nat capThe same day I posted my article about William McDonough, reader Brian Dear pointed out the work that Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute has been doing in much the same vein. Lovins, with colleagues Paul Hawken and L. Hunter Lovins, wrote a (fully downloadable) book entitled Natural Capitalism that, like McDonough’s Cradle to Cradle, suggests pragmatic, creative ways for man to stave off environmental disaster by simply thinking and working better, more organically, with nature as the model. If McDonough’s bottom-line message was Learn from, and imitate, nature — nature knows how to design and build things right, everything recycled, zero waste, Lovins’ could be Shift the economy to recognize the inherent value of people and natural resources, and you can transform the world. While McDonough, the architect, is focused on physical design, Lovins, the economist, is focused on systems design. They are perfect complements, with similar, optimistic, “let’s get on with it” worldviews and concrete prescriptions for change, a refreshing change from the relentless pessimism in so many analyses of the world’s environmental problems.

You can get an excellent idea of Lovins’ prescription by reading the chapter summaries of his book online (I’m going to buy the whole book for my reference and “lending” library). Or, read the HBR summary, A Road Map for Natural Capitalism. Using case studies and small successes achieved already, the authors explain how each industry and each facet of the economy can be transformed by looking at it differently, more holistically, including the natural capital that we currently don’t value and waste, and step-by-step changing its operating principles, structure, strategy, practices, rewards and governance, and drawing on biologically inspired design principles.

Everything in Lovins’ prescription is achievable, sensible, and consistent with looking at the economy and markets as a means of maximizing human well-being instead of wealth. But it is in the final chapters, where he takes on the environmental pessimists (like me) and the unrepentent markets-need-growth traditionalists, that I start to lose conviction that this prescription will do the job. After effectively destroying the myth that our economic markets are free and efficient, he describes ways (e.g. tax shifting, changing our measurements of success, encouraging risk and innovation, improving regulation and information) that we can reinvent markets, much as he proposed in earlier chapters how to reinvent industries. His ebullient description of the economic and cultural transformation of Curitiba, Brasil, by a succession of architect-mayors who have redesigned one of the world’s poorest and fast-growing cities into a city that works for people, is truly inspiring (anyone know if it’s really that successful?)

But ultimately, the economy is designed the way it is to funnel power and wealth to those that have it and plan to keep it. It is not designed for efficiency, equity, fairness, and optimal distribution of resources — in fact, as the extent of poverty, famine, and destitution in a world where a small minority have unimaginable wealth demonstrates — political and social structures are designed to keep the status quo, to hoard resources, and to create and sustain inequitable distribution of wealth and power. Lovins suggests that the four groups in our political and economic systems: the blues (free-marketers), reds (socialists), greens (environmentalists), and whites (pragmatists), need to set aside their differences and opposing worldviews and respect the fact that each is partly right, and collaboratively assemble an “operating manual for Planet Earth”. If there was a more equitable distribution of the resources, power and knowledge needed to assemble such a manual, and if the population and average footprint of humans on this planet weren’t both catastrophically soaring, and if the horrendous consequences of these two realities (consequences like war, famine, global waming, epidemic disease, violence and crime, despair, hopelessness etc.) werren’t preoccupying all our time and attention, such a manual might be possible. But ultimately, Lovins’ prescription is like asking the crew and passengers of an airplane that has been struck by lightning to collaborate and share knowledge and energies to assess how to bring the plane to a safe landing, while it is plummeting to Earth.

It’s a nice idea, but I think it’s a little late for that.

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  1. natasha says:

    I bought this book almost two years ago, but haven’t gotten a chance to read it. It goes at the top of my list for the summer chilling out season.

  2. Don Dwiggins says:

    You mention Curitiba; it’s one of the communities on my list to learn more about. Your question “anyone know if it’s really that successful?” is exactly why — whether it is, or isn’t, there are probably lessons there to be learned.On your comment: “But ultimately, the economy is designed the way it is to funnel power and wealth to those that have it and plan to keep it.” Question: is there just _the_ ecoonomy? In fact, local economies are always springing up in response to various situations, growing and shrinking organically; one of my research areas (if I can ever get the time to focus on it) is just this: alternative economies, how they work and spread, and how they might be fostered. As you mention in your reformulation of your signature essay, there’s a lot of power in “bottom-up” change.

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