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Toward a Restorative Economy
From a 1994 Talk by Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken
Photo of Paul Hawken, 2012,
by Raymond Baltar

Waste equals food. Current solar income. Increase biodiversity. Simple words but complex concepts. According to futurist and writer Paul Hawken, they're concepts we have to understand if we want to survive as a species on a living planet.

The Industrial Age, Paul Hawken says, is dead. What must be created instead is an economy based on restorative development, an economy which imitates the efficient practices of nature. Instead of turning raw materials into products that are thrown away, products will themselves become the source of materials for future goods. Instead of relying on a finite capital supply of fossil and other fuels, the economy will rely on sun-powered renewable energy sources. Instead of decreasing biodiversity, the purpose of human work will be to increase it.

From Hawken's perspective, such a future is the only one that can be imagined. All others lead to environmental, economic and social collapse as the human population grows.

Hawken's good news is that the transition from the Industrial Age to his new economy has already started. The technology is available. As he says, “The train is already leaving the station.”

Hawken, whose works have been published in twenty-six languages, is probably best known for his book The Ecology of Commerce. He spoke about the ideas in his book, and his thinking since writing it, at The Designing For The Environment symposium held in Toronto in 1994. His words and ideas remain fresh today.

During his address, Hawken detailed some of the ways in which industrial systems are beginning to imitate nature's cycling of materials, referring specifically to the Intelligent Product System developed in Germany and the pioneering work done by German industrial chemist Michael Braungart.

Redesigning the world

“When you look at this issue of the environment and business, you're looking at the two great systems which dominate our lives: the natural systems and the commercial-industrial systems. How are we going to, literally, redesign the world? On a global level there are some very important criteria. The first criteria is that we in the north, in the industrialized nations, have to reduce our throughput [the processing of raw materials to products to waste] by 80 percent.

“We have to do this for several reasons. In our reaching out to the Third World we hold out to them the bootstrap of materialization. We say, you too can live like us. The problem is, there's no boot attached to the strap. We would have to increase the industrial capacity of the world by a magnitude of 16 in order for the rest of the world to live as we do. This is impossible. We simply don't have those resources or those sinks [for pollution].

“We in the north have to imagine, describe and then create a way of materialization, that can be imitated by the rest of the world. We have the technology right now. The increased use of resources is not creating jobs.

“The second criteria is this: We have to reduce consumption. We have to do that in such a way as to improve the quality, and the amount and the meaninglfulness of work. We're adding two billion people to the workforce in the next 20 to 25 years and we don't have jobs for them. Young people without jobs, without any meaningful relationship to society, are prey to all sorts of idealogues, charlatans, AK 47s. We're simply not dealing with it. We're not even talking about it.

"What we're talking about is the economics of restoration. Sustainability cannot be calculated. It cannot be measured. Nobody can tell you what is sustainable, because it's a dynamic system. Our relationship should be a restorative one. You're either restoring or degrading. There is no grey middle area."

“The third thing is, what we're talking about is the economics of restoration. Sustainability cannot be calculated. It cannot be measured. Nobody can tell you what is sustainable, because it's a dynamic system. Our relationship should be a restorative one. You're either restoring or degrading. There is no grey middle area.”

A transition period

“I would suggest that, rather than telling you how to do it, it's already happening. We are in the transition from the Industrial Age to a “Blank” Age and I have no idea what to call it. We do not have a name for where we're going. We are in a transition period. The train is already leaving the station.

“The Industrial Revolution was designed by default. Nobody ever stood up and said, I did it. The Industrial Revolution was a marvellous transformation of resources. In fact, somebody representing the Industrial Revolution should be given a reward, a pat on the back, a gold watch, and told to go home. It's done, it's finished. The Industrial Revolution is over.

“Unfortunately, what we're still using is the same sort of paradigm. We have a growing diminishment of our resources, and that includes our water, our soils, our bodies. What I'm suggesting is the transition is a reversal of everything we've seen, not in the sense of being retrogressive, but an inversion. The next industrial age we're going to, everything is different, everything is going to be redefined.”

The Intelligent Product System

“How do you make things work so they conform to natural systems? Now, in natural systems, there are principles we can use. Those principles are very simple. The first one is: Waste equals food. The second principle is: It runs on current solar income. It doesn't involve capital, it doesn't involve carrying capacity. The third thing is: It creates, and requires in return, enormously diverse biological pathways.

“Now, how do you apply that to pens, and cars and shoes? If you make something in the world (according to the Intelligent Product System) it has to prescribe to three categories: consumables, products of service and unsaleables. If it doesn't fall into one of those three categories, it's a knockout – it means you can't make it.

“What German industrial chemist Michael Braungart means by consumables is that, if you take an item that you've made, if you place it on the ground, on the dirt literally, it will be compostable without any assistance.

“Almost nothing we have made corresponds to that, including our food. If you're wearing black [clothing], this has about 100 grams of lead chromium. If you have shoes that are leather, they're probably chromium tanned as well.

