Countless admirers asked to meet the Nobel laureate and Bengali poet and philosopher Rabindranath Tagore during his United States tour in 1916. One was a door-to-door salesman. The enterprising Salt Lake City entrepreneur asked to be allowed to show the sage how to increase his output, thereby doing twice as much in half the time. Tagore replied that he might have seen the man if he had offered to demonstrate how to reduce his efficiency, not increase it. Eighty years on, the authors of Natural Capitalism celebrate the prospect of a new generation of cars that will reach up to 250 miles per gallon, with negligible pollution, and computerised networks of small executive aircraft that reduce the number of shuttle flights. The clearer heads of the new century should be demanding a more fundamental rethinking by its authors, such as a questioning of the need to travel ever-larger distances to the office, holidays or meetings.
This is the paradox of Paul Hawken et al 's book. On one level it is a powerful visionary statement by three of the world's leading consultants on the greening of business, which deals with how large corporations could change to less polluting strategies. Yet at a deeper level its implicit assumption that we can sustain rapid rises in the level of activities such as air travel and global tourism, and its lack of a clear stance on issues of social justice, make this at times a rather frustrating book.
Natural Capitalism aims to outline the opportunities "that if captured will lead to no less than a transformation of commerce and all societal institutions". Its case studies are each linked to one or more of their four principles, "of responsible stewardship and prosperity for the next century and beyond".
One of these principles is that of a "service and flow economy", whereby a product is a means, not an end. Drawing on the ideas of German chemist Michael Braungart, the authors outline a future economy in which it is not goods that are bought and sold, but services that are leased or rented. Manufacturers would cease to think of themselves as sellers of products and become "deliverers of services, provided by long-lasting, upgradeable durables". In this "cradle-to-cradle" approach a manufacturer would retain ownership of your washing machine or car, which would be returned to them periodically for repair and remanufacture. The system minimises material use, maximises product durability and protects the manufacturer's investment.
This transformed "technical nutrient cycle" is applied variously to white goods, computers and hi-fi. Perhaps most exciting is its application to agriculture, which has been underway in the UK and US for some years now. Communities subscribe in advance to a particular farm's flow of organic food. This guarantees a market for farmers and removes incentives to overproduce.
The most powerful section of the book concerns the future of food production. The authors reject the "market darling" of biotechnology, and call for a rejection of industrialised agriculture. They suggest instead a move towards the application of another of the book's four key principles - "bio-mimicry". At its core is the attempt to mimic the processes whereby natural processes maintain a healthy soil. Intensive farming has destroyed a third of the US's topsoil and much of the rest is degraded. This decimation of natural capital is not an inevitable consequence of feeding America, but the product of systems that worked against rather than with the soil's biology. The authors detail the management, irrigation and crop rotation techniques that guarantee a healthy, productive soil.
Contrary to the approach advocated by Monsanto and some agricultural scientists, Natural Capitalism gives the lie to the claim that single-crop methods can ever be sustainable. "Mono-
cultures are rare in nature, in part because they create paradises for plant diseases and insects." They are like "equipping a burglar with the keys to every house in the neighbourhood". Having increased their use of pesticides 20-fold in the past 50 years, US farmers now lose twice as much of their crop to pests as they did in 1948. Their monocultures also kill the rich and fertile diversity of the soil biota. A healthy underground biota can provide a ten fold better uptake of nutrients, "permitting the same or better crop yields with a tenth of the application of fertilisers".
Perhaps understandably in a book partly designed for the American business community, the authors have a tendency towards hyperbole. They claim their prescriptions will "heal the most intransigent problems of our time", but the chapters contain little that will alleviate the problems affecting the one billion people who still live in poverty in rural parts of the third world.
Natural Capitalism 's lack of criticism of transnationals is striking, and is perhaps an inevitable consequence of such corporations being the authors' customers. There is only praise for the airline industry, the world's fastest growing contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. In an otherwise excellent account of the way investment in buses has made Curitiba, Brazil, one of Latin America's most pleasant cities, they eulogise the extent to which travel to other cities in America has been eased by two airports.
Laying criticism at the door of this pragmatic manifesto for change might seem a bit churlish. After all, the authors remark that most successful attempts at genuinely sustainable practices have been at a small, community scale. It is just that they generally prefer to focus on mega-car projects, big cities and sexy business speak. If that is all the next industrial revolution amounts to, it will be tragically insufficient. Business economists need not only to show how to produce the same goods with fewer resources, but also to question the need to create ever greater demand, especially for the privileged's most environmentally indefensible perks - from long-distance travel to air-conditioned cars and imported exotic fruits. If they do not, they will betray our children's future, especially those born in poverty, as surely as the Indian poet foresaw 80 years ago.
Tom Wakeford is at the National Centre for Biological Sciences, Bangalore, India.
Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution
Author - Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins
ISBN - 1 85383 461 0
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £18.99
Pages - 400