Natural Capitalism

Natural Capitalism is based on respecting and learning from the natural order of things rather than replacing nature with human cleverness. -- Satish Kumar

Natural capital is the living world that provides resources and ecosystem services, which we can neither replace nor live without. Ecosystem services are extremely valuable, but they're not on anyone's balance sheet, and they get inadvertently liquidated in pursuit of resources whose market value is recognized. -- Amory Lovins

Natural capitalism is based on the way nature actually works, not the way we wish it worked. -- Amory Lovins

Natural systems are self-contained, self-reliant, self-sufficient natural Gaian feedback systems. Each system interacts with other systems to form a network, these networks are in turn natural Gaian feedback systems. We have a hierarchy of such systems where each system at one level is the node for a network at another level.

Medieval man worked with nature not against nature. He coppiced woodlands for building material, fuel. A few trees would be left to grow. Each year these trees accrued natural capital. One day the trees would be felled for a specific building need. The capital was then re-invested elsewhere.

The land was used in a self-sufficient way. Man looked after and improved the soil. He did not mine the soil, he did not poison the land or the water that flowed through the land.

Man tapped into natural energy flows. He erected windmills, dammed small streams for water mills.

Modern man fails to recognise nature, let alone work with nature. He uses brute force in a crude attempt to overcome nature. What nature offers he sees as a free good with no intrinsic value.

The Amazon rainforest helps to moderate the Earth's climate. It provides the warm, moist westerlies that we receive in the British Isle. What value to we place on this?

It is often not until we lose a natural system that we value its ecosystem function. A woodland around a water catchment area helps to clean the water. Only when we clear the trees and have to pay for expensive water treatment do we appreciate the value of the ecosystem function. This has happened with the water supply systems for New York. The City was faced with a large bill for a water treatment plant. The cheaper alternative was to reafforest the water catchment area. In England some far-sighted water companies are paying farmers to go organic as it is cheaper than paying for additional expensive water treatment plants.

Wendell Berry talked of Man lacking a sense of place, lacking the wisdom to employ the power we now have at our disposal. He gives an example based on his own farm.

He decided to create a small pond on the side of a hillside. He hired a small digger. He scooped away at the hillside, and dumped to the downhill side. A depression was formed which started to fill with water seeping out of the hillside. During heavy rainfall the pond overflowed then slumped down the hillside. A large scar is now left in the hillside which will take many generations to heal. Berry lacked the wisdom to use the power that he had at his disposal.

He compared his mistake with that of some of the older farmers he knows and their methods of working. Stones and rocks would be dragged off the fields and used to create walls and roads which wound around the contours. Today, material would be brought in from outside (creating a problem elsewhere), the road blasted through the hillside. The old way works with the land, not against the land, did not cause major problems.

Traditionally capital, in the language of Ricardo and Marx, was land and capital equipment (factories, machinery). Now it equates to a pile of money, only occasionally to bricks and mortar, and never to the natural world, of which land is a small part. Our industrialised artificial society is liquidating our two most valuable capital assets, the natural world and properly functioning societies. A properly functioning economic system builds its capital assets, in this we have failed with our two most important capital assets.

Natural systems generally have zero value, until we can liquidate them. A wood has zero value until we turn it into pulp. The true value is probably infinite. Can we survive without Gaian systems and the stable breathable atmosphere they provide?

We strip the world of topsoil as though it has no value. Can we live with no soil in which to grow our crops? What little soil is left we mine and poison.

Amory Lovins who has developed the concept of Natural Capitalism has identified four key principles:

Material production systems should mimic Gaian systems. Resources are used efficiently with no waste. The output should be useful, non-toxic; unwanted elements or those products that reach the end of their life-cycle should be biodegradable or reusable.

If we produce no waste, we do not require landfill or waste incinerators. If we produce no toxins we do not poison the land, the rivers, the air, our food, our bodies.

We think of a production plant with a chimney belching out pollutants, toxic sludge leaking out the back, unpleasant working conditions for the workers toiling long hours on low pay. It doesn't have to be.

A tree produces raw materials. Cellulose, a sugar based material stronger and lighter than nylon. Wood, a composite material stiffer and stronger than steel, aluminium alloy or concrete.

