Natural Capitalism

ISBN: 0316353000
ISBN 13: 9780316353007
By: Paul Hawken L. Hunter Lovins Amory B. Lovins

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Business Ecology Economics Environment Green Non Fiction Nonfiction Politics Sustainability To Read

About this book

This groundbreaking book reveals how today's global businesses can be both environmentally responsible and highly profitable.

Reader's Thoughts


I really want to give this book 5 stars because it is incredibly important. The vision it sets forth is revolutionary. I mean that in the personal sense, creating a change in the readers mind which effects their own consciousness as well as that of all. Critically important concept, to value people and the planet's natural resources for what they contribute to the web of life itself rather than just the abstract financial and physical capital they are currently valued as. I gave it four stars because, while it relates some truly amazing cases, at times it is not as concise as I would like. I would love to hear what others think about it too. I was particularly moved by the chapter on the Brazilian city Curitiba, at the very end. Amazing.


I expected a lot from this book and, as is normal with expectations, they were not met. Not that the book isn't good but maybe I should have read it 10 years ago when I first picked it up. Time has a way of making some ideas seem dated, even if these ideas are still important. Tunneling through prices and looking at design as a whole rather than an accumulation of individual steps is important to keep in mind. Optimizing pieces of a puzzle on their own doesn't mean the whole is efficient. All good to keep in mind but how much do i have to know to do a project myself? Maybe that's just my shortcoming. It would seem like an industry would have come up to help people look at the entirety of a project - home remodeling, in particular since that seems like an area where people would need the most help - but that doesn't seem to be the case. Or maybe it is but they companies are few and far between. The book makes good points but I just found it less than gripping.

Xiaosen Xie

This book should be required reading for all econ and business majors. However, humanity is already way past the point of turning back the tide of environmental destruction. The damage is still being done, and the only thing we can hope to do now is lessen the impact of this damage.Currently, the majority of environmental destruction is being done in the third world (thanks mainly to the greed of first world countries, or, rather, our insatiable need to maintain our current standard of living). What needs to be done then, is to spread ideas touted in this book to those countries.


This is a great book about natural resources, economics, and efficiency. The tone is upbeat, and a great deal of the book is storytelling of examples where things are cleverly engineered to make them astoundingly more efficient than their typical counterparts. One example: buildings engineered to need no heating/cooling systems, using things like great insulation, 'smart' windows, and shade trees to manage the temperature without conventional electrical systems. Another example: lightweight cars build mostly from carbon-fiber rather than steel that can get over 100 MPG. And lots of others, including carpet companies that recycle their carpets, better ways to make paper from wood, supply-chain improvements, etc.The main thesis of the book, as suggested by the title, is that we need a market valuation of 'natural capital', which includes all those parts of the natural environment that provide value in the form of goods and services. Some parts of the environment (like that which gives the service of providing clean air and water, or biodiversity to mitigate risks) are more easily overlooked than others (like a forest, which has a more obvious valuation that can be assesed in terms of trees or sustainable tree-producing ability of the land). These resources are 'capital' in the economic sense, and whereas before now they have been so abundant that liquidating them for a profit was just easy money, now they are becoming depleted and such a strategy is too short-sighted. For a sustainable economic future, we need to find ways to make things we need without draining the rest of our natural capital. And so most of the book describes clever ways to do things more efficiently - consuming less, polluting less, and being an economic/marketable win with today's technology all at once. As a person concerned about the environment and someone that loves making things efficient, I loved the book, even if some of the examples were already slightly dated (1999).A recurring side-theme that I also enjoyed is that over time it is easy for industries/practices to get caught in 'local maxima' that end up being inefficiencies/pessimizations when considered in terms of the big picture. Many of the examples in the book are so clever because they attack a problem in a new way, or challenge fundamental assumptions that are outdated but stick around due to inertia.

