. I see America 50 years ago: on steroids, a country able to raise abundant capital, move quickly, expand its infrastructure, support research and science, study hard, work hard, take the world by economic storm, concentrate capital. In renewables they’re a juggernaut, but their goal is to be the leader in virtually every industry in the world, and anyone who doubts their capacity to do so might want to rethink that.

China is industrializing at warp speed, and in the process, it reveals how our governance system is broken. In America, we’re nearing the threshold of a failed state. We don’t fund our schools, don’t have an ethic of learning. We’re shockingly in debt. We’re a divided nation breathing its own exhaust. Although China’s form of governance is unacceptable and will bite it in the end, it can adapt faster to ecological exigencies than we can. They may be building coal-fired power plants at a blistering pace, but they do not have political leaders who are skeptical of science, deny climatology, or doubt evolution. I might add that it is not just China that is burgeoning. The BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India, and China) are all growing phenomenally.

The American era is over, which is fine, but it behooves us to do some soul-searching and seek a future that is not a Ronald Reagan parody of our putative past glory.

Does industry still hold the key to environmental progress?
Business is the hand of destruction and must become the guardian. It is one world, indisputably. What business does and doesn’t do determines the fate of the earth.

Do you think we have enough time to make the changes outlined in the book?
I do. Humanity is not stupid, but we’re some-times slow to evolve. There comes a time when we must change what it means to be humanity, and this is such a time. Regardless of our profession, predilections, or biases, when confronted with the real problem of what it means to live together here on earth—and I do mean together as one people, dependent on each other’s knowledge and goodwill for our own survival—we know what to do. That wisdom is innate. It has never gone away.

You’ve started a solar-power company called OneSun. How is it different from other companies?
I founded it with Janine Benyus, the biologist who coined the term biomimicry and wrote the book of the same name; and John Warner, the man who coined the term green chemistry and coauthored a book of the same name. We don’t talk about it in public or in the press for a couple of reasons. One, in the solar business there is a fair bit of exaggeration, with science projects masquerading as viable technologies. We will have a lot to say when and if we succeed, which we think we will. But if we fail, then at least we didn’t make fools of ourselves.

Is solar power the answer to our energy problems?
There needs to be more thought about the physics of renewables. Right now, we give solar PV a hall pass, as if it was the clean and green answer. I believe the denial seen on the right about climate change is matched by denial on the progressive side as to technical solutions. Solar PV is nearly the most toxic source of energy per kilowatt hour there is, save for the tar sands, including nuclear and coal. The concept of solar is certainly correct—harvesting streaming photons—but current execution involves a witch’s brew of toxins and greenhouse gases. Even if that were not true—were the world to ratchet up its solar production as proposed—it would require a very significant increase of fossil-fuel consumption because solar requires high inputs of intense energy for sintering, tempered glass, metals, etc. The energy return on energy invested for solar PV—the actual net energy, subtracting inputs—is between 3:1 and 10:1, with most silicon PV coming in at the lower end. This is abysmally low. If we became a solar world, it would mean 20 percent of our GDP would be spent on energy to make energy. With PV, we’re making low-intensity energy generators out of high-intensity energy sources (i.e., coal in China and Germany) and calling that renewable. It’s not remotely renewable. Until there is a solar-PV technology that can be made with minimal, nontoxic, abundantly available inputs and be made entirely with solar energy, incumbent solar does not move the ball down the field but diverts us from achieving the critical energy transformation required.

Why haven’t we seen a wider adoption of alternative energy?
There is no such thing as alternative energy.

A BTU is a calorie is a joule is a kilowatt hour. What I think you are asking is, Why do we not move more quickly to noncarbon sources of energy? I believe it is because renewable technologies are not there yet, save for wind turbines. Wave power, solar PV, and corn-based ethanol do not pencil out from a thermodynamics point of view in terms of resources or economic viability. That is reflected in their pricing. Ninety percent of the people in the world do not have discretionary income that allows them to pay more for basics, and energy is basic to life.

Can we innovate our way around the problem, or do we have to fundamentally change the ways we live?
I think that changing the ways we live is the heart of innovation. One of the keys to under-standing our current situation is to understand how 150 years of cheap energy has created the unsustainable dilemma we’re in. We occupy James Kunstler’s “geography of nowhere,” spending inordinate amounts of time and re-sources on roads and badly designed remote buildings in order to create lifestyles that are deeply dissatisfying. So when we think of innovation, the way we live and the technology we use are handmaidens to a better life with a radically reduced footprint. If we don’t do that, we are truly putting lipstick on a piggy lifestyle, and it won’t work. Nature favors those creatures that direct available energy most efficiently to channels that favor the species. That is not a description of our freeways, suburbs, or food system. We’re taking the rich inheritance of resources, the 100-million-year gift of biomass and living systems, and spending it on annihilation. Not a good strategy. For me, there is only one guiding principle for business, economics, design, community, education, government, and urban planning, and that is captured in Janine Benyus’s brilliant maxim: life creates the conditions that are conducive to life. Being conducive to life means to work toward the benefit of all beings. The one true creative response when every living system is in decline is to plan, design, and make every-thing on behalf of all living beings. This is not sentiment but biology, the famous John Muir statement about everything in the universe being hitched together, and that means we have to be hitched together.

Being conducive to life is what every religion has tried to teach us: the Golden Rule, the 99 Attributes of Allah, the Six Paramitas of Buddhism, the Sermon on the Mount. These teachings are religious, but they’re also pure biology. Nature is not about competition in the mistaken Darwinian sense. What holds the living world together are mutualisms, the innate altruism of life itself. In other words, altruism is lifestyle. It’s truly in our self-interest.

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