The economic headlines have been jarring. The global financial system is on the brink of collapse, the economy is in deep crisis and leaders are seemingly helpless. None have solutions to halt the current crisis or the larger crisis approaching. People around the world − from Israel to the United States, Greece and Chile − are becoming impatient and fomenting revolutions.
But what if all this is actually a good thing? What if this is the next industrial revolution, taking place right now, and we’re simply refusing to see it?
That optimistic take is the opinion of American author, entrepreneur and environmental activist Paul Hawken, a dominant voice within the green movement. Hawken believes we’re at the start of a revolution that will replace the current system with “natural capitalism.” The new system will be based on maximizing the utility of resources and products, and will bring prosperity by reducing waste. It also will present tons of opportunities for businessmen and entrepreneurs who, like Hawken, see the future.
“I have only a hunch as to what the next industrial revolution will look like,” Hawken tells TheMarker by phone. “The temptation is to tweak the current era with ‘gee-whiz’ technologies and imagine a future. My sense is that this revolution will be marked by a very different sensibility and thinking. The current industrial era is one marked by domination and violence. The current era is one where men force forests, soil, chemicals, water, metals to do what they want, employing heat, disruption, pressure, explosion and more.
“We think of war as violent,” he continues, “but we have to understand that everything − from the car to everyday chemicals, to the way we educate our children and treat women − is violent in the world today. It is about coercion and power.”
Nature does not work that way, he says.“I suspect that the reigning technologies and technological paradigms will be similar to nature, in that they will follow the path of least resistance − which is the core definition of nonviolence,” he says. “This type of technology, currently exemplified by biomimicry and green chemistry, will be less expensive, nontoxic (on the whole), more effective, easier to make and more accessible to all.”
Martin Luther King’s spokesman
Hawken, 66, has authored six books that have been published in 27 languages in more than 50 countries. They include “Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution” (1999), which forecasts an economy based on ecological principles such as resource preservation and efficiency, utilizing the earth more intelligently and letting mankind prosper.
Hawken’s writings dovetail with his social activism and entrepreneurship. He was a member of the civil rights movement alongside Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1965, filling various spokesman roles, and was consequently seized by Klansmen. In 1966 he bought a small organic food store, and by the early 1970s he turned it into the United States’ largest organic food distributor, Erewhon. This was the start of the organic food movement. Hawken also went on to found Smith & Hawken, a gardening supply company that was sold in 1993 to the CML group. He wrote his 1987 book “Growing a Business” based on his success as a businessman and entrepreneur, arguing that a business succeeds when it’s a means for its founders to express their excitement and creativity.
Currently, beyond writing books and lecturing, Hawken is preparing for the future. He is a consultant for the environmentally aware carpet company Interface and manages the Natural Capital Institute, a research institute he founded in 2000 that focuses on combining the principles of economics with social justice and environmental preservation. He is also CEO of energy company One Sun Solar, which manufactures ultra-low cost, environmentally friendly photovoltaic panels.
Hawken also invests in green chemistry and biomimicry, a relatively new science that investigates nature’s models, systems and structures in order to imitate them to solve humanity’s problems. These two fields will be the basis of the next industrial revolution, he says.
“The industrial system is basically catabolic; it tears down living systems,” Hawken states. “That cannot continue if we are to have a viable civilization.”
In order to sustain ourselves and reverse the destructive course, we need an industrial system based on some basic principles, he says. “First, it must radically increase the productivity of resources, which means we need to get 10 times more value out of electrons, fuels, fibers, water and minerals,” he says.
“Second, we must change the nature of the material flow to one that is biomimetic – safe, nontoxic, recyclable and capable of being produced with low impact.
“Third, we have to think of our economy as a system, and products as a flow of services, not a stockpile of stuff,” he continues. “This means that almost everything we make and use should be sold as a service, so that the original maker retains ownership, ensuring that the object will be made to be reusable, made to be serviceable, and made to have value when its first use is completed.”
Finally, this means increasing the stock of resources, he says.
“This is accomplished by strict controls on fisheries, biological farming, reforestation, arresting climate change, and much more,” says Hawken. “This is the economy that will be profitable in the future because it does two obvious things: It meets people’s needs and it meets the needs of the planet. Can’t do the first without doing the latter.”
