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#354 - A Major New Statement On Sustainability, 08-Sep-1993

An important new statement on sustainability has just been published by
the UTNE READER.[1] Here we summarize and excerpt it, skimping on the

The author is Paul Hawken, a businessman (founder of Smith and Hawken,
which sells upscale gardening implements, furniture and clothing). He
starts by discussing the "socially responsible business" movement --
some 2000 or so U.S. companies that aim to do good while doing a brisk

Hawken immediately confronts a hard truth: if every company on the
planet were to adopt the environmental and social practices of the best
companies--of, say, the Body Shop, Patagonia, and Ben and Jerry's Ice
Cream--the world would still be moving toward environmental degradation
and collapse. Therefore what we have here is not a management problem
but a design problem.

If the fundamental problem is overconsumption (people simply using up
too much of the Earth's bounty), then socially-responsible businesses
are contributing to the decline of the planet as quickly as other
companies because they too promote consumption.

In order to approximate a sustainable society, we need to describe a
system of commerce and production in which each and every act is
inherently sustainable and restorative. Businesses will not be able to
fulfill their social contract with the environment or society until the
system within which they operate undergoes a fundamental change, a
change that brings commerce and government into alignment with the
natural world from which we receive our life.

A system of sustainable commerce would involve these objectives:

1) It would reduce absolute consumption of energy and natural resources
among developed nations by 80 percent within 40 to 60 years. 2) It
would provide secure, stable, and meaningful employment for people
everywhere. 3) It would be self-actuating as opposed to regulated,
controlled, mandated, or moralistic. 4) It would honor human nature and
market principles. 5) It would be perceived as more desirable than our
present way of life. 6) It would exceed sustainability by restoring
degraded habitats and ecosystems to their fullest biological capacity.
7) It would rely on current solar income. 8) It should be fun and
engaging, and strive for an aesthetic outcome.

What is needed, says Hawken, is a conscious plan to create a
sustainable future, including a set of design strategies for people to
follow. He suggests 12:

1) Take back the corporate charter; reassert legal control by state
legislatures over the issuance of corporate charters. Bad actors should
lose their charter to do business. "This is not merely a deterrent to
corporate abuse but a critical element of an ecological society because
it creates feedback loops that prompt accountability, citizen
involvement, and learning," says Hawken.

2. Adjust prices to reflect costs. The market presently gives consumers
bad information. For example, it tells us that flying across the
country on a discount airline ticket is cheap when it really is not. It
tells us that our food is inexpensive when its method of production
destroys aquifers and soil, the viability of ecosystems, and workers'
lives. Market economies are excellent at setting prices but lousy at
recognizing costs. It is surprising that conservative economists do not
support or understand these ideas because it is they who insist that we
should pay as we go, have no debts, and take care of business. Let's do
it, says Hawken.

3. Throw out and replace the entire tax system. The present system
taxes what we want to encourage--jobs, creativity, payrolls, and real
income--and it ignores the things we want to discourage--degradation,
pollution, and depletion. The entire tax system must be replaced over
the next 20 years by "Green fees," taxes that are added onto existing
products, energy, services, and materials so that prices in the
marketplace more closely approximate true costs. Under an enlightened
and redesigned tax system, the cheapest product in the marketplace
would be best for the customer, the worker, the environment, and the
company (rarely the case today).

4. Turn resource companies into utilities. An energy utility is an
interesting hybrid of public-private interests. A utility gains a
market monopoly in exchange for public control of rates, open books,
and a guaranteed rate of return. Because of this relationship, and the
pioneering work of Amory Lovins, we now have markets for negawatts.
Negawatts are the opposite of energy. They represent the collaborative
ability of a utility to harness efficiency instead of hydrocarbons.
This conservation-based alternative saves ratepayers, shareholders, and
the company money--with the savings passed along to everyone.

All resource systems, including oil, gas, forests, and water should be
run by some form of utility, creating markets in negabarrels,
negatrees, and negacoal.

Oil companies could form an oil utility and "invest" in insulation,
super-glazed windows, conservation rebates on new automobiles and the
scrapping of old cars. Consumers would pay them back a return on their
conservation investment equal to what utilities receive, a rate of
return that would be in accord with how many barrels of oil they save,
rather than how many barrels they produce. A $60 billion investment in
conservation will yield, conservatively, 4 to 10 times as much energy
as drilling for oil. Imagine a system where the resource utility
benefits from conservation, makes money from efficiency, thrives
through restoration, and profits from sustainability. It is possible
today, says Hawken.

