This book landed in my hands thanks to my condo neighbour and I am really grateful for the loan because it was such a great read! I would totally recommend this essay, which is accessible and solutions-oriented. No wonder it was a best-seller since it 1st publication in 1993. I would like to mention some of Paul Hawken’s ideas that I particularly liked.
One of the most important is that our markets are imperfect in that they fail to reflect the real costs of products and services. Why? Because real costs include all the externalities linked to them. These externalities can affect biodiversity, the quality of water, the preservation of ancient cultures, people’s health, air pollution etc… All the actions undertaken to “repair” those negative consequences have costs.
Because the costs of these “negative externalities” are difficult to take into account and because industrials don’t pay for them, our markets are fundamentally flawed.
As good “homo-economicus”, looking for the cheapest option is the basis of our purchasing behaviour. Unfortunately, today, the cheaper options are also the ones that bring about a cheap environment, cheap human rights, and a cheap world. This is true for all the goods we consume, from the 10-dollar H&M T-shirt made in Rana Plaza, to the cheap chicken wings hardly made of “chicken”.
Back to topic: how do we concretely include the price of negative externalities into our products?
As far as the environment is concerned, Hawken advocates for a solution that appears simple (at least conceptually): green taxes.
If polluting industries were taxed according to the environmental damages that they cause, the prices of their products would automatically be higher to include the costs of the taxes. Meanwhile, companies selling the same product that does not harm the environment would be more attractive to final customers. Their prices would have a competitive advantage (their lower cost).
“We must design a marketplace that obviates acts of environmental destruction by making them expensive and rewards restorative acts by bringing them within our means”.
The concept of green taxes is at the core of the “restorative economy” that Hawken is defending. Interestingly, he distinguishes two types of costs that would have to be taken into account: the “actual damage” caused by a company to the environment or to people; and the damages to future generations, which are more difficult to take into consideration but equally important.
In my opinion, that solution would bear a lot of potential. In a world where politics cared.
Regardless of political decisions, we as consumers will always have the power to make choices through our consumption habits. Hawken says:
“… the cash register is the daily voting booth in democratic capitalism”
I am skeptical about governments’ will to change things.
I am skeptical about traditional big companies’ will to do good. But I am definitely optimistic about people’s ability to make sensible purchasing decisions, provided they are informed.
Hawken even talks to the activists in us and suggests writing to companies, to question them, to tell them what we think about their behaviours (good or bad).
I leave you with a quote and a warm recommendation to borrow the book from the library.
“We need to imagine a life where having less is more satisfying, more interesting and more secure”