Better than growth
And if all that sounds horribly depressing, Hawken says, you’re merely being shortsighted. True, the economy of the future won’t be based on constantly growing resource consumption, like the current economy, but it will ensure more efficient use of resources and thus a better quality of life.
“I would not call it post-growth,” he says. “I would call it better than growth. Right now we are growing war, cancer, toxicity, oceanic dead zones, deserts, poverty, social unrest. Don’t get me wrong, there are also many fantastic and wonderful things we are creating, but overall the growth economy is leading to an endgame.
“Better than growth means we shift from trying to grow quantitatively to qualitatively, because that is what people want – a
better quality of life. Where we are going is far superior, more evolved, more sophisticated and kinder to people and the planet than where we are now. Backward is where we are going and will go if we cling to outmoded concepts of economic growth.”
The world can be a much better place, but within constraints, he says.
“Those constraints are biophysical limits. We are bound by the laws of nature and the laws of physics. The sooner we align our societies and economies with these laws, the happier and more prosperous we will be.
“We can ask ourselves this one question: Who do we know who is truly happy, truly secure and truly at peace? This is becoming rare. Where we are is not the best of all possible outcomes but rather a system that is worsening by the week.”
A vision is needed, he says.
“We need a vision of the future that all people can participate in and contribute to, one that is fair, one that will ensure decency and security, one that will benefit those who participate, one that will eliminate the cause of wars (it is always resources and control of resources, no matter what historians say), one that will breed peace.”
The historic changes taking place today − the collapse of the current industrial system − will speed up the next industrial revolution, says Hawken. That revolution ultimately will be ecological, since the first thing that the current system destroyed − well before it destroyed the elderly’s life savings − was the planet’s natural resources.
“This criticism has largely fallen on deaf ears,” Hawken says, “because during the past few decades, commodity prices have fallen and there has been considerable economic growth, both of which arguably contradict predictions of resource shortages.”
For the past 40 years, economic growth was stimulated by increasing supplies of money and credit at an even quicker pace, even though people didn’t realize this, he says.
“That mountain of debt is now a debt emergency of monumental proportions,” he says. “If there were a solution to the crisis, it would have been done by now. The best minds in the world have been hard at it since 2008 and the situation is only getting worse. There is no solution because there is no solution. The world credit and banking system is insolvent.”
It’s worth listening to Hawken’s gut instinct. After all, he forecast the current global wave of uprisings back in 2007 in his book “Blessed Unrest.” The foment of the past year is a sign that a paradigm change is approaching, he says.
“There are maybe some 1 million organizations in the world that devote themselves to the environment, social justice and indigenous rights. These groups believe that self-sufficiency is a human right. They imagine a future where the means to kill people is not a business but a crime, where families do not starve, where fathers can work, where children are never sold, where women cannot be impoverished because they choose to be mothers. They believe that water and air belong to us all, not to the rich. They believe seeds and life itself cannot be owned or patented by corporations. They believe that nature is the basis of true prosperity and must be honored.
“This shared understanding is arising spontaneously, from different economic sectors, cultures, regions and cohorts. And it is growing and spreading, with no exception, throughout this country [the United States] and worldwide.
“We live in a world created by privilege and are moving toward a world created by community,” he continues. “This is monumental and difficult, and like any movement, it can fail. But I doubt it will, because the institutions ‘in charge’ of the world are failing – the U.S., IMG, UN, WTO, World Bank, national governments, money center banks, the Vatican, etc. I am not condemning them so much as I am pointing out that they no longer understand the world.”
Despite his glum outlook for the short term, Hawken says he remains optimistic. Ultimately, the future offers no small number of opportunities for ambitious businessmen to profit.
“It is hard to underestimate the opportunities because everything we presently do, make and use will need to be reinvented if we are to radically lower our ecological footprint and bring and meet people’s needs for a decent and prospering life. It is also difficult to overestimate the challenge in making this transition, because there is so much momentum in the current thermal, catabolic industrial system. Almost every investment, all capital stock and virtually every educational curriculum is preparing us for the past, not the future.”
This article was originally published in Hebrew in TheMarker Magazine’s February edition.
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