Natural Capitalism

natural capitalismWe stand at the cusp of a significant paradigm shift.

We have been building towards a transformational tipping point, where natural capital will eventually be valued alongside financial capital. While progress has been steady and promising for the last ten years, the widespread fundamental change we've been hoping for still lies ahead.

Last week at the Rocky Mountain Institute 2009 conference, Michael Potts, RMI's CEO moderated a panel of luminaries celebrating the tenth anniversary of Natural Capitalism, the seminal work by Paul Hawken, Amory Lovins, and Hunter Lovins.

The book describes the four principles to natural capitalism:

  1. Resource productivity - using resources more efficiently
  2. Biomimicry - redesigning industrial systems along biological line
  3. Service and flow economy - aligning incentives between business and consumers
  4. Restoring or re-investing in stocks of natural capital

Amory and Paul were joined on the panel by Interface CEO Ray Anderson, Autodesk CEO Carl Bass, and biomimicry guru Janine Beynus. A few highlights from the panel:

Ray Anderson is the classic example of a CEO who has used the principles of natural capitalism to transform his business. After reading this book and related ones, Anderson asked his design team to "go out into the forest and design a carpet as nature would." After studying the forest floor, they returned to the design studio and created a carpet tile which mimics the forest floor: no two tiles are alike. There were no quality issues because inspectors were unable to find defects, installation was easy because there was no pattern to follow. The product quickly became a best seller.

Carl Bass argued that CEOs like Anderson are not the norm. As CEO of a leading design software company, Carl interacts with architects, engineers and designers daily who have increasing awareness of the environmental challenges we face, but they don't know what to do or how to solve the problem. "They have the awareness, but if you ask them the impact of rotating a building ten degrees, they don't know. If you ask them about making eaves two feet longer or adding double glazing, they don't know what effect it will have," he said.

Amory Lovins, who's been a leading thinker on these issues for decades, agreed that we need to bring these ideas to scale more quickly than "one company or one industry at a time."

This then led to a conversation about the power of technology to scale these ideas. Carl's vision is to build environmental analysis capabilities into the design software so that it's easy for all designers to make better decisions. Janine Beynus described the Biomimicry Institute's AskNature portal, an open source catalogue of biological information, organized by function which enables designers to access and learn from nature's design principles.

Most notable to me was the degree of optimism among these visionaries who've been toiling away to affect widespread change. Bass and Lovins spoke about the awakening of China and the surprisingly rapid change underway. Hawken and Bass spoke about the power of youth and the next generation to affect a massive shift.

Looking ahead to how change might occur, Lovins described the phenomenon of a flock of birds that is able to almost instantly change directions, simultaneously. How do they signal each other that rapid change will take place? Is it truly sudden or does it just appear so?

While wide scale transformation hasn't occurred yet, the conditions are favorable for a radical shift toward incorporating natural capitalism into our mainstream understanding of capitalism. Perhaps China and the younger generations, together, will create the tipping point.

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  • Jerry Flach

    We are optimistic because sustainability is the solution that we seek. I see many more are playing a role in building the sustainable revolution and they are excited, they see the opportunity it offers, they have conviction for a mission and can realize the joy of working for their mission. Even the former naysayers are learning to see the monetary value beyond first cost to a longer term whole system cost savings- ECQ awareness in action. Consumers rule the GNP; we are what we buy and eat and think and say and do.