Preston Kutney

This is a book that I wish every business leader and policy maker would read. The book is a little outdated, and it is not without its flaws (chiefly the naive optimism the authors display that sustainable business practices are imminent and inevitable), but I thought the authors did an incredible job of outlining the structural deficiencies in the traditional capitalist system to address ongoing environmental degradation and depletion issues AND identifying major sources of systemic waste and potential remedies. The structural deficiency I mentioned is the absence of any value assigned to "Natural Capital", arguably the most valuable source of wealth that exists. Economic and accounting practices don't assign any value to the natural materials mined to produce the myriad disposable products we use briefly, not to mention the soils that feed agriculture, the wetlands that clean our water and prevent floods, the forests that clean our air and prevent erosion. In the absence of any value given to Natural Capital, the indicators that we use to gauge the health of an economy, such as GDP, evaluate processes that liquidate this Natural Capital to produce financial capital as income! Economic indicators will continue to be positive, even as we deplete the most valuable source of wealth we have, unless some economic way to account for the central, irreplaceable role that environmental processes play in industry is devised and implemented. The authors treat this idea of accounting for natural capital as inevitable - at some point the governments of the world will wake up and natural capital as a free, inexhaustible resource (the way it is treated today), will end. This massive reorganization of the competitive landscape will realign the winners and losers, and a good portion of this book is dedicated to outlining strategies for those seeking a competitive edge in a world where natural resources are scarce and expensive. The authors provide 4 central strategies for any company or government seeking to gain this competitive advantage:1. Radical Resource Productivity: "Using resources more efficiently has 3 significant benefits: it slows resource depletion at one end of the value chain, lowers pollution on the other end, and provides a basis to increase worldwide employment with meaningful jobs." 2. Biomimicry: "Reducing the wasteful throughput of materials - indeed, eliminating the very idea of waste - can be accomplished by redesigning industrial systems on biological lines that change the nature of industrial processes and materials, enabling the constant reuse of materials in continuous closed cycles, and often the elimination of toxicity."3. Service and Flow Economy: "This calls for a fundamental shift in the relationship between producer and consumer, a shift from an economy of goods and purchase to one of services and flow. The benefits are twofold - less production of goods that eventually turn to waste, and more employment for people providing the services that used to be performed by disposable goods. This will restructure the economy to better focus on meeting customers' changing value needs and to reward automatically both resource productivity and closed-loop cycles of materials use."4. Investing in Natural Capital: "This works towards reversing world wide planetary destruction though reinvestments in sustaining, restoring, and expanding stocks of natural capital, so that the biosphere can produce more abundant ecosystem services and natural resources."These strategies are woven through a number of industries that the authors investigate, identifying major sources of waste and feasible solutions to those problems. There is so much more I could say about this book, and it has inspired a lot of further reading I intend to do. If you have any interest in sustainability from a business perspective, this is a great place to start.


This is the most optimistic book I have read on the capacity of humankind to redirect the train of civilization onto a track that might not lead us over the cliff we're heading towards. I recommend it to anyone who has sunken into the despair of cynicism (we're doomed!) and to anyone who, conversely, thinks that acting to "save the environment" hurts business. It has a lot of data to shlep through, but I found it worth it. Please read!!!

Linda Riebel

As an environmental educator and concerned citizen, I’m frequently disheartened about our seemingly conscious destruction of our planet. This it was a truly exciting eye-opener to read this missive from three leading thinkers about how industry, which many of us think of as the bane of the earth, can reverse course and make the change we need. All you have to do is read the daily paper to know that politicians won’t do it! The book is full of dozens of creative and inspiring examples of people reinventing our world. I know that this presentation, like many others, has its critics among the environmental movement – that’s too bad. We can’t afford to form our firing squad into a circle. Even if you think industry should just go away, read this book and reconsider.As an author, I learned something else from this book: get as many friends and critics as possible to review your work. Page after page of small print, naming so many people who helped make this book a reality reminded me that no matter how thoroughly I thought I had reviewed my work, I should always have someone (or many someones) to review it.

Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership

One of Cambridge Sustainability's Top 50 Books for Sustainability, as voted for by our alumni network of over 3,000 senior leaders from around the world. To find out more, click here.Natural Capitalism suggests that the world is on the verge of a new industrial revolution - one that promises to transform our fundamental notions about commerce and its role in shaping our future. The authors describe a future in which business and environmental interests increasingly overlap, and in which companies can simultaneously satisfy their customers' needs, increase profits and help solve environmental problems.Natural capital refers to the natural resources and ecosystem services that make all economic activity possible. Yet current business practices typically fail to take into account the value of these assets, a value that is rising as they become scarcer. As a result, natural capital is being degraded and liquidated by the wasteful use of such resources as energy, materials, water, fibre and topsoil.

Rob Walter

I abandoned this book after a few chapters due to the fact that it didn't make much sense. Initially it promises to describe how, without any effort, the whole economy can - and in fact will - change to become sustainable. In fact, a sustainable economy is actually more efficient and more profitable than the one we have now, it promises.Already there is a significant problem with this promise. If it's more profitable, and we can put our faith in the market, why isn't it already happening? This is especially pertinent given that this book was written over ten years ago and none of the predictions I read have come to pass. The book says that it will explain how the market will provide all of these solutions but the two chapters that follow don't explain it at all. Instead they abandon economics altogether in favour of propagating half-truths about engineering and science that seem to contradict the thesis of the book.At that point I gave up.


