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I have come to believe that we in America and in the rest of the industrialized West do not know what business really is, or, therefore, what it can become. Perhaps this is a strange remark, given that free-market capitalism is now largely unchallenged as the economic and social credo of just about every society on earth, but I believe it's correct. Despite our management schools, despite the thousands of books written about business, despite the legions of economists who tinker with the trimtabs of the $21 trillion world economy, despite and maybe because of the victory of free-market capitalism over socialism worldwide, our understanding of business--what makes for healthy commerce, what the role of such commerce should be within society as a whole--is stuck at a primitive level.
The ultimate purpose of business is not, or should not be, simply to make money. Nor is it merely a system of making and selling things. The promise of business is to increase the general well-being of humankind through service, a creative invention and ethical philosophy. Making money is, on its own terms, totally meaningless, an insufficient pursuit for the complex and decaying world we live in. We have reached an unsettling and portentous turning point in industrial civilization. It is emblematic that the second animal ever to be "patented" is a mouse with no immune system that will be used to research diseases of the future, and that mother's milk would be banned by the food safety laws of industrialized nations if it were sold as a packaged good. What's in the milk besides milk and what's suppressing our immune system is literally industry--its by-products,wastes, and toxins. Facts like this lead to an inevitable conclusion: Businesspeople must either dedicate themselves to transforming commerce to a restorative undertaking, or march society to the undertaker.
I believe business is on the verge of such a transformation, a change brought on by social and biological forces that can no longer be ignored or put aside, a change so thorough and sweeping that in the decades to come business will be unrecognizable when compared to the commercial institutions of today. We have the capacity and ability to create a remarkably different economy, one that can restore ecosystems and protect the environment while bringing forth innovation, prosperity, meaningful work, and true security. As long as we continue to ignore the evolutionary thrust and potential of the existing economy, the world of commerce will continue to be in a state of disorder and constant restructuring. This is not because the worldwide recession has been so deep and long, but because there is a widening gap between the rapid rate at which society and the natural world are decaying and the agonizingly slow rate at which business is effecting any truly fundamental change.
This turbulent, transformative period we now face might be thought of as a system shedding its skin; it signals the first attempts by commerce to adapt to a new era. Many people in business, the media, and politics do not perceive this evolutionary step, while others who do understand fight it. Standing in the way of change are corporations who want to continue worldwide deforestation and build coal-fired power plants, who see the storage or dumping of billions of tons of waste as a plausible strategy for the future, who imagine a world of industrial farms sustained by chemical feed-stocks. They can slow the process down, make it more difficult, but they will not stop it. Like a sunset effect, the glories of the industrial economy may mask the fact that it is poised at a declining horizon of options and possibilities. Just as internal contradictions brought down the Marxist and socialist economies, so do a different set of social and biological forces signal our own possible demise. Those forces can no longer be ignored or put aside.
That the title of this book, The Ecology of Commerce, reads today as an oxymoron speaks to the gap between how the earth lives and how we now conduct our commercial lives. We don't usually think of ecology and commerce as compatible subjects. While much of our current environmental policy seeks a "balance" between the needs of business and the needs of the environment, common sense says there is only one critical balance and one set of needs: the dynamic, ever-changing interplay of the forces of life. The restorative economy envisioned and described in this book respects this fact. It unites ecology and commerce into one sustainable act of production and distribution that mimics and enhances natural processes. It proposes a newborn literacy of enterprise that acknowledges that we are all here together, at once, at the service of and at the mercy of nature, each other, and our daily acts.
A hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, it did not seem urgent that we understand the relationship between business and a healthy environment, because natural resources seemed unlimited. But on the verge of a new millennium we know that we have decimated ninety-seven percent of the ancient forests in North America; every day our farmers and ranchers draw out 20 billion more gallons of water from the ground than are replaced by rainfall; the Ogalala Aquifer, an underwater river beneath the Great Plains larger than any body of fresh water on earth, will dry up within thirty to forty years at present rates of extraction; globally we lose 25 billion tons of fertile topsoil every year, the equivalent of all the wheatfields in Australia. These critical losses are occurring while the world population is increasing at the rate of 90 million people per year. Quite simply, our business practices are destroying life on earth. Given current corporate practices, not one wildlife reserve, wilderness, or indigenous culture will survive the global market economy. We know that every natural system on the planet is disintegrating. The land, water, air, and sea have been functionally transformed from life-supporting systems into repositories for waste. There is no polite way to say that business is destroying the world.
Having served on the boards of several environmental organizations, I thought I understood the nature and extent of the problems we face. But as I prepared to write this book, I reviewed much of the new literature in the field and discovered that the more I researched the issues, the more disquieting I found the information. The rate and extent of environmental degradation is far in excess of anything I had previously imagined. The situation was like the textbook illusion in which the viewer is presented with a jumble of halftone dots that reveals the image of Abraham Lincoln only when seen from a distance. Each of the sources I worked with was one such dot, not meaningless in itself, but only a part of the picture. The problem we face is far greater than anything portrayed by the media. I came to understand well the despair of one epidemiologist who, after reviewing the work in her field and convening a conference to examine the effects of chlorinated compounds on embryonic development, went into a quiet mourning for six months. The implications of that conference were worse than any single participant could have anticipated: The immune system of every unborn child in the world may soon be adversely and irrevocably affected by the persistent toxins in our food, air, and water.
A subtler but similarly disquieting development was reported bythe New York Times in 1992 in an article entitled "The Silence of the Frogs." At an international conference on herpetology (the study of amphibians and reptiles), while 1,300 participants gave hundreds of official papers on specialized subjects, none had focused on the total picture. Pieced together informally in the hallways and in the lunch lines at the conference was the fact that frogs are disappearing from the face of the earth at an inexplicably rapid rate. Even more disturbing was the conclusion that these populations are crashing not merely in regions where there are known industrial toxins, but also in pristine wilderness areas where there is abundant food and no known sources of pollution. The implications of such a die-off go beyond frogs. The human endocrine system is remarkably similar to that of fish, birds, and wildlife; it is, from an evolutionary point of view, an ancient system. If endocrine and immune systems are failing and breaking down at lower levels of the animal kingdom, we may be similarly vulnerable. The reason we may not yet be experiencing the same types of breakdown seen in other species is because we gestate and breed comparatively rather slowly. On complex biological levels such as ours, bad news travels unhurriedly, but it eventually arrives. In other words, something unusual and inauspicious may be occurring globally at all levels of biological development: a fundamental decline that we are only beginning to comprehend and that our efforts at "environmentalism" have failed to address.