Monday, 17 January 2011

Book Review – The Ecology of Commerce


This book by Paul Hawken is interesting and full of food for thought. However, I largely disagreed with his vision. It’s as if he has a lot of right ideas and information, but because of flawed logic, he often reaches an unsatisfactory conclusion. It’s a schizophrenic presentation and he even discusses this concept himself. Despite this, and although the book was written nearly two decades ago, I decided to write this review because there are many people who believe that the market economy can fix our current problems by incorporating prices and all costs for natural resources and services. I hope my comments shed some light on why I strongly disagree with this.

Paul Hawken starts out with the question, “... can we create profitable, expandable companies that do not destroy, directly or indirectly, the world around them?” He then delves into seeking an answer. I was unconvinced he found one.

He calls for corporations, as the dominant institution on the planet, to address the social and environmental problems that affect humankind. He then qualifies this by saying that although corporate managers are intelligent, they have not been able to model a sustainable world, and so, looking to corporations can only supply part of an overall solution. And yet later on, he says that “any substantial change in the ways in which we degrade our environment will have to emerge from business leadership” (p 148). One flaw in all of this stems from his claim that the ultimate purpose of business is not, or should not be, simply to make money (p 1) because business law requires it to be so. On this basis, he idealistically thinks that business is a system that can increase the general well-being of humankind through service, creative invention and ethical philosophy, which frankly, is rubbish unless and until the legal framework of business is changed.

However, Hawken does recognise many of the shortcomings of global corporations, which as he says, glide easily across borders, cultures, and governments in search of markets, sales, assets and profits while dishonouring life on earth. He points to a lack of science to inform society of industrialisms’ effects. But science is just an excuse as can be witnessed by the fact that we have not changed direction since 1993 when this book was published and much science had been flaunted before and has been since then.

He calls for a sustainable method of commerce that allows humans to fulfil their desires to flourish and prosper. He does not explain what flourish and prosper means, but I doubt indigenous peoples would have the same view. He also says that doing the right thing might put corporations out of business. This is my Positive Vision No. 3. In addition, he asks “[h]ow many people does a company have to harm before we question if it ought to exist?” (p 122). But rather than following either of these threads through, he continues with the premise that business and the market can work ecologically.

He talks about governments needing to create wealth and that is why they partner with business. But as he discusses, this leads to the erosion of democracy.

One of Hawken’s main themes is that a restorative economy is possible which can integrate with or replicate cyclical systems in its means of production and distribution where making money and restoring the environment would be the same process. However, commerce requires efficiency and speed, whereas cyclical systems require time and patience, making these two incompatible. Also, providing goods and services frequently has little to do with restoration, even in an ideal market. He does say that corporations are the opposite of nature (p 103) but then he says that efficiency should represent the bridge to a restorative economy (p. 179) which shows that he does not truly grasp the fact that efficiency is a commercial concept that has nothing to do with nature.

Hawken talks about factoring in true costs, which the market has been incapable of recognizing. This is a popular concept today. But what is the true cost of a loaf of bread, especially when the government takes our money and pays it to transnational corporations (TNCs) as subsidies to cut corners on the nutritional value of the bread? He says that complex and onerous regulations will be replaced by motivating standards. I cannot see anything that could be motivational other than profit in a system designed to make money. And I cannot understand why he thinks corporations should not be regulated, especially after letting us know that corporations kill 28,000 people and seriously injured 130,000 every year by selling dangerous and defective products. And this doesn’t even include those killed and injured by toxic waste, poor quality foods and medical supplies. Also, the idea that mankind can create anything natural for a price, such as clean water, is very short sighted considering the fact that something as simple as a loaf of bread has been ruined by the market.

Hawken claims that we like our comfortable lifestyles and that business is reinforced by our own desires, which in itself, is debatable. But, “[e]xtravagance of desire is the fundamental cause which has led the world into its present predicament” (Fukuoka, 1978). However, one only has to look around the world to see how much of these so-called desires are created and reinforced by corporate propaganda, and for many, they do not provide a comfortable lifestyle, just a consumerist one, which Hawken even acknowledges (p 132). He proposes that it is possible to create eco-commercial systems without a transformation of humankind. But he misses the point that economic forces need to exploit and destroy because that is the nature of competition upon which commerce relies and thrives. He says that business contains our blessing because it is the only institution that has the power to make change. This is nonsense because power implies force and inequality. In contrast, cooperation implies peace and the only way to live in harmony with nature. There are exceptions with smaller businesses, but transnational corporations operate through power and do not have the blessing of many, although this is probably more obvious today than then.

Hawken later acknowledges that business thrives on the idea of competition and blames the negative results on the need for growth which is fuelled by investment. He then touches upon the negative aspects of financial capital in today’s market. He points out that money decides what is valuable, which he claims is a market choice. But more to the point, it is a manmade choice and this is one of the main reasons why I do not support including natural resources and services in the market, because men will still be discriminating between one thing in nature against another instead of respecting all of nature and working with it instead of against it. I discussed this phenomenon in my article about the superiority complex.

