Hawken, P. The Ecology of Commerce

The Ecology of Commerce Paul Hawken, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London, 1993, xvi + 259 pages

Many books about the future disappoint because they are founded on inadequate assumptions and fail to grasp the depth and breadth of their subject. However, The Ecology of Commerce calls the bluff of the anodyne views of conventional business management, forecasting and strategy. In this book Hawken has gone a long way beyond conventional and anodyne views by outlining the essentials of what he terms ‘a restorative economy’. It is a powerful and radical concept. He is quite clear about why this is necessary, quite simply: ‘every living system on Earth is in decline.’ (P. xii) Hence, ‘business as we know it is over. ‘Over’ because it failed in one critical and thoughtless way: it did not honour the myriad forms of life that secure and connect its own breath and skin and heart to the breath and skin and heart of our earth.’ (P. 6)

At first sight this seems like familiar conservationist rhetoric. However, one of the many strengths of this book is that Hawken is a successful businessman: hence the sub-title of the book is ‘How Business Can Save the Planet’. He understands business – but he also knows that its industrial-era priorities and practices are doomed. He is quite clear that ‘the economics of restoration is the opposite of industrialisation.’ (P 11) Hence, ‘what is required is a total redesign of what it means to be in business at the latter stages of the twentieth century, when science can tell us clearly and without doubt that our present course of action is extinguishing life on earth’. (P. 58)

No single book could possibly hope to revise a system as powerfully ramified and embedded as the current business and economy complex now is. However, what Hawken has done is to provide an admirable rationale for so doing and some potent conceptual starting points and principles. For example, he suggests that ‘the restorative economy comes down to this: we need to imagine a prosperous commercial cultures that is so intelligently designed and constructed that it mimics nature at every step, a symbiosis of company and customer and ecology.’ (p. 15) Such an economy ‘tries to achieve a market in which every transaction provides constructive feedback into the commons.’ The final chapter, with its evocative title – The Inestimable Gift of a Future – is impressive. Here he outlines three approaches or guidelines for the creation of a restorative economy. First, ‘to obey the waste-equals-food principle and entirely eliminate waste from our industrial production’. Second, ‘to change from an economy based on carbon to one based on hydrogen and sunshine’. Third, ‘we must create systems of feedback and accountability that support and strengthen restorative behaviour’. (P. 209)

It is impossible to convey the power and insight of this book in a few selected quotes. But it is certainly one of the most heartening and useful books published in recent years. It clearly demonstrates the value of cultural critique in relation to the forward view. As such it is also a powerful demonstration of applied futures scholarship.

Published in Futures 28, 1, 1996, p. 93.