Book Review: The Ecology of Commerce by Paul Hawken


Everyone should read this book. It’s that good, that inspirational, that educational, that frightening and that enlightening. The Ecology of Commerce, subtitled A Declaration of Sustainability, should be a part of every educational curriculum. In my opinion every person pursuing any kind of a business degree, especially those intending to create and/or run a business, should take at least one mandatory course on the principles stated in this book. As an often frustrated environmental thinker, I struggle to explain the concepts involving our economic way of life and its relationship to the environment in ways everyone can understand. This single work lays it out better than any group of publications I’ve ever tried to absorb.

The Ecology of Commerce is not a liberal book or a conservative book, it is a human book. Better stated it is the homo sapiens’ guide to our relationship to the rest of the species that inhabit this planet with us. It is a truthful and insightful look not only at how human institutions impact the planet, but at how business and human ingenuity can thrive while restoring the incredible natural infrastructure that sustains all life. It is powerful, yet sensitive, general, yet specific. It is pragmatic and presents realistic, hopeful and exciting solutions to the conflicts ingrained in human societies.

The author, Paul Hawken, is a fascinating thinker, writer and co-founder of several businesses. He is a well respected environmental and business leader and motivator also known for his work with Amory and Hunter Lovins on the more recent Natural Capitalism, which expands upon the ideas in The Ecology of Commerce. History will look back on The Ecology of Commerce as a groundbreaking foundation in new restorative economic and social theory. It is a powerful work that explains so much about the endless debate of the economy vs. the environment. In fact, the book turns this notion upside down, explaining how the economy and the environment can actually restore one another. Hawken provides understanding of “the other side” to many points of view and contrasting opinions. Never have I read something that so successfully points out the common ground and how we all could be better off through exercising the natural principles of a restorative economy.

Hawken envisions a world where ecological thinking is rewarded in the business model. Here the most sustainable, most environmentally responsible business is also the most successful, in monetary and non-monetary terms. This book is NOT an attack on the free market capitalism that has given us so much prosperity; it is a set of strategies for creating even more success through that same system.

I cannot stress enough how important it is for everyone to buy or borrow a copy of The Ecology of Commerce. It opens up worlds of understanding on so many issues. Whether you’re an environmentalist or a staunch conservative, this book encourages you to take off the boxing gloves and realize the potential of human ingenuity.

One of the book’s central principles explains that while today’s market system is excellent at setting prices, it is incapable of recognizing and internalizing the true costs of today’s products and services on society and the environment, and therefore sets those prices incorrectly and inefficiently. Hawken points out that: “for example, the nuclear power industry for many years argued that it could provide a clean, safe, and inexpensive form of energy. Critics of their claims asserted that the industry did not include in its cost estimates of the expense of decommissioning those plants or the thorny, expensive problem of how to store, guard, and protect nuclear waste for a period longer into the future – in the case of plutonium, over 200,000 years – than that encompassing the whole past history of civilization. Who has been proven correct in their prediction?” Coal, similarly, one of the most damaging forms of energy, remains the cheapest.

And in the case of food and fiber, it is the chemically treated, mass produced product that is the cheapest, not the organic or sustainably produced product. Many people don’t know that cotton is one of the most polluting crops in the world, or that high quality organic (produced without pesticides) cotton products, though expensive, are very available in the marketplace:

“In a restorative economy,” says Hawken, “the chemical farmer of cotton who had to pay the true costs to mitigate the polluting and damaging effects of these practices would most likely come to the market at prices higher than those of cotton that was sustainably produced. The customer could then rely on price as a measure of “efficiency” in the truest sense of the word, giving the chemical farmer every incentive to begin practices that included crop rotation, integrated pest management, soil enhancement, organic enrichment, and intercropping, to name only a few. Competition in the marketplace should not be between a company wasting the environment versus one that is trying to save it. Competition should be between companies which can do the best job in restoring and preserving the environment, thereby reversing historical price and cost incentives of the industrial system that essentially send the wrong signals to consumers. The ultimate point of cost/price integration is to fully enfranchise all businesses into the process of environmental restoration. It shouldn’t be so hard to do the right thing.”

The Ecology of Commerce also does a good job of explaining the often misunderstood criticisms of globalization and “free trade” agreements and organizations. Remember the WTO issues in Seattle ? The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund? These issues will undoubtedly arise with increasing frequency, and it is important for the public to understand them. If you don’t get it, see Chapter 6 of this book.

It also presents a fascinating look at the evolution of business in America . Early corporate charters were very limited in their powers, and were largely controlled by the public that chartered them. Including the establishment in law of the corporation as a person, Hawken further explains how we arrived at today’s corporate domination of society. He does not intend to attack the notion of corporate influence, but rather to examine how it could again become an effort by the people for the people and the environment.

The final chapter is titled “The Inestimable Gift of a Future.” It begins by exploring the very real concerns about population and carrying capacity: “What is the rate at which and manner in which the world can sustain the human population that exists and is growing? We don’t know the answer to that question yet.”

As the book comes to a close, it challenges the reader to consider the amazing rewards of participating in a restorative new economy. It reminds us that it is at the grass roots that great progress begins. Progress and prosperity does not require great sacrifice on anyone’s part. It merely requires thoughtful participation and simple everyday acts of informed decision. The Ecology of Commerce shows us that we can do better by doing good, a process that rewards itself.

Adam J. Coppock