Not quick or easy (nor off-puttingly technical), but this book has a ton of great information about what it means to overhaul society to make it greener and how doing do would make it a less anti-social society.Best read over tea, and not necessarily in order.Generally, there is a specter haunting non fiction, namely that the authors take about 35% more pages than they need to expound their ideas. I want to scream "I GET IT! LET'S MOVE ON!" but no one is listening.I'm sure there were some excellent concepts in the last 100 pages, but I'll probably never see those pages. Let's return to the era of the pamphlet, the broadside.

Linda Westegaard

I think this book should be a must read for every single person in America. Whether you believe that Global Warming is happening or not, it gives food for thought on how simple changes can have a big impact on how we consume.


The Lovins' from the Rocky Mountain Institute and Paul Hawken (author of The Ecology of Commerce) team up for a fantastic and hopeful read on how capitalism can be harnessed and directed to restore our planet and our communities. Far from a utopian vision of the future, the book teems with anecdotes and scalable solutions which are practical and require no further advance in technology. The Lovins' engineering and technical expertise coupled with what is undoubtedly Hawken's prose make for a great non-fiction read.


When I read Natural Capitalism I was quite enamored of it. However, since reading other material I have less enthusiasm for this book and the approach they generally describe (I've seen a documentary with the authors and read a number of news articles both by and about them). In order to work, many of their "solutions" require top down command and control economic framework which generally has a very poor record for using resources wisely. Additionally, many of their predictions and/or time lines for the viability of new environmentally friendly technology have been flat out wrong or way off. I suspect that this is because they, too often don't take into account all economic costs. So for example when describing a new way of making a much more environmentally friendly car, they only look at some of the factors involved in making it and have no idea how their end goals affect all the hundreds or thousands of related industries will be effected. In fact however, the only way all costs can be accounted for is in open markets where prices are not set or manipulated by government intervention - something the authors often fail to realize. To quote one of their obvious errors they state "Markets know everything about prices and nothing about costs." This makes no sense. Prices ARE costs! The price I set is the cost you pay - it all depends on the vantage point. So to translate their quote into the real world they're saying, "Markets know everything about prices and nothing about [other people's:] prices." Now doesn't that sound a bit weird?So while they're on the right track with the basic idea that waste is bad for business and bad for the environment (and bring up lots of fun examples to show how some companies have revolutionized their way of doing business) this fundamental lack of economic understanding really brings this book down in my view. Many economists and even journalists and active environmentalists have criticized their work for just this reason.


I'm still in the middle of this one and although it's become a little dated (it was written in the mid 1990's), it's still a great way to help readers get the big picture of how capitalism needs to change in order to support sustainability efforts. I am a firm believer in capitalism as a way for us to get out of this mess - innovation and customer demand being two of its strong points. Some think it is too positive - utopian even - but I appreciate the positivity given the increasingly dire nature of the news about the planet's decline these days.


I just skimmed this book to find the essence of its argument and pick out excerpts for my Jensen tutorial. The main thesis is that natural capitalism can do things better for people and the planet in the long term. The premises of natural capitalism are of course intuitive and appealing. However, the book ends up being a bundle of great individual ideas masquerading as a plan for saving the whole economy/society. The ideas on offer could and would be picked up by individual entrepeneurs and make them a bundle of money while saving the planet and helping people. Hawken and the Lovins seem to believe that that's all they can or need to do (which is fine, if that's what they want to accomplish). Yet their unbridled optimism pushes them to go further and assert that business owners who don't adopt natural capitalist principles will be left behind by the new wave; that the economy will simply shift on its own in the same way that it shifted from coal to oil or into industrial capitalism. I looked through the whole book and came to the conclusion that this is simply an article of faith: they never discuss its likelihood or any evidence about the question. Since natural capitalism is predicated on system-level design and shifts in high-level political policy, this is a startling omission. Individual business owners might make some money using resources more efficiently, but natural capitalism won't come about unless systemic change occurs, and this book offers nothing but faith and optimism about that. They don't even exhort readers to lobby for those system level changes – they seem to think that would be a waste of time, since it's inevitable anyway. That said, the evidence they marshal is rich and great, and they really do have some great specific concepts and ideas in here. It's just framed in a really idiosyncratic way that makes it seem like more than it can really be.It was also interesting to me that Hawken just treats the course of history as this series of brilliant innovations that solve engineering and distribution problems, coupled with all these bumbling errors and clumsinesses that cause all these mishaps and make the whole thing fail to achieve its real potential and true goal (which he asserts is to make everyone happier or whatever). What's interesting is that he doesn't ignore social inequality and racism and these issues - he clearly cares about them deeply. But he doesn't ever engage in a class analysis or something that would show that these problems are caused by some to benefit themselves at expense of others. This precludes him from addressing the fact that those who benefit might try to influence the growth of natural capitalism away from the social and environmental values he sees it creating towards a more or less sustainable version of today's social order.

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