Natural Capitalism – a book review

Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution. (1999) Hawkens, P. Lovins, A. Lovins, H. Published by Little Brown & Company.


Natural Capitalism is a book published in 1999 that was co-authored by Paul Hawkens, Amory & Hunter Lovins. It was a best seller and very influential book that popularised the idea that the current model of industrial capitalism was flawed in how it accounted for the largest input into the system, that is the natural resources it relies on. Much of what the book had to say was not original but it developed a succinct argument that supported providing for human needs without destroying the earth’s capacity to supply those needs.

Natural Capitalism presented firstly a future scenario of what a more sustainable world might look like and how it might provide goods and services to an ever growing population. It then outlined the principles on which such a resource based economy could work. The principles are based on radically increasing the resource productivity in a  manner that will allow the earth to supply the goods and services all life depends on. Other principles argue that industry should be re-designed on biological models of zero waste, that we shift from the sale of goods to the provision of services and that we re-invest heavily in natural capital for future prosperity.

The timing of the book’s publication was just right, making it a bestseller, as business people tried to come to terms with the fall out from the Rio Earth summit of 1992 and the upcoming Millennium Development Goals.  It was written in an accessible and positive style so very different from the typical disaster focussed environmental prophecies. It offered a sort of manifesto that focussed on building a sustainable future and not just a return to a sustainable past.

Critics of the book have focussed on the lack of detail on how these changes might come about. There is little or no reference to the social psychology of technological change that explains how some great ideas never become a reality. There is also an inherent belief that the new understanding would be self managing and resource efficiencies alone would allow all demands to be catered for. Furthermore, the book failed to address the radically different time and budgetary dimensions that governments, businesses and citizens might work within, which would make the change inherently unstable.

The book was really important because of its popularity and the fact that many influential people promoted the ideas within it. It was one of the first books to argue that business could have a positive role in the development of resource management such that a better future for all could be built.

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