The Practicality of The Ecology of Commerce

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Paul Hawken’s The Ecology of Commerce: a Declaration of Sustainability is both simple and radical. It recognizes and explains the problems our world is facing both environmentally and economically and shows how the two areas are connected. Hawken describes the various problems and proposes what he believes needs to be done to fix them. Overall, the author’s plans are logical and would lead to a sustainable market, but they are also ambitious and at times impractical.

The preface to the book acts as a guide to the rest of the work. Hawken begins by describing what the main issue is. He writes, “...5.8 billion people are breeding exponentially. The process of fulfilling their wants and needs is stripping the earth of its biotic capacity to produce life...”(Hawken xii). Hawken believes that in order to stop this from happening, every process humans enact must be completely sustainable. That is, every item or service produced must be able to process its own waste in a way that aids and feeds its own production. He offers eight objectives that he believes will help achieve this. Several of these points seem obvious and should already be in practice (e.g., “Honor market principles”). However, some of his objectives, such as, “Provide secure, stable, and meaningful employment for people everywhere” are much more easily said than done. Hawken does offer some plans for how to make these goals a reality, but his solutions are often hard to imagine implementing.

Chapters four and five are where Hawken most clearly describes his plan to combat the crises at hand. In the fourth chapter, “Parking Lots and Potato Heads,” Hawken describes the various ways companies deal with the wastes they produce, and how even the best practices for this fail to work in the long—and often short—run. He proposes that the most environmentally friendly solution would also be the most economical. This observation seems both obvious and impossible.

Chapter five, “Pigou’s Solution,” argues that the companies who have the best cost versus price integration should also be the best at practicing corporate-driven environmental restoration. Hawken believes that those who solve the problem of business’s consumption of resources will also stand to make the most profit off of their products. This is another instance where Hawken seems to fully understand the problem and what the end solution should be, but how he proposes to bridge the two is not altogether clear.

Obviously, Hawken’s plan for change is radical. It does not seem that he wants to change the current system but to create an entirely new one. In the final chapter, Hawken explains how he believes his solution can be broken down into three parts. The first, “...obey the waste-equals-food principle and entirely eliminate waste from our industrial production,” insists that businesses must implement processes that create little to no waste (Hawken 209). His second principle argues that the world must move from carbon-based energies to hydrogen, solar, and wind power. Finally, his assertion that “we must create systems of feedback and accountability that support and strengthen restorative behavior” is a great plan, but again, difficult to implement (Hawken 209). Overall The Ecology of Commerce is a work full of great ideas to help combat the world’s current economic and environmental issues. How practical the solutions are, though, remains to be seen.

Work Cited

Hawken, Paul. The ecology of commerce: a declaration of sustainability. Rev. ed. New York: Harper Business, 1993. Print.

Notes on The Ecology of Commerce: a Declaration of Sustainability

1. Does Hawken believe that each of his objectives has practical solutions? “Provide secure, stable, and meaningful employment for people everywhere,” does not seem practical, but more like a wishful goal to use as motivation.

2. This book is nearly twenty years old, and it seems little has been done to combat the issues still at hand. Has Hawken addressed this since?

3. Hawken writes that the planet’s resources are depleting so fast that it will not likely sustain life for forty or fifty more years. If this was true in 1994, is it reasonable to assume that there are only enough resources on earth for another twenty or thirty years?

4. Have any of the steps outlined by Hawken been implemented anywhere in any capacity? There do not seem to be any cases of things changing much more radically than they already would have been over the last two decades.

5. It is interesting to note that Hawken often uses environmental metaphors to describe economic ideas, such as the immature plant systems growing along a road, when the two forces seem so greatly at odds. In his writing, he manages to show how the two can be related and work together, in the same way, he hopes to show how they can in day-to-day life.

6. Hawken writes, “Business often invokes the Darwinian maxim of ‘survival of the fittest’ to defend its competitive actions. The phrase is, in fact, a misinterpretation of Darwinism. Darwin & not speak of survival of the fittest; rather, he described those who survived as fittest for a specific ecological niche. There is a big difference between those two ideas.” If Hawken believes that everything should be considered on a global level, how is this relevant to his argument?

7. On page sixty-five, Hawken refers to an early writing of his that explains “that dematerialization had already been established as a permanent feature of the economic development because of rising resources prices, particularly energy...Although the price of energy has fallen since then, the real cost in terms of the damage and long- term effects to the environment is continuing to climb.” How can Hawken continue to propose ideas to fix a system that refuses his help?

8. The Ecology of Commerce was published in June of 1994, six months before the GATT was replaced with the creation of the WTO. How would Hawken’s plans have differed if the new World Trade Organization were in place at the time of his writing?

9. Has Hawken done any field research to be sure his plans will work? How can he be certain that it is not too late to see positive results by implementing his plans?

10. Hawken writes, on page 87, that carbon and nuclear energies are the two most damaging. There is still a lot of debate as to how damaging nuclear energy is, but he says this as if there is no question. This could lead his readers to question how readily they should accept his other claims.