Natural Capitalism


During the WTO blockade in Seattle, Paul Hawken was tear- gassed. He wandered blindly down a street, where he was rescued by Anita Roddick, founder of the Body Shop. It was an odd but fitting meeting: the visionary who’s preached ecology to corporations being assisted by one of the few corporate leaders who have even attempted to put such ideas into practice.

Hawken was a cofounder of Smith & Hawken, the mail-order garden business, but left the company in the early ’90s to write and speak. In 1993 he produced The Ecology of Commerce, his plan for environmentally sustainable business. It has sold more than a million copies and been a mainstay of business-school reading lists. His most recent work is Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, coauthored with Amory and L. Hunter Lovins (Little, Brown, 1999).

A few CEOs have read Hawken’s books and seen the light—among them the head of a billion-dollar Atlanta carpet business, who completely transformed his company according to Hawken’s notions. But such spontaneous conversions are rare—and, as a result, Hawken is a corporate adviser who advocates furious protest. “The people I admire the most are the kids, the activists, the people who speak truth to power,” he says. “They create the conditions that open up dialogue.”

You argue that human systems should be modeled on natural ones, and that globalization has created an unhealthy ecosystem. There’s an assumption that if you globalize, that is to say, make uniform rules and regulations and so forth, the economic juices flow better and everyone benefits. But in fact what we see in nature is true in the economy, which is, the more diverse and complex the economy is, the healthier it is. And the more it reflects a monoculture in terms of product or control or corporatization, the less healthy it is.

[Globalization has resulted in] an enormous shift of power away from people and governments to entities that do not have a loyalty other than to money—by law. Every corporate officer in the world has what’s called a fiduciary responsibility, and that is to maximize return on capital. We have a system in which people have perverse incentives to create a world that is less hospitable to life, to families, to culture, to indigenous tribes, to basic human rights.

How can activists hold corporations responsible for more than the bottom line? Well, activism takes many forms. Richard Grossman [of the Program on Corporations, Law & Democracy] and others are talking about charters. A charter is a permission for corporations to exist. There should be abilities to revoke charters. Corporations [now] do not have to be responsible to their larger stakeholders in society. There’s nothing you and I can do [to hold companies accountable]. We can’t say, “As a corporation, you are trashing the place, and we don’t think you should exist.”

I remember being at a shareholder meeting for Pacific Bell when they were still making 12-month phone books out of 700-year-old old-growth timber from forests in British Columbia. The person said, “Well, we are only making this out of the branches.” [Laughs.] It’s amazing that activists are so restrained, frankly.

In democracies it’s the voters who provide feedback, at least theoretically—but it’s very hard to talk social values to corporations. Yes. People with purple hair and nuns and grandmothers and professors and children and college students stand up and say to corporations, Excuse me, but your operating instructions don’t work anymore, can’t you see that? They say, What do you mean? We’re growing, the stock is up, we are making money—are you out of your mind?

There are people, and I’m one of them, who talk to business and say, The opposition you are seeing now is only the shadow. There’s an uprising on earth beginning. It cannot be addressed by increasing money to the arts or better advertising. It’s going to have to be done by a fundamental reevaluation of what is a corporation, who does it answer to, and what are its values and intentions in the world.

So what is “natural capitalism”? Natural capitalism is a description of the way to deliver the services that people want in a way that reduces the amount of material and energy used by 80 to 90 percent over the next 40 years. As far as we know, we’re the only authors that actually present something that’s plausible, credible, and based on off-the-shelf technology.

Right now, we have an abundance of people and an increasing shortage of critical resources. So why not use more people to use less stuff? That does not mean people flipping burgers or shuffling along as wage slaves. It means, for example, having tradable carbon-emission permits, so that people can go out and restore the degraded lands of the world. [According to a plan sketched out in the United Nations’ Kyoto Protocol, countries that plant trees or otherwise reduce carbon in the atmosphere would receive emission credits that can be sold to nations that exceed their pollution allowances.] Rather than having kids on the streets of Mexico City, they could have great jobs re-creating the forest.

It sounds so Pollyannaish. People say, Ah, that’s not the way it works. Well, no, that’s not the way it works [now]. But the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds is laughable. The idea that there is only one way an economy works is no more rationally true than that a car can go in only one direction.

Do you have any suggestions for activists?

More. Please. More, more.