Friday, September 5, 2014

Good advice with a side of hyperbole

I just finished The Ecology of Commerce.  It came highly recommended so I had high hopes and although it hit a lot of good notes it fell prey to many of the issues other environmentalist writings do.  While it got the issues right and even had a lot of really good solutions it fell into the trap of using excessive hyperbole and relied on the assumption that everything is going to hell.  The truth is that there are real problems but the mantra of 'everything is awful these days' just doesn't hold up to any kind of scrutiny at all.  Rose coloured glasses and all.

The best points of the book are when it proposes real ways for business models to prioritize environment quality.  Many environmentalists rely on demonizing free markets and advocate massive government regulation or combine environmental initiatives with utopian socialist visions.   Those might be fun to think about but they are useless from a realistic policy perspective.   Much to his credit Hawken realizes that free markets are a powerful tool and tuned correctly are needed to generate the best possible results.  He talks about governments reorienting tax structures to prevent companies from externalizing costs and making environmental degradation a real cost that every company must pay.  This would actually put the power of the free market to use in improving efficiency and reducing waste and that is something the free market is actually remarkably good at.

As an example, if TV manufacturers had to pay for the complete cost of disposing of all the parts of their products they would certainly come up with ways to make TV recyclable, or at least composed of parts that can be disposed of safely and easily.  This sort of innovation is exactly the kind of thing government bureaucracies are not very good at and private business does very well indeed - as long as the right incentives are in place.  The changes Hawken promotes aren't easy but they are definitely in the right place and he even puts out timelines for change that are challenging but totally possible and that kind of pragmatism is a breath of fresh air to anyone used to partisan environmental debates.

Unfortunately Hawken sometimes resorts to wild exaggerations to describe the problems with the world today.  Like many people he thinks things are terrible right now and he includes quotes that talk about how civilization is in danger (debatable), that regional wars are an increasing danger (false), that television culture is a problem (what?), and that the world around us is increasingly polluted. (Seriously false).  There is also the issue that he regularly talks as if things that are waste from 'natural' sources are all amazing and waste from human sources "have no value to other species".  There is nothing in particular separating natural and unnatural bits of the world, no magic line you can draw between those two things.  There is also a bit of snark towards Bjorn Lomborg's book The Skeptical Environmentalist despite the fact that I think the two authors have a lot more in common than either of them might think.  They are on opposite sides of the environmental debate though so animosity seems inevitable.

This is a really good book if you want to think about realistic ideas for how we can alter our economic model to improve the way business operates and get businesses to grant proper weighting to environmental issues.  Hawken gets a lot of  things right and although I don't think we will see his ideas implemented wholesale I think they are a very solid guide for what sorts of changes we should push for.  He advocates big change in ways that use markets rather than just slagging them and begging for revolution.  I approve of that position - position, realistic, incremental change is how things get done.

Image from:

No comments:

Post a Comment