My tribute for Earth Day is inviting you to read Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy by Amy Larkin.
Published in 2013, this book appears lightweight (less than 250pp) but the ideas and case stories are intriguing and provocative enough that you will want your own copy. It is thoroughly researched and the best part is that it is based on first-hand accounts.
Amy Larkin has worked with Greenpeace USA for over a quarter of a decade. In addition to serving as the Greenpeace USA Solutions Director for six years, she has served on numerous advisory boards. In her early days, she co-founded Message!Check Corp, which won the City of Seattle Small Business of the Year Award in 1989. Presently she is Advisory Chair at Biomimicry NYC, consultant at NMB (Nature Means Business) and Strategy Advisor at RESOLV based in Washington, D.C.
Environmental Debt educates readers on the concept of environmental debt. We have a way of ignoring externalities in creating goods and services. Factors such as natural resources, population, climate change, and health costs are increasingly forcing businesses and governments to reassess. If Nature brings about too many unintended consequences, civilizational collapse can occur along with irreversible degradations.
Were the price of externalities–impacts on air, water, land, ocean, and resources– with regard oil security, water use, mining, waste disposal, or manufacturing properly assessed, there could be strong incentives to develop sustainably. Larkin’s book is full of case examples, comparisons, historic legislation, and statistics demonstrating how long-term benefits more than outweigh the costs. With regard to conservation:
Every year, Americans use the equivalent of 300 million 100-foot-tall Douglas fir trees in paper and wood products (that’s one tree for each of us). We throw away enough paper and plastic cups, forks and spoons to circle the equator three hundred times. Every year, Americans use approximately 1 billion nonbiodegradable plastic shopping bags, creating 300,000 tons of landfill waste….And unfortunately, the pricing incentives for recycling are all screwed up.
In Chapter 4, the book profiles how Greenpeace USA guided McDonald’s, Tiffany’s, Walmart, Unilever, Coca-Cola, and PepsiCo towards making environmentally-sound decisions. If some of the world’s biggest players are willing to take on courageous risks, it is because in the long run, they know they can recoup their investments while transitioning to cleaner green technology or promoting fair trade products.
Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy surprises the reader with its pro-business stance at times. After all, isn’t Greenpeace USA more famous for its outrageous eco-activist antics than for quietly working behind the scenes? This book provides ample testimony to Greenpeace’s commitment to finding creative sustainable solutions that are win-wins both for corporations and the environment.
A case in point is Walmart, which is now committed to implementing sustainability measures at all levels of their operations, from packaging, transportation, and energy use to supply chain. Many people recall that Walmart began selling compact fluorescent light bulbs and sourcing fresh produce from small family-owned farms a few years ago.
Sticking with household goods, Walmart also demanded that its suppliers completely repackage their goods. The company now only sells concentrated liquid laundry detergent, which has saved more than 400 million gallons of water, 95 million pounds of plastic resin, 125 million pounds of cardboard and 520,000 gallons of diesel fuel over the past three years. Smaller packaging costs less to transport.
A huge private-public-Greenpeace collaboration win-win success is Greenpeace International’s instrumental role in facilitating the design and development of GreenFreeze refrigerators, including marketing and acceptance by U.S. companies up to the Consumer Goods Forum.
Corporate collaboration is a subtheme throughout this book whether it’s with regard to energy policy (Chapter 5), fiscal policy (Chapter 2), addressing extreme weather (Chapter 6) or research and development (Chapter 7).
According to Larkin, the age of environmental profit and loss reporting, life-cycle assessment, and integrated reporting has arrived in private industry, yet regulatory policy lags behind. (However, President Obama has taken solid steps toward enacting sustainability initiatives and fighting climate change).
If Larkin sometimes sounds a bit like a corporate insider, the fact of the matter is that she sort of is. The daughter of a pioneering New York City engineer-industrialist, she’s trained and developed the wherewithal to straddle both the tough financial world of private industry and the more fluid world of nature, harmony and eco-activists.
A tough shell is needed when encountering opposition from regulators to politicians to corporate chairpersons; nevertheless, her courage and optimism shine through in every page. Accountants and money managers can actually help pave the way for change, she argues, with environment, sustainability, and climate change included in financial cost accounting in ways which are realistic rather than leveraging.
Although accountants hold the crucial intellectual capital to design the new financial framework, they need some courageous regulators and politicians as partners in this endeavor. That’s why the third pillar of the NMB Framework is that government’s role in crafting smart policy is crucial to both incentivizing clean growth and penalizing environmentally dangerous business activity.
Larkin’s philosophy echoes those of Lester Brown of Earth Policy Institute. Speaking at “A Global Climate Treaty: Why the U.S. Must Lead” event in New York City last fall, Lester Brown praised the efforts of billionaires, such as Phil Anschutz, Warren Buffet, and Ted Turner in investing millions in wind power and solar energy developments.
We look around the world now, and we can see evidence of the new energy economy emerging…Those who see these changes coming, and anticipate them, plan for them, will be winners.
The People’s Climate March last fall in New York City and other cities around the world taught us that environmentalists come from all walks of life, races, and creeds. Mainstream media’s depiction of tree-huggers or activist-researchers with significant biological or sentimental back-story can even serve to promote harmful stereotypes.
Insofar as readability, New York City native Amy Larkin’s eclectic way of mixing in quotes or existential details help lighten the fare while providing additional contexts to what is essentially a very 21st century globalist outlook on climate change.