A new natural capitalism
I’m going to sit the fence on Kit’s poll by saying that reigning in climate change will require both a re-envisioning of capitalism and a revision of our core values.
An excellent professor of mine at MIT introduced our class to the concept of “natural capitalism,” pioneered by Paul Hawkins and Amory and L. Hunter Lovins. Their 1999 book on the subject, probably familiar to many of you, was an eye-opener for me at the time. Here is a short synopsis of the book from Publisher’s Weekly:
The short answer to the logical question (What is natural capitalism?) is that it is a way of thinking that seeks to apply market principles to all sources of material value, most importantly natural resources. The authors have two related goals: first, to show the vast array of ecologically smart options available to businesses; second, to argue that it is possible for society and industry to adopt them. Hawken and the Lovinses acknowledge such barriers as the high initial costs of some techniques, lack of knowledge of alternatives, entrenched ways of thinking and other cultural factors. In looking at options for transportation (including the development of ultralight, electricity-powered automobiles), energy use, building design, and waste reduction and disposal, the book’s reach is phenomenal. It belongs to the galvanizing tradition of Frances Moore Lapp ‘s Diet for a Small Planet and Stewart Brand’s The Whole Earth Catalog.
As David has mentioned, many political moderates like Thomas Friedman argue that this reshaping of traditional capitalism is the only logical solution to our current energy and environmental debacle. In fact, a recent Discover Channel special, “Addicted to Oil,” featured Mr. Friedman running around the country looking at market-friendly solutions. One of his stops was the Rocky Mountain Institute, where he interviewed Amory Lovins about switchgrass and its potential to replace gasoline as our prime transportation energy source. (If you haven’t seen this show, check it out. Unlike the well-earned but hyperconfident editorial style he brings to matters on the Middle East, Friedman is naive and downright dorky at times.)
On the other hand, I was heavily swayed by Bill McKibben’s call for a new environmentalism after reading his essay in last month’s National Geographic. After all, even if we can succeed in becoming addicted to efficiency rather than to say, oil, what will we do with that extra money and extra time? Our current consumer-driven ethos dictates that we buy more things with that saved money. Less fuel spent on gasoline? Buy yourself a new iPod! Saving money on electrical bills? Go out and buy a new wardrobe. In order to actually interrupt the current slide towards climate destruction — rather than just shift the burden elsewhere — a radical re-examination of what makes us fundamentally happy as human beings is required.
And that’s one reason I find the current dispute over the greening of Wal-Mart so interesting. On the one hand, the giant corporation stands for just about everything traditional environmentalists hate. On the other, it has, in many suburban pockets of America, become the community mecca McKibben (and I agree with him) says forms the cornerstone of a content society.