5. Change linear systems into cyclical ones. Our economy has many
design flaws but the most glaring one is that nature is cyclical and
industrialism is linear. In nature no linear systems exist because they
exhaust themselves into extinction. Because industrialism is linear,
Americans produce six times their body weight every week in hazardous
and toxic waste water, incinerator ash, agricultural wastes, heavy
metals, and waste chemicals, wood, paper, etc. This does not include
CO2 which if it were included would double the amount of waste.
Cyclical means of production are designed to imitate natural systems in
which waste equals food for other forms of life, nothing is thrown
away, and symbiosis replaces competition.

6. Transform the making of things. There are three categories of
products: consumables, durables and unsalables. Consumables are
products that are either eaten or when they are placed in the ground
turn into dirt. We should be designing more things so that they can be
thrown away into the compost heap. Heretical as it sounds, designing
for decomposition, not recycling, is the way of the world around us.

7. Durables should not be sold but merely licensed. Cars, TVs, VCRs and
refrigerators would always belong to the original manufacturer so they
would be made, used, and returned within a closed-loop system.
Unsalables are toxins, radioactivity, heavy metals, and many other
chemicals. No living system treats these as food, and they can never be
thrown away. These must always belong to the original maker, but must
be safeguarded by public utilities that store them in glass-lined
barrels indefinitely and charge the original manufacturer rent for the
service. The rent ceases when a scientific panel confirms that there is
a safe method to detoxify the material. All toxic chemicals would carry
molecular markings identifying them as belonging to the manufacturer so
that if they are found in wells, rivers, soil, or fish the manufacturer
must retrieve them and clean up.

8. Restore the guardian

There can be no healthy business sector unless there is a health
government sector. There are two overarching and complementary
syndromes permeating our society: the commercial and the guardian
(business and government). They need each other. At present our
guardian system has almost completely broken down because of the money,
power, influence and control exercised by business and, to a lesser
degree, other institutions. Business is preventing the economy from
evolving, so business loses, workers lose, and the environment loses.

9. Shift from electronic literacy to biologic literacy. We are moving
not into an information age but a biologic age, and unfortunately our
technological education is preparing us for corporate markets, not for
the future. Understanding biological processes is how we are going to
create a new symbiosis with living systems (or perish).

10. Take inventory. We do not know how many species live on the planet
within a factor of 10. We do not know how many of these species are
being lost. We do not know what happens to 20 percent of the CO2 that
is off-gassed each year (it simply disappears). We do not know how to
calculate sustainable yields in fisheries and forest systems. In short,
we need to find out what's here, who has it, and what we can or can't
do with it.

11. Take care of human health. The greatest amount of human suffering
and mortality is caused by environmental problems that are not being
addressed by environmental organizations or companies. Contaminated
water is killing a hundred times more people than all other forms of
pollution combined. Millions of children are dying from preventable
diseases and malnutrition. Ironically this creates a population problem
because people produce more children when they're afraid they'll lose
them. Not until the majority of people in the world understand that
environmentalism means improving their lives directly will the ecology
movement walk its talk. Americans will spend more money in the next 12
months on the movie and mementos of JURASSIC PARK than on foreign aid
to prevent malnutrition or provide safe water.

12. Respect the human spirit. If hope is to pass the sobriety test,
then it has to walk a pretty straight line to reality. Nothing written,
suggested, or proposed here is possible unless business is willing to
integrate itself into the natural world. It is time for business to
initiate a genuinely open process of dialogue, collaboration,
reflection, and redesign.

Business must yield to the longings of the human spirit. The most
important contribution of the socially responsible business movement
has little to do with recycling, nuts from the rainforest, or employing
the homeless. Their gift to us is that they are leading by trying to do
something, to risk, take a chance, make a change--any change. They are
not waiting for "the solution," but are acting without guarantees of
success or proof of purchase. That is what all of us must do. Being
visionary has always been given a bad rap by commerce. But without a
positive vision for humankind we can have no meaning, no work, and no

--Peter Montague


[1] Paul Hawken, "A Declaration of Sustainability," UTNE READER
(September/October, 1993), pgs. 54-61. The ideas in Hawken's UTNE
article are from his new book, THE ECOLOGY OF COMMERCE, to be published
in November by HarperCollins ($23.00). UTNE READER is a bimonthly
journal that really does capture "the best of the alternative press."
$18 per year from: LENS Publishing Co., 1624 Harmon Place, Suite 330,
Minneapolis, MN 55403; (612) 338-5040. Subscribe to the UTNE READER;
you won't be disappointed.

Descriptor terms: sustainability; green business; utne reader; paul
hawken; socially responsible business; overconsumption; restoration
ecology; solar energy; corporations; corporate charters; full-cost
pricing; economics; taxation; green fees; utilities; energy
conservation; overviews; utopias; what we must do;