Paul Hawken is also the author of The Ecology of Commerce, and so there are similarities between the two books. Both explore ways to reduce toxic waste and combat the waste of throwaway products. But Natural Capitalism also talks about how to reduce other kinds of waste.
The book refers to a concept called muda, which is Japanese for waste, futility, or purposelessness. This concept was coined by Taiichi Ohno, who defined waste and therefore muda as “any human activity which absorbs resources but creates no value”. Therefore, other kinds of waste can be included in this definition, such as wasted time and wasted human resources. This is what natural capitalism is: a new kind of industrialism that promotes “economic efficiency, ecological conservation, and social equity”.
Resource productivity is about “obtaining the same amount of utility or work from a product or process while using less material and energy”. Identifying and finding a solution to muda involves implementing this resource productivity. First, apply some controls. These controls should measure how much material and energy is currently being used. With these figures, processes can then be monitored to find out how they can be simplified and streamlined. At this point, the book provides a beautiful quote:
The book provides an array of specific real-world examples, and it is rife with examples of resource productivity. The authors state that these examples have been included to create an overview of what is already in practice. Pratt & Whitney scrapped 90% off their expensive ingots when they used these ingots to make jet engine turbine blades. They reduced this waste by simply asking their alloy suppliers to cast the metal into blade-like shapes instead. And a redesign of pipes at a carpet manufacturer, Interface, produced 92% lower pumping energy.
Working towards this efficiency is so important because although industrial systems are thriving, we are currently losing great amounts of natural capital. Natural capital includes all the resources that can be found in nature such as water and oil. But it also includes great ecosystems such as coral reefs and rainforests. A forest not only provides the material resource of wood. It also provides services such as water storage and flood management. These attributes are not easy to replicate without a thriving ecosystem. Scientists in 1991-1993 understood this struggle when they operated a $200 million Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona. They were unable to maintain enough oxygen for the eight people living inside it.
The book also explores human capital. Human capital takes the form of “labour and intelligence, culture, and organisation”. And in society, people can definitely be wasted too. According to the International Labour Organisation in Geneva, nearly one million people either cannot work or have menial jobs that do not allow them to support themselves or their families. Conversely, overproduction can burn out workers. Implementing resource productivity is an easy way to save money. The money saved can then save capable workers from being fired, overworked, or exploited. Although GDP may be growing, it does not encompass other elements of life. Only concentrating on GDP masks other elements that are not growing at the same rate, such as quality of life and leisure time.
The idea of modelling after nature’s own ecosystems is further developed throughout the book. The authors mention a variety of workspaces that have applied elements of nature. A bank, that would later become ING, was housed in a building filled with indoor and outdoor gardens. The building was also filled with natural light. Such a design resulted in higher productivity for the bank’s employees. The building also used 92% less energy than a neighbouring bank that was constructed at the same time.
This kind of design is a successful integration of “resource efficiency, attention to human well-being, and financial success”. The whole system should be interlinked, just as whole ecosystems in nature are. This design also requires a different mentality. It involves thinking with foresight and considering all the future costs that can be avoided, instead of just accepting things for the way they already come. In the words of Edwin Land, such thinking involves “not so much as having a new idea as stopping having an old idea”.
We are also ruining the great ecosystems that give us food to live. Soil is filled with organisms, which help to maintain the texture and composition of the soil and protect the roots of plants. Intensive agriculture has resulted in the decline of this soil. Agriculture has also whittled down the 200,000 species of wild plants available on earth, to simply the few thousand that are eaten by humans. This decline in diversity means that plants have become more prone to diseases and insects.
Plants should not be planted in isolation. Instead, agricultural systems should be redesigned to look like ecosystems in the wild as well. This approach integrates livestock, garden crops, tree crops, and field crops together. It also allows for many different kinds of food production in one area. The interactions between animals and plants can then recycle nutrients, as they do outside of farms. As Janine Benyus states, “we don’t need to invent a sustainable world—that’s been done already”. We simply need to look at what nature has been doing all this time.
Using natural ecosystems as a model can also be used for urban planning. The book presents the beautiful example of Curitiba, a south-eastern Brazilian city. Curitiba had previously been the centre of poverty and despair. However, it then underwent a variety of changes. The first pedestrian mall in Brazil was created in Curitiba, and this became a landscape for its citizens to enjoy. Parks were renewed with past issues in mind; they were set up with small ditches so that when the city centre flooded, this floodwater simply formed new lakes. Instead of fighting the flooding, Curitiba simply accepted it and let it become part of the landscape. Children are given opportunities to learn the skills that will help them to think up and create further improvements to cities such as their own. My favourite aspect of Curitiba is how they don’t use a mowing machine. Instead, they have their own municipal shepherd who moves his flock of 30 sheep around. This implementation of interlinked solutions does not focus on isolated problems. Instead, this approach considers the whole picture.
There were some moments where the book lacked its own flow. I felt that the chapter on muda could have been placed earlier in the book, and in this way, it could have been an effective introduction to later material. Some concepts were scattered throughout the book in a way that made me flick back and forth between chapters to write this review. Still, the ideas, when they are grasped, are wonderful sources of inspiration.
Natural capitalism is a capitalism that values both human and natural capital. The book is a positive call for action, as it shows that progress towards a more efficient planet—for not only the environment, but also for people—is already underway. If we keep ignoring the ecosystems that have kept the earth thriving for billions of years in the name of commerce, then we cannot live our healthiest lives and we cannot survive the ecological disasters to come. In order to support life economically, we also need to do it ecologically. And this book shows how nature, with its integrated approach, has been giving us the solution all this time.