Net Impact Soap Box

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Capitalism Next: Hunter Lovins

As an undergraduate student I studied biology and environmental science at Oberlin College, where liberal environmentalists debated how to overtake the American capitalist system with a new "green" capitalism. We made models of the low-carbon economy and held Hunter Lovins' book "Natural Capitalism" as the bible for the future. However, after I left Oberlin, I was challenged to find pragmatic solutions to the environmental problems we face and became frustrated with the sparce guidance that Lovins and others of her generation provided for today's problems.

Yesterday at UC Berkeley, Lovins spoke to crowd of students, faculty, and members of the general public about the tenets of "natural capitalism," the philosophy that we can transform an existing economic system that thrives at the expense of natural capital into one that thrives as a steward of natural capital. Her talk came at the heels of a World Bank report, which claims that the world is losing more money due to deforestation and biodiversity loss than to the current financial crisis.

Lovins emphasized that companies can improve their bottom line by taking measures like cutting waste and cutting carbon. However, sustainability will not always improve the bottom line. In fact, true sustainability is going to hurt. It won't always yield a positive ROI and it's going to change our consumption patterns in ways that we may not like. If we are talking about seriously transforming our system to account for the financial, social, and cultural values of natural capital, we must be upfront and honest about what these changes entail. Sugar-coating sustainability, like so many in the ranks of Lovins and other environmental writers do, is not going to lead society in the right direction.

I asked Lovins to help us understand how to value natural capital, given the inherent trade-offs and equity implications in doing so. "We don't know," was her answer, "but we know we have to do it." Frankly, that answer might have been sufficient 7 years ago, when I was in undergrad, but today, as companies are scrambling to understand environmental problems, it just isn't. Lovins created a movement of people who believed that they could change things. The next step is to create solutions and that is where I challenge Lovins to go.

At one point in the seminar, Lovins asked us to close our eyes and imagine our lives without oil. "It can happen," she cried. But, wait a minute. Oil is in everything. Petrochemicals are the building blocks of our clothes, buildings, toiletries, even food. Yes, we can redesign our cities for mass-transit, but it is going to take alot of work and much more than idealistic rhetoric.

Frankly, I believe it is the onus of those of us in the audience to understand and design specific, practical steps towards sustainability. We believe in Lovins' philosophy, but we crave more specificity and more guidance. In less than a year, I will be making my way through the capitalist jungle, and it is going to take alot more than closing my eyes to imagine a sustainable future.

Mira Inbar

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