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on April 22, 2003
When I first tried to read this book, I didn't even get past the first chapter. But when I picked it up again almost a year later, I absorbed it like a sponge. Even when I interviewed the president of a sustainable business for my website,, I found that the same thing happened to him. The fact of the matter is, this is an excellent book, but it's also somewhat of a pragmatic call to arms. It wasn't till I'd explored and developed my ideas about the environment and resolved to do something about it that I could fully appreciate this book. For someone who's still exploring their position on these issues, Paul Hawken's prescriptions for action will probably seem irrelevant and premature. But if your ideas are ripe and you're ready to put them to work, The Ecology of Commerce is an invaluable resource.
Before I read this book, I used to think that business and the environment were inherently at odds. But then I realized that this doesn't have to be the case. According to Hawken, the problem lies in our economic system's design, and no amount of management or programs is going to change that. In order to make things better, we're going to have to rethink our economic structure, and in that possibility is where Mr. Hawken finds hope. As he so eloquently put it:
"To create an enduring society, we will need a system of commerce and production where each and every act is inherently sustainable and restorative...Just as every action in an industrial society leads to environmental degradation, regardless of intention, we must design a system where the opposite is true, where doing good is like falling off a log, where the natural, everyday acts of work and life accumulate into a better world as a matter of course, not as a matter of conscious altruism." (Hawken, p. xiv)
The Ecology of Commerce is dedicated to envisioning such a system, and discussing how we can get from here to there. The restorative economy contemplated by Hawken may seem like a long shot, but he demonstrates that it IS possible because his approach is to work WITH natural processes, not against them. That not only includes those processes existing in ecosystems, but also the ones present in ourselves, like our unique ability to innovate. You see, what makes these ideas inspiringly hopeful, and what I love most about this book, is the author's willingness not just to acknowledge the way things really are, but also to use them to our advantage. For example, he's smart enough to know that any system, program, or law that asks people to sacrifice happiness, comfort, or convenience ISN'T sustainable because ultimately, it just won't work. "Humans want to flourish and prosper," he explains, "and they will eventually reject any system of conservation that interferes with these desires...[A sustainable society] will only come about through the accumulated effects of daily acts of billions of eager participants" (Hawken, p. xv).
This is the kind of book I'd encourage you to buy if you are even remotely concerned about the state of our environment, which is intimately tangled with our own. On a personal level, it's one of the most motivating books I've ever read--in fact, its concepts form the foundation for my website, My copy is now riddled with highlighter marks, astericks, and dog ears. It's just one of those books you come back to again and again and again, every time learning something new.
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on July 9, 2009
I really enjoyed this book. As someone with two business degrees, you get used to hearing a fairly narrow perspective on the economy, the environment, and the way businesses are meant to operate. I was initially drawn to the book by a documentary in which the CEO of a rather large organization talked about how it had impacted his life. On reading it, I found that it challenged me to think differently about the way that I live and the way that I think about the role of businesses in modern society. Overall, it was quite an impactful book and I'd recommend it to others.
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on March 14, 2001
As we all know, everyone crows on the "failure" of communism, but no one crows about the REAL failure of capitalism. It is a more slow dying weed than the "socialism" of communism, but it is a dying weed as well. When the vast majority of the population is dying a slow death from failing lungs in the form of asthma, chronic bronchitis and emphysema, when all the ills of our "capitalistic" economy are enumerated including increasing failure of our children to have IQ above retardation level, i.e. "Survivor", etc. and most of them have failing immune systems, how can capitalism have survived?
Paul Hawkens, I believe, is the first real thinker to address the issue. He gets rid of those self-assured Americans who name themselves environmentalists because they put out their trash at the recycling curb while proceeding as usual otherwise.
The other frivolous reviews you have at the first is further evidence of the old business ethic that is afraid to rethink or,indeed, to even think!
Put my review at the first where it belongs, corporate giant, soon to be owned by Wal-Mart, the corporate giant that dots the American landscape with even more junk and cuts every tree in its path!
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on February 1, 1998
Don't get me wrong: I agree with the vast bulk of this book. Yet Paul Hawken's attempt at a new vision of corporate behavior and business ethics is more mirage than masterpiece.
