02 August 2013

Review: ENVIRONMENTAL DEBT by Amy Larkin

There have been a number of books about business and the environment over the past five years.

Most follow the same formula: explain the environmental issues and problems we're causing as a species, point to a few success stories -- especially about good corporate citizens who are taking steps to reduce their impact, and outline a prescription for a path forward toward a solution.

The books tend to resemble each other, too, as if book jacket designers and marketing staff have done their market research. Typically, there's a fringe of grass along the bottom edge with a plant growing out of it and some denomination of money, either as blossom or as the potting material that nurture's both ecological and economic growth. (Yawn.)

Amy Larkin's Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy is no different, but it stands as a complementary volume to Mark Tercek's Nature's Fortune: How Business and Society Thrive by Investing in Nature, which I reviewed earlier this year.

Larkin, a self-proclaimed environmental activist and "revolutionary in a suit," is former solutions director with Greenpeace. She has enviro street-cred, but has also been in enough boardrooms to know how to achieve corporate compromises.

Larkin has done great work, some of which she highlights in her book, and she continues to serve as a consultant with companies wrestling with how to address their environmental footprint.

Hers is a strong, credible voice for focusing on solutions, while not ignoring the intractable problems.

She's direct and forthcoming about some of the challenges facing the environmental movement, especially in trying to convince the public that there is a better, albeit harder way.

That better way is outlined by her Nature Means Business framework (NMB), which is also, curiously, the name of her consulting firm.

The NMB Framework is simple (thankfully):

1.) Pollution can no longer be free and can no longer be subsidized.
2.) The long view must guide all decision making and accounting.
3.) Government plays a vital role in catalyzing clean technology and growth while preventing environmental destruction.

Larkin stops short of prescribing a cure beyond this three-part framework.

In fact, she's set up a web site and a kind of Changemakers-style competition called transitionagenda.org with the conflict resolution organization RESOLVE in order to allow readers to continue the conversation, offer their own ideas, and possibly, via crowdfunding a la Kickstarter, fund those ideas.

Either Larkin has a lot of faith in her readers or her editors wanted there to be a life for Environmental Debt beyond the book. It's an interesting concept and I'm curious to see whether it works.

Ultimately, a book like this will only make a difference if it gets into the right hands and at the right time.

The revelation that caused Ray Anderson to transform his Interface flooring company came from his reading of Paul Hawken's The Ecology of Commerce.

Lee Scott and Rob Walton overhauled Walmart's supply chain and business operations after touring biodiversity hotspots with Pete Seligmann of Conservation International.

As Larkin writes, her "greatest hope is that Environmental Debt promulgates new ideas into the culture that in turn change our understanding of business."

And, perhaps, she didn't have to add, change the way we do business.

I hope the right people read this book.