– Hold On To Your Hats – written for ‘Down to Earth – Guide to Organics in Manitoba.
Every night as my family heads up to the TV room to load up on the latest war news, I pull out a book I’ve been reading called ‘Natural Capitalism’ by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins and L. Hunter Lovins. The title sounded like an oxymoron to me at first. The capitalism we’ve been experiencing for the past two hundred years or so – which ensures that the rich get richer and the earth gets abused – hasn’t won my heart. But I only had to turn a few pages to be assured the authors are talking about a totally different way of producing goods. And, although I have sympathies for left leaning radicals, this book is not about taking away personal initiative or about making business smaller and government bigger. It’s about fashioning the next industrial revolution along guidelines set by nature. The authors are convinced we can all improve our standard of living – and our democratic control over the institutions that lead us – by changing the way we think about the earth. So to heck with war news. I’ll chose to be inspired by a visionary look at the future any day over being depressed by images of present day destruction.
The old adage comes to mind, ‘if we’re heading toward a cliff and the next step may send us over the edge, progress is more likely to be one step backward than one forward.’ This book makes the case that we are dangerously close to the edge; that the planet is not tolerating human behaviour as generously as our systems of production require. We would do well, they say, to take a sober look at what we expect from this earth – and then modify our behaviour before we get pushed off the edge. The bright light amidst the gloom is that we (at least some) are already doing what we need to. We’re given examples, in this book, of industries and farms that are keying in to nature’s laws and making a healthy income doing so. So what’s holding us back? Convention mostly. Granted, there’s a certain comfort in doing what we’ve always done.
Interface, an office flooring business is outstripping its competition because it figured out that most of the used carpet in all those high rise office towers had not been used at all when it was thrown away. Only the carpet in the centre of each office space was worn. So they offered to manage the flooring for corporations by laying their carpet in removable squares. The corporations experienced huge savings, Interface made huge profits and the amount of waste going to the city dump was greatly reduced. Interface then recognized their next challenge. They’ve developed rigorous carpet fibers that are recyclable and even compostable when thrown away, thereby not only improving business capital but natural capital as well. Everybody wins – except stuck-in-the-mud competitors.
The war my family follows in the news is, at least in part, about who controls the reserves of oil on this planet. Hawken and Lovins tell us not to be overly concerned about oil. In the next decade or so, they tell us, the price of oil will drop because it will be inefficient to use compared to hydrogen fuel cell technologies being developed for use in cars and industries. The authors argue that this “electrochemical process . . . is silent, rugged, and the most efficient and reliable known way to turn fuel into electricity at any scale, from running a hearing aid to a factory”. And the only emission is hot water. “Invention is the sudden cessation of stupidity” they quip, quoting Edwin Land. Citizens, automobile companies and progressive governments are becoming convinced that the oil economy is disastrous for the earth and our selves. As the ‘hypercar’ becomes more popular, production will rise and within a few years will match and then soon exceed the internal combustion vehicle in affordability. Again, everybody and every living thing will win when this revolution takes place – except for those who cling to oil.
Natural Capital, according to these authors, has four main strategies. One, we will learn to radically increase the efficiency with which we use natural resources. Two, we will eliminate the very idea of waste – mimicking nature’s recycling systems. Three, we will rely less on the production of goods and more on the delivery of wellbeing to drive our economies. (As I understand it, instead of a factory producing a toaster for me that may or may not do its job beyond its meager warranty, the factory would offer me a long-term contract of toasting service. It would be in the factory’s interest to provide me with a long-lasting durable product with upgrades in order to keep my business. Companies would compete by offering results and satisfaction rather than equipment and parts.) And four, we will learn to invest in our earth’s natural capital as the finest way of ensuring our communal interests. People around the earth are demanding a reshaping of our relationship with our host planet. Opportunities for business and meaningful employment along lines led by these strategies are where the exciting new growth is.
If an industry is running out of a key component because a supplier’s stock is getting thin, the authors argue, that industry must take immediate action to ensure its continued productivity. And so it should be that as a global community we should recognize the soil’s inability to keep up with our demands. We are running out of arable land and people willing to work the land. Most of us continue to farm as if the top soil will always be with us, when clearly, the authors remind us, we have lost one third of our soils already and we’ve only been farming the prairies for a little more than one hundred years. Most ancient civilizations, they warn, collapsed when they destroyed their topsoil. We have teachers around us and around the globe who have learned how to improve the soil’s productivity by cooperating with natural processes.
The authors point to changes we need to make to the way we distribute food around the globe. Each morsel of food, on average, travels two thousand kilometers before it reaches our mouths. The transport companies are giggling over that development. And who are the losers? Smaller-scale, diversified farmers and people who prefer fresh, tasty and locally grown food. Or most of the people you and I know. The authors hold up the Holistic Management model – which has become popular among smaller-scale farmers in Southwest Manitoba recently – as promising greater returns for farm families while replenishing the soil and giving encouragement to the next generation of farmers. Eaters and distributors of food around the globe are asking to know where the food they buy is being grown and how it’s being grown. They are turning away from food produced with pesticides and antibiotics resulting in organic food sales rising by 20% for the past 5 years. In the grand scheme of things we should see this as good for us who prefer to farm on a smaller than average scale. The future of agriculture, these authors say, is about figuring out how we can capitalize on this localizing ‘from the ground up’ movement.
One reviewer called it the bible of the next (earth friendly) industrial revolution. It may well be. One thing they hammer home time and again is that answers lie in our abilities to envision and bring to fruition healthier and more interdependent communities. The export economy won’t lead us out of the difficulties we are in. But a visit with a neighbour might.