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For a profitable future

review: Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution by Paul Hawken, Amory B Lovins and L Hunter Lovins. Earthscan, 1999. 396pp. £18.99

As a designer it is easy to become locked into the 'business as usual' mindset of most of our clients and to view the challenge of sustainability as an academic or fringe issue. At the same time the rising flow of news about climate change, natural disasters, water wars, waste disposal crisis, soil depletion and pollution suggests that all is not well designed out there. Natural Capitalism not only clarifies the unsustainability of our present road but shows how it could be faily quickly, and very profitably, reconceived as a sustainable one.

There are four forms of capital: financial, manufactured, human and natural. At present we concentrate on financial and manufactured capital, pay lip service to human capital and treat natural capital as valueless. A recent attempt to put a value on the services of nature to our economy suggest that they at least equal the world's gross financial product. The cycling and purification of air and water, climate regulation, genetic resource production, soil, fertiliser and food provision, and inorganic resources supply are all massive services. Yet our present thinking consumes natural capital as if it were income, assigning no significance to the productive use of natural resources in themselves.

The book is not a typical 'green' diatribe, urging us all to give up our lifestyles; quite the opposite. As in the Lovins' previous book, Factor Four, the authors are convinced that the planet can support its projected population at far higher standards of living than now, provided that resource productivity is what we value most and that we start to practice 'natural capitalism'. Once our markets have key imperfections corrected, capitalism will, they assert, provide a fully sustainable basis for planet management.

The book demonstrates this in each area of resource challenge: energy, climate, food, water, materials and human potential. The techniques used come from Womak and Jones' Lean Thinking (also well worth reading), to cut through the concept of diminishing returns in attempts to economise. There is much evidence that the shift is already under way.

Natural Capitalism is a very upbeat book with which to start the millennium. Huge inertia lies in the way of the changes it seeks, but the great lubricant is its profit potential. Enlightened political and business action could throw the switches into sustainable mode. It would then be up to designers to find and use the elegant solutions which are out there. It's a challenge we should take up with enthusiasm.

Richard Saxon is chairman of BDP

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