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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ecology and Commerce

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with author and businessman Paul Hawken about his vision of an integrated approach to economic development and environmental protection, as laid out in his book The Ecology of Commerce. Hawken says our economic and tax systems should encourage the sustainable resource use, rather than waste.


CURWOOD: Going without a car may be good for the environment, but what about the economy? In the traditional view of economics, fewer automobiles means fewer people making, selling, and servicing automobiles. And that means less opportunity for economic growth. Or does it? Is there a conflict between the economy and the environment? Some say no, that the health of the economy and of the environment can't be separated. Among them is Paul Hawken, a highly-successful entrepreneur, and author of the book The Ecology of Commerce. Mr. Hawken says we have to recognize that the environment is a key part of our economy, but he says right now we aren't given any financial incentives to make that link.

HAWKEN: Right now you and I unintentionally destroy the world. We get up, go to work, we shop, we go home, take care of our families, and the world is worse for it. What I'm suggesting is, wouldn't it be interesting to have an industrial system where we do the same thing and the world actually gets better? Right now conservation, restoration, are basically for upper middle class white people. That's who can afford to conserve; unless the cheapest alternative is the conservative, restorative one, it's not going to happen. So what I propose is to scrap the tax system altogether.

CURWOOD: Get rid of the tax system altogether.

HAWKEN: Well, yes. Taxes on employment, payroll, salaries, profits, business. All the things we supposedly encourage, in economic terms.


HAWKEN: And phase in green fees on fossil fuels, coal, pesticides, herbicide, virgin materials, water mined from the Oglala aquifer, and other activities that are basically going to cost us more in the future if we don't pay for them now in real terms. Full-cost accounting. Then, the cheaper products become the ones that are renewable, that are sustainable, that have a conservation ethic to them, so that your incentive to save is going to lead us to a more sustainable world.

CURWOOD: Well this sounds like a revolution. How do you take the first steps here? What do you do? And what are some examples that you can give us of everyday business decisions that are working in this positive feedback loop that you feel that we should have?

HAWKEN: Well, Germany, basically, is instituting what I describe in the book as the intelligent product system, where basically there's only 2 types of products: either products you literally throw away - I know this sounds heretical, when we talk about the environment - but you throw them away. They completely degrade back into dirt, and there's no toxins or metals or persistent or bioaccumulative chemicals inside them. The other types of products are called products of service, which we know as durables: TVs, radios, cars, refrigerators. And what the Germans are instituting and mandating right now is that if you make a durable product, it's yours. You can let a consumer use it indefinitely, like a license. But when he or she is done with it, it has to go back to you. You must take it back. And you can throw away nothing. So the Germans are designing their automobiles to have value when they come back. BMW, for example, has reduced the number of plastics from 400 to 13, and it's creating a revolution in chemistry, in materials composition, in assembly techniques, which are actually making them more economic, more efficient, increasing the amount of employment per car, and so you have essentially a win-win situation. Less stuff, more employment.

CURWOOD: In your book you talk about a number of examples of true cost not being respected. I'm wondering how your concept deals with the global inequity of the distribution of wealth that has been built up primarily by paying a very low price for Third World materials, let's say, raw timber, and then collecting a very high price when these goods are sold back to these countries, gradually impoverishing them.

HAWKEN: That's an excellent question. In Rio, Agenda 21, all the nations agreed that in principle they would move toward sustainable development with no means whatsoever to accomplish that. One of the means we have at our disposal is the tariff system. And what we should have is a most sustainable nation tariff system as opposed to a most favored nation tariff system. Those countries that destroy native cultures, that exploit child labor, that are clear-cutting the Amazon or what have you, would have such prohibitive tariffs on their products that there would be no incentive to continue those practices.

CURWOOD: I want to thank you for taking this time with us. Paul Hawken is the author of The Ecology of Commerce. Thank you.

HAWKEN: Thank you.



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