I have two main criticisms of this otherwise eloquent book. First, although Hawken bravely tries to bridge the ideological gap between his two different audiences (the rapacious businessman and economically-uninformed environmentalist), he ultimately has to pull punches on both fronts; this is okay for political compromise, but not for building vision or revealing "inherent" truthes (which seem to be the book's aims). Second, and more important, the book has almost no helpful detail, either for policy or for corporate behavior. Perhaps I'm really just complaining that the book is too short, but a call for Pigovian taxes and a vague yet comprehensive overhall of business philosophy does not a vision make.
But read the book anyway, since there's little else out there in this vein (though I recommend When Corporations Rule the World, David Korten). ;-)
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on August 22, 2002
In the current economy we seek to minimize economic costs and maximize profits while ignoring most everything else. Virtually no aspect of the economic equation factors in the true cost of anything - the toll it takes on the environment, the massive amount of energy consumed to maintain our lifestyle, or the biodiversity of the planet, which is continually diminished.
The Ecology of Commerce addresses these issues from both business and environmental points of view. It recognizes there will be immediate, sometimes substantial, economic costs during the transition to a sustainable economy. The point is made, however, that should the strain on the planets resources exceed carrying capacity, the consequences would be devastating.
We don't, and probably can't know the precise limit till we get there. At that point things are likely to get ugly. Really ugly. Paul correctly argues that we need to move toward a sustainable economy that more closely mirrors biological systems. He suggests production processes that begin with the end of the useful life of a product in mind so that waste can easily and continually be recycled into new products.
The book seems to be overly optimistic that business will see the light and move to adopt sustainable business practices. While some are moving in this direction, they are not moving fast enough. As the most powerful nation in the world and the one that uses far more resources than any other in the world, the US must lead the way. Some companies are taking positive steps, but efforts need to increase dramatically.
The Ecology of Commerce is a good start. It lays out the direction in which we need to move. The vision is an economy in which the full economic AND environmental costs are factored into the cost of goods and services. This book lays out where we need to go; now we just need to figure out how to make a smooth transition to get there.
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on July 27, 2002
I have been using the triple bottom line reporting template to run our business, that is profitability to the company and not compromising our environment, and causing any undesirable impact upon our society. Ultimately, it is to fulfill one thing & one thing only: sustainability. At times, I am disllusioned by the whole thing as other people are skeptical of our motivations & that they wondered why we are paying more to certain services & products providers when we could get them cheaper elsewhere. Well, this book brings it on home that we are doing it for our future generations, and that, we must act now before it is too late to turn the tide. There are facts & figures to justify the claims (even though the author emphasised that he tried to reflect the situations rather than scaring readers into doing something). The author also stressed that we have to bring the environmentalists & the corporations to sit down together to come out with remedies that are going to be satisfactory to both sides. There are so many things that that could be executed long time ago but personal interests simply outweigh the necesssity of change. It all has to do with greed. The reason that corporations are indifferent about the whole thing is due to out-of-sight, out-of-mind idealogy. How sad that is to note that when Asian countries are supposedlyt free from colonialism, in fact, colonialism is still very much intact, but simply in another form. This time, the Asian countries can't see their masters because their masters exists in the form of dollar sign, depleting their resources (also in the form of labour) to produce products at elpo cheaper price in order to compete in the global market. Changes must start from the top & unless that happens, there is so much that the little people could & would achieve. Yes, it is wonderful to note that we do recycling from our own home but that feat is simply too minute to do any drastic change to our environment. The action is pure simple, that is having us imitating nature & a determination to do it for the long hold not out of personal interests but for the intangible faith that there is sunny day ahead for our future generations. Isn't it obvious that this message is not sinking in with any governments. When election day comes, there are promises about tax cuts, about creating jobs, & when has sustainability become a main topic? An ambitious book cajoling all of us to make a difference, and so must we. A must read, & a book that gives myself so much insight & so much reasons to continue fighting.
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on August 1, 2001
Written in 1994 Paul Hawken describes some visionary changes to the way we measure and conduct commerce. His core philosophy revolves around sustainability. What is most important is not that we stop taking from the environment, but that we do not take more than we can replace. Hawken also asks for a reduction of the levels at which we consume, and for each of us to seriously look at the products we consume. We as consumers say the most with our dollar. Please spend it wisely.
