The clichéd proverb “waste not, want not” nearly parallels one of the fundamental ideas of natural capitalism, which is to ensure that no capital, whether it is natural, human, or financial goes to waste. This idea is based off the workings of nature, where resources are created, used, and recycled. Natural capitalism highlights the unnerving fact that it will be necessary for humans to conserve and strategically use the remaining finite resources available, and it points out that while the slowing of finite resources may seem like an inconvenience to the industrial economy, a natural capitalist system would be an efficient and ethical solution to the waning finite resources.
According to Hawken, author of “Natural Capitalism: The Next Industrial Revolution,” waste is cyclical. It is something that encompasses not only the landfill, but also aspects of human health and social and financial boundaries. There are three principal types of waste that could be reduced upon adopting principles of natural capitalism: natural resource waste, waste of human work/intellect and waste of wealth. I could argue that all capital, certainly the types of capital listed prior (human capital, financial capital) solely depend on natural capital for survival. That statement in itself is not too profound. However, when one investigates the interactions between different types of capital, it becomes clear that the different types of capital are inextricably related to each other.
Upon deeper investigation of the cyclical nature of natural, human and financial capital, I realized the worst case scenario reflected the inescapable, cyclical nature of poverty, and, further, a rigid social structure.
As an example, take a group of people living in a large city. Their neighborhood is either built over or in close proximity to toxic waste, and this toxic waste pollutes the larger neighborhood environment. The people that live here may have had no other place to live, as there was nowhere else they could afford to live. To the outside eye, their living situation is not as surprising as it ought to be, given that the impoverished and minorities are more likely to end up living in toxic environments. Had the city not been a dumping ground for toxic sludge, perhaps the people living in this area would be healthier, and perhaps the area of town would not run the risk of being run down and dangerous.
To make matters worse, this same group of people are unable to find sufficient access to fresh produce and other healthy foods. And, if they are able to access the foods they need to stay healthy, they are unable to afford them— healthy food increasingly seems to be a luxury, after all. With
time, individuals’ health starts to deteriorate, as this group of people are only able to afford food that compromises their health. Perhaps one of the people has to go to the hospital—let’s say the person has a heart attack. They likely will not be taken to the best hospital in the city, but rather the closest one, and in the run-down portion of city they live in, the hospital technology and care is insufficient for the person in question to make a full recovery.
From here, this group of people is still unable to afford to live in a healthier environment or afford
or find access to the healthier, fresh food that would aid in their long-term health and increase their chances of a full recovery. Because they have not been able to fully recover, they are unable to find full-time work that would pay enough for possible new medical needs. Perhaps they find a low-paying, part-time job. Perhaps they cannot find any job. This group of underprivileged people who are unable to better their lives, as difficult as that would be in its own right, completes the vicious circle of poverty and wasted capital.
Natural capitalism attempts to assuage and prevent situations such as the theoretical one depicted above. Transition to a system of natural capitalism would have to take place over an extended period of time, as there are great amounts of capital invested in the idea of industrial capitalism. If we followed the natural capitalism model and adjusted the economy to prize finite and infinite natural capital in accordance to other types of capital, perhaps there would be greater equality, greater fiscal responsibility and a greater understanding and appreciation of the manmade resources consumed by humans. Perhaps we would better understand the environmental consequences of those man-made resources.
Sarah Liebig is a senior studying English Writing and Global Studies: Worlds in Dialogue. Liebig’s principal interests lie in social justice and environmental concerns. Upon graduation, she intends to study law. Liebig is originally from Lincoln, NE and is the only child of two soil scientists. She shares permanent residence with two cats, Oscar and Ophelia.