Look around the tree and find a spider spinning its web. The silk is stronger than Kevlar used in bullet proof vests. Does the spider need vats of boiling sulphuric acid and high-pressure extruders?

A service business model leads to specialisation, each evolving in a particular niche. Many more companies existing in a symbiotic relationship, creating the optimum climate for each to flourish.

Amory Lovins describes a carpet or floor-covering service, where an office leases what goes on the floor.

Ray Anderson, Chairman of Interface Corporation, realized that people don't want to own a carpet in their office; they just want to walk on it and look at it. So he started to lease a floor-covering service. His company owns what's on your floor. They're responsible for keeping it always fresh by replacing one-square-metre carpet tiles in the worn spots, which are only one-fifth of the whole carpet area. Interface can thus provide a better service with lower cost, higher profit, and more employment. Now the firm has designed a new product called Solenium that uses 35% less material per square metre and lasts for twice as long. It is better in all respects for the customer, costs less to produce, has nothing toxic in it and can be completely remanufactured into an identical product. So when you combine that seven-fold reduction in material needs within the five-fold material-saving from the service leaser's replacing only the worn bits, you've got a 97% reduction in the flow of materials to maintain a superior floor-covering service at lower cost.

If we protect our natural world, all by itself it will accrue natural capital.

Ranchers in the American West are using new techniques of grazing management that yield a much richer and more diverse grass community and turn the range from desert back to real fertility by grazing more animals but in a different way that mimics the way that grass and grazers have historically co-evolved. Corporate headquarters in the Mid-West are replacing their manicured, pampered lawns with prairie grass. This requires less maintenance, less water, less inputs. Service companies are willing to replace the grass free of charge, as it lessens their costs. The result is a richer and more diverse biotic community full of wild flowers.

There is a need to limit growth. Natural systems grow, then reach maturity where they co-exist in a symbiotic relationship with surrounding systems. The prevalent business model is growth, usually unnatural growth by predatory acquisition. Such a model is not viable. No systems can continue to grow indefinitely, yet this is never challenged, growth projection are slavishly followed as though an unwritten natural law, or worse a religious conviction.

Wild places are not there for exploitation, even minimal exploitation. They have an overall function with their ecosystem function. They also have a spiritual function. Some place we can go for peace of mind, contemplation, to recharge and refresh ourselves. Undisturbed natural places serve as a control. Some place we have for comparison to see how well we are doing in restoring the natural capital in the places we have degraded.

The philosophy underlying Natural Capitalism is Deep Ecology.

Many companies, big and small, are adopting the Natural Capitalism business model. For many it is merely greenwash. Those that don't adapt won't survive. If they don't adapt, none of us will survive.

Web Resources


Wendell Berry, What Are People For?, North Point, 1990

Wendell Berry, Another Turn of the Crank, Counterpoint, 1995

Wendell Berry, Conserving Communities [in Jerry Mander & Edward Goldsmith (eds), The Case Against the Global Economy, Sierra Club Books, 1996]

Wendell Berry, The Death of the Rural Community, The Ecologist, May/June 1999

Wendell Berry, The Politics of Community, The Ecologist, May/June 1999

Wendell Berry, In Distrust of Movements, Resurgence, issue 198, January/February 2000

Fritjof Capra, The Turning Point: Science, Society and the Rising Culture, Simon & Schuster, 1982

Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life: A New Synthesis of Mind and Matter, HarperCollins, 1996

Edward Goldsmith, The Way: An Ecological World-View, Themis Books, 1996

Paul Hawken, Amory B Lovins & L Hunter Lovins, Natural Capitalism, Earthscan, 1999

Satish Kumar (Interview with Amory Lovins), Natural Capitalism, Resurgence, issue 198, January/February 2000

James Lovelock, Gaia: The Practical Science of Planetary Medicine, Gaia Books, 1991

James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia (2nd ed), Oxford University Press, 1995

Amory B Lovins, Soft Energy Paths, Penguin, 1977

Keith Parkins, Wendell Berry, June 1999

Keith Parkins, Soft Energy Paths, March 2000

Keith Parkins, Deep Ecology, March 2000

Keith Parkins, Gaia, to be published

Keith Parkins, Localisation, October 2000

Gaia index ~ Gaia ~ deep ecology ~ soft energy paths ~ localisation
(c) Keith Parkins 2000 -- October 2000 rev 0