Jonathan Nathaniel Hayes
My Reflections on The Ecology of Commerce
By Paul Hawken
September 13, 2014
“The promise of business is to increase the general wellbeing of humankind through service, a creative invention, and ethical philosophy. Making money is, on it’s own terms, totally meaningless, an insufficient pursuit for the complex and decaying world we live in.” -Paul Hawken
I had the good fortune of hearing the class discussion of the book in question before I had the opportunity to read it myself. It seems the praises and criticisms were on point and for the most part, my personal opinions reflect those of the class.
Many have decried the book as depressing and as painting a grim picture. While this seems true of the first several chapters, I think we can all agree that the landscape of the ecological state of affairs, and the industrial causes of that state, is truly depressing and grim. As some of my colleagues in class have pointed out in their oral and written reflections, such a grim picture is needed to awaken the consumers of the industrialized world from its consumer-gluttony induced comma.
In the book, Hawken, on a philosophical level, quantifies the devastating toll that the industrial revolution has exacted and continues to exact on the ecology of our planet. He convincingly shows that our planet is past its maximum carrying capacity of human population. There is a seeming tension between the welfare of ecology and the welfare of industrial commerce. Ecologist want business to stop exploiting nonrenewable resources while business believes it must continue to grow and expand to be viable. Hawken, does a commendable job mediating between these two by arguing that a free market enterprise and ecological responsibility can be married-that the welfare of one does not need to come at the expense of the other. The bleak current outlook described not withstanding, I find Hawken to be optimistic in his vision for a unified ecology of commerce. For example, his assertion that the destruction manifested by the industrial revolution is not the “inherent nature of business” shows amenability to finding a path forward that is mutually beneficial to commerce and the planet.
Taking his lead from nature, Hawken suggests that industry must learn to completely eliminate waist. In nature there is no true waist, for the “waist” on one level, is food or fuel on another level. So industry must be revamped to create products without creating waist- only byproducts. This is not only good for the environment, but good business. In addition, he rightly postulates that the industries of the future will be fueled by hydrogen and solar power, rather than carbon based fuel sources. In this way, we can achieve what he calls, a “restorative industry.” Hawken rightly concludes that business must lead the way, since it is the most powerful force for change. Legislation, for example, is created by politicians. Politicians run on campaign funds that come from business. So business has to lead the way.
In the Marines we were told that “troop welfare” was objective #2. “Mission Accomplishment” was always objective #1. In the same way, corporations can greenwash their mission statements and say that being socially and ecologically sustainable is their first priority, but profitability is always the unspoken first priority. Therefore, we can’t simply tell business they “must therefore change it’s behavior.” There must be a system of carrots (incentives) and sticks (penalties) in place to encourage global industry toward the sustainable practices that Hawken believes is inherent in the original nature of business.