The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability

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  • Edition: Reprint
  • Format: Paperback
  • Copyright: 2005-01-01
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publications

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A visionary new program that businesses can follow to help restore the planet.


The Ecology of Commerce

Chapter One

A Teasing Irony

I have come to believe that we in America and in the rest of the industrialized West do not know what business really is, or, therefore, what it can become. Perhaps this is a strange remark, given that free-market capitalism is now largely unchallenged as the economic and social credo of just about every society on earth, but I believe it's correct. Despite our management schools, despite the thousands of books written about business, despite the legions of economists who tinker with the trimtabs of the $21 trillion world economy, despite and maybe because of the victory of free-market capitalism over socialism worldwide, our understanding of business—what makes for healthy commerce, what the role of such commerce should be within society as a whole—is stuck at a primitive level.

The ultimate purpose of business is not, or should not be, simply to make money. Nor is it merely a system of making and selling things. The promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative invention and ethical philosophy. Making money is, on its own terms, totally meaningless, an insufficient pursuit for the complex and decaying world we live in. We have reached an unsettling and portentous turning point in industrial civilization. It is emblematic that the second animal ever to be "patented" is a mouse with no immune system that will be used to research diseases of the future, and that mother's milk would be banned by the food safety laws of industrialized nations if it were sold as a packaged good. What's in the milk besides milk and what's suppressing our immune system is literally industry—its by-products, wastes, and toxins. Facts like this lead to an inevitable conclusion: Businesspeople must either dedicate themselves to transforming commerce to a restorative undertaking, or march society to the undertaker.

I believe business is on the verge of such a transformation, a change brought on by social and biological forces that can no longer be ignored or put aside, a change so thorough and sweeping that in the decades to come business will be unrecognizable when compared to the commercial institutions of today. We have the capacity and ability to create a remarkably different economy, one that can restore ecosystems and protect the environment while bringing forth innovation, prosperity, meaningful work, and true security. As long as we continue to ignore the evolutionary thrust and potential of the existing economy, the world of commerce will continue to be in a state of disorder and constant restructuring. This is not because the worldwide recession has been so deep and long, but because there is a widening gap between the rapid rate at which society and the natural world are decaying and the agonizingly slow rate at which business is effecting any truly fundamental change.

This turbulent, transformative period we now face might be thought of as a system shedding its skin; it signals the first attempts by commerce to adapt to a new era. Many people in business, the media, and politics do not perceive this evolutionary step, while others who do understand fight it. Standing in the way of change are corporations who want to continue worldwide deforestation and build coal-fired power plants, who see the storage or dumping of billions of tons of waste as a plausible strategy for the future, who imagine a world of industrial farms sustained by chemical feed-stocks. They can slow the process down, make it more difficult, but they will not stop it. Like a sunset effect, the glories of the industrial economy may mask the fact that it is poised at a declining horizon of options and possibilities. Just as internal contradictions brought down the Marxist and socialist economies, so do a different set of social and biological forces signal our own possible demise. Those forces can no longer be ignored or put aside.

That the title of this book, The Ecology of Commerce, reads today as an oxymoron speaks to the gap between how the earth lives and how we now conduct our commercial lives. We don't usually think of ecology and commerce as compatible subjects. While much of our current environmental policy seeks a "balance" between the needs of business and the needs of the environment, common sense says there is only one critical balance and one set of needs: the dynamic, ever-changing interplay of the forces of life. The restorative economy envisioned and described in this book respects this fact. It unites ecology and commerce into one sustainable act of production and distribution that mimics and enhances natural processes. It proposes a newborn literacy of enterprise that acknowledges that we are all here together, at once, at the service of and at the mercy of nature, each other, and our daily acts.

A hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, it did not seem urgent that we understand the relationship between business and a healthy environment, because natural resources seemed unlimited. But on the verge of a new millennium we know that we have decimated ninety-seven percent of the ancient forests in North America; every day our farmers and ranchers draw out 20 billion more gallons of water from the ground than are replaced by rainfall; the Ogalala Aquifer, an underwater river beneath the Great Plains larger than any body of fresh water on earth, will dry up within thirty to forty years at present rates of extraction; globally we lose 25 billion tons of fertile topsoil every year, the equivalent of all the wheatfields in Australia. These critical losses are occurring while the world population is increasing at the rate of 90 million people per year. Quite simply, our business practices are destroying life on earth. Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife reserve, wilderness, or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air, and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world.

The Ecology of Commerce. Copyright © by Paul Hawken. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.

Excerpted from The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability by Paul Hawken
All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

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