“Even if these things had no health effect, the problem is: Where do you put them when you're done? That's the issue. Which landfill are you going to put them in? All the material that you wear, is literally, at the mills, when they cut it off, hazardous by definition. Now keep in mind that for every pound of waste that goes in the ground, there is ten times as much molecular garbage as there is solid waste.”

Products of Service

“Here's how the Germans are describing a product of service: When you buy a car, when you buy a refrigerator, when you buy a television, what you want is transport, cold beer, entertainment. That's why you buy it.

“Industrialism has increased human productivity, and it did so spectacularly, a hundred-fold increase in a hundred years. We are very productive. What I would suggest is that we're too productive. We increase human productivity by decreasing natural resources by using more and more of our natural capital.”

“They're saying that if you [as a company] make a durable good, it's yours for life. That is, it has to come back to you. There are nutrient cycles of living systems, and they go back to living systems, or they're technical nutrients, and they have to be kept in the closed loop of an industrial cycle, and those cannot go into the living system. What's happening now is that the industrial system is breaching the living system.

“The Germans are saying: It's yours, it's yours forever. Second of all, they have to design into the specifications of a component how they're going to reuse them. This is producing tremendous material breakthroughs and also some real revelations, because companies are coming back to the chemical companies and they're saying, I don't want it back, we can't handle it, get rid of those heavy metals.

“So you're getting plastic breakthroughs which don't have heavy metals, which don't have isocyanate. One of the interesting breakthroughs, chemically, was a polymeric chain that can act as an ink, basically, and you can print with it. The interesting thing about it is that when you put your paper in a wash at 130 degrees, the ink then goes into solution, the solution is drawn off, and it goes back to the ink company where they put in a new bonding agent. Now the paper, because it's only being subjected to water instead of chemicals in the de-inking process, can be used 13 to 14 times longer. You have these two materials being used in a continuous loop. It's a very different approach, very imaginative, just a different way of looking at the world, but you have a dramatic reduction in the amount of energy and materials being used.

“The last category the Germans are talking about is unsaleables: Radiation, radioactive materials, chemicals. What the Germans are saying is that if you make a toxic, persistent chemical, you have to mark it and it's yours for life. Interesting....”

Healing the breach

“The breach between industrial and living systems has to be healed. And that's the intelligent product system. It's an interesting system and I think it will take over. There are now some people in the United States who are producing carpet tile on the back of which there's an 800 number. They've designed the carpet to be taken back. They want it back. They'll come anywhere to pick it up, for free, because it's designed for remanufacture and reuse.

“Industrialism has increased human productivity, and it did so spectacularly, a hundred-fold increase in a hundred years. We are very productive. What I would suggest is that we're too productive. We increase human productivity by decreasing natural resources by using more and more of our natural capital.”

The balance sheet

“When we begin to bring natural capital into the balance sheet then we will know, once and for all, whether capitalism works or not because it's never been tried. And when you bring on the air, the earth, the water, the soil, the creatures of the forest and so forth, and you put them on the balance sheet you have a very different economic system.

“It tells us to shift away from making human beings more productive to making natural resource systems more productive. Because as we create more productive systems in nature we require more and more people to do it. We still have an economic system that can grow, by internal differentiation, by using less stuff and hiring more people and, oddly enough, lowering productivity and increasing profitability. It is absolutely a reversal. Neoclassical economics is a description, after the fact, of the industrial world.

"The first rule of ecology is that everything is connected."

“When you think about redesigning the world so it's in the image of natural systems, you're not just changing an object, you're changing everything. The first rule of ecology is that everything is connected.

“I have a friend who teaches kids at risk in Pittsburgh and he says, you can't teach people who don't want to be here and what he means is they don't want to be here on this planet. The United States has one percent of its population in jail, California is the largest penal colony in the world, and we're calling it economic development. There's no way the government, or any agency, can tell people they're valuable. It won't work. They have to feel like they're valuable. And until we have industrial systems that place value on natural resources, there is no way that human resources are going to be valued.

“This Age of Reformation is here. The train is leaving the station. It's okay if you don't have the big picture but, believe me, the big picture is here. And it's absolutely the most exciting thing that's ever happened, in any generation at any time. Will we make it? I don't know. Is there enough time? I don't know. No one knows. The only thing is to do it. What else is there to do? The only job, the only work there is, is to redesign the world. Short of that, what meaning could other work have? What meaning could our government have?

“We begin to see the emergence of ecological design principles that fly under the radar of existing values. They don't threaten, nor do they support, these different belief systems; they just are. Waste equals food. Current solar income. Increase biodiversity. Those are our principles. It's our job to design them.”

Learn More

The Ecology of Commerce: A Declaration of Sustainability by Paul Hawken

Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken

Blessed Unrest: How the Largest Social Movement in History Is Restoring Grace, Justice, and Beauty to the World by Paul Hawken

Natural Capitalism




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