Hawken says that business is the problem and calls for business to solve it. But, because much of the business that is the problem is comprised of corporations which are separate legal persons, I say that this is rather like asking robots to act humanely. He seems to be asking for just this on page 167, and expects commerce to have a receptive ear and an open heart (p 216) even after talking about corporations being a form of technology (pp 119 -120). In addition, he continually tries to support business with claims that it is efficient and has positive attributes. However, he then says “[t]he seeds of corporate dysfunction reside in the nature of business, not in the size of the enterprise” (p 60) which makes his theory that business can fix anything lose all validity.

The decline in biodiversity and the evolutionary process he calls the birth of death. He put it very well when he says that “[w]e can’t turn our backs on the web of life that sustains us, and live in a biological vacuum engineered by technology” (p 30). But he then contradicts himself again by saying that markets are the perfect mechanism for worldwide trade because they are separate from philosophy or religion or political belief (p 76)! Yet later on he seems to think that corporations should be ethical (p 136). The web of life includes the spiritual and social sides of human beings because we are not partly in the web of life, but wholly in it. In fact, being separate is probably the biggest downfall of the market! He says that it is difficult to argue with markets (p 77), but I disagree. He talks about wealth and riches being attainable in the market. But what is a treasure chest full of gold compared to clean air, clean water and freedom? When markets are free they are not our friend guided by Adam Smith’s invisible hand (as if this is some sort of God). Rather, we are enslaved by the illusion of prosperity and health which in reality brings chains of binding consumerism and ill-health both for us and the planet. A recent BBC documentary confirmed that many people have trouble empathising which is another symptom of what I call egoitis, that is, having a big ego, but meanwhile, they think they are fine! I know Hawken's thinking is skewed when he mentions Monsanto in a positive light (p 81).

Interestingly,  Hawken realises at least on one level that free-trade is a delusion because he refers to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) as a “managed” trade agreement and gives examples of harm caused because of it. History repeats itself. One only has to look at Greenland today to see what the creation of jobs, wealth, markets and export means, which is the rallying call of free-trade. Hawken recognised this as he said that literally thousands of native cultures around the world have been destroyed by economic development. Further though, he says that although we are attracted and repelled by large organizations, we need them because the world’s population cannot be served by corner stores. I disagree and he does not give any reason why not. But he gives insight as to why the problem of TNCs persists when he says that “in the West [we] are proud of our largest companies, almost as if they were sports teams that can beat the competition” (p 102). This really sums up the prevailing mental attitude in corporate business well. And I think it sums up why he was unable to write a straightforward book.

For instance, the chapter on the creation of waste, especially chemical waste, is deeply disturbing and one reason why I wonder how he can imagine that business can do an about face from total destruction. From billions of pounds of pesticides and chemical fertilisers to nuclear weapons research waste to the burning or burying of household garbage (more of which is created every day by business and pushed on us through propaganda), and the fact that toxins are stored in our fatty tissues and adversely affect our hormones/endocrine system, the picture looked bleak even then.

Hawken claims that “[w]e need a different kind of growth” (p 52). But, “[w]hat’s wrong with a growth rate of 0%?” (Fukuoka, 1978). He then makes a very valid observation though about the fact that a cyclical process is being changed to a linear one with the use of synthetic chemicals as this also relates to today’s push to increase the use of genetically modified organisms. All these manmade components cannot merge into the biological process. As he explains, these substances only create waste that is incapable of being incorporated into nature’s recycling program and they are toxic.

I cannot understand the myth that is so prevalent still today which is referred to by Hawken on page 89 that organic farming is more expensive than conventional farming. It is definitely a myth that is being kept alive by TNCs such as Monsanto. How can it be cheaper to rely on the purchase of specialised seeds, organophosphate pesticides, artificial fertilizers, all the machinery and petrol needed? Farming such as Fukuoka practiced can produce just as much without all these added expenses (Fukuoka, 1978). The organic certification process may add to the expense, but it is also unfair.

Hawken calls for a restorative economy (p 104), but, economy refers to goods and services. Just as the line has been crossed for the patenting of life forms, he is crossing the line of manmade goods and services by calling for nature’s goods and services to be included in the market economy.

Hawken also accurately describes the work people do in corporations and as I worked in a few, I would know. Many corporate managers he says behave similar to addicts who have a militant attitude and work in a stressful, militant environment. Add to this the fact that America’s largest export after food is weaponry (p 135), and when we remember all the casualties, I clearly get a picture of some kind of war.

In his concluding remarks, Hawken says that we need “to slow down and arrest industrialism ...” (p 208). This part I agree with. But, he consistently maintains his conviction that market growth is the desired goal. And, I hardly like the idea that “every grain of sand will have to be treasured...” (p 210). The only way this can be done is by private ownership of everything, moving further away from the commons and cooperation. I do, however, like his idea of removing cheap cars and gasoline!