Interesting Passages:
"Each person in America produces twice his weight per day in household, hazardous, and industrial waste, and an additional half ton per week when gaseous wastes such as carbon dioxide are included. An ecological model of commerce would imply that all waste have value to other modes of production so that everything is either reclaimed, reused, or recycled." P 12
"The act of restoration involves recognizing that something has been lost, used up, or removed. To restore is to bring back or return something to its original state. This can involve rebuilding, repairing, removing corruptions and mistakes; it allows for the idea of bringing a person or place or group back to health and equilibrium; it can mean returning something that originally belonged to someone else, whether it is returning lands taken from other cultures, or dignity stolen by bureaucratic regulations and offialdom; it encompasses the idea of reviving and rejuvinating connections, relationships, and responsibilities. Honor can even be retrieved. It can be as simple as replacing something that has aged and died away. Above all it means to heal, to make whole, to reweave broken strands and threads into a social fabric that honors and nurtures life around it. To restore is to make something well again. It is mending the world. People have to believe that there will be a future in order to look forward." P 59
"The purpose of all these suggestions is to end industrialism as we know it. Industrialism is over, in fact; the question remains how we organize the economy that follows. Either it falls in on us, and crushes civilization, or we reconstruct it and uleash the imagination of a more sustainable future into our daily acts of commerce."..."It also means doing something now. It means trying things that may fail. It means shaking up city hall. It means electing people who actually want to make things work, who can imagine a better world. It means writing to companies and telling them what you think. It means never forgetting that the cash register is the daily voting booth in democratic capitalism. We don't have to buy products that destroy or from companies that harm or are unresponsive. If we want businesses to express a full range of social and environmental values in their daily commercial activities, then we, too, will have to express a full range of values and respond to the presence or absence of principle by how we act in the marketplace. It may mean being obstreperous or conciliatory, and knowing when to be which. To go back to our nature can also mean becoming 'sour, astringent, crabbed. Unfertilized, unpruned, tough, resilient, and every spring shockingly beautiful in bloom.' It may mean a meticulous reinventorying of our lives, and our country. It wil mean, in the words of Vaclav Havel, trying harder to 'understand than to explain. The way forward is not in the mere construction of universal systemic solutions to be applied to reality from the outside; it is also in seeking to get to the heart of reality from the inside, through personal experience.' It is time to clean out the closet, both conceptually and materially, and to reexaming our priorities and beliefs. We can't wait until the guardians wake up, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't try to wake them up. We cannot wait for business to set a new course. We have to educate our businesses, and, wherever appropriate, let them educate us." PP 212-213
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on December 26, 2002
As a portfolio manager, teacher, and economist I canb whole-heartedly say this is a must read.
The concept is simple. Everyone has a misconception that profits and capitalism come at the price of environmental destruction. This divides the issue into sides. But it's a myth. We can make money and restore the the biosphere fairly easily. It will create jobs, increase quality in the economy, increase market efficiency, and change our end-of-the-pipe focus on pollution.
The criticism that seems to apear on this book most often is that there is a lack of detail on how to execute a cohesive vision. I think this misses the point. The author does suggest a few macro-level actions in adopting Pigovian taxes and rethinking trade agreements. But for the most part, he makes a good case for things we can do as individuals. No one person will change everything overnight... but we can be a part of the solution.
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on May 29, 1998
Hawken comes at the environmental crises not from the the perspective of someone worried about saving animals and beautiful spaces (although he clearly loves those things), but as an economist who sees our system as inherantly unsustainable. The resources for our lifestyle are quickly running out, and the result will be global catastrophe. He bravely points the finger at the root cause of it all, laissez-faire capitalism, our culture's sacred cow. Though this is not a new suggestion, Hawken goes further than anyone I've ever read to describe realistic ways of fixing the problems. The key to accomplishing this is to get as many young people as possible aware of the truth (minus corporate propaganda), so that the next generation might work toward some of the changes Hawken proposes. Another good writer on this subject is Daniel Quinn, whose book "Ishmael" is excellent.
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on June 28, 1996
The Ecology of Commerce is not easy reading, not because Hawken's prose or style is difficult, but because it is difficult to remain optomistic or hopeful in the face of the overwhelming case made by him about the certainty with which our current system of business is doomed to destroy us. The changes he proposes are both incredibly simple, yet incredibly unlikely to be implemented or even paid attention to in the next twenty to thirty years. It will take virtual eco-collapse in the Industrialized nations before the wise words of Hawken and his colleagues will be heeded. And of course it will be much, much too late. Should you have the stomach for it however, you will find the Ecology of Commerce an extremely well crafted argument for some simple logical principles that could save the life that we love and actually improve business and our standard of living in the process
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