10/31/2008 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Putting the "Eco" in Economics

"We've got to put the 'eco' back into economics." That was the thrust of David Suzuki's keynote address today at the West Coast Green conference in San Jose, California. If we don't understand where our resources come from and where our waste goes, he said, "it becomes easy to accept what our so-called leaders tell us." What are we told? That it's the economy--not the earth--that sustains us. "Trees take carbon dioxide out of the air and turn it into oxygen. That's not a bad service for an animal like us." 

Fast forward 20 minutes or so to a keynote by Hunter Lovins, president and founder of Natural Capitalism, Inc. "It is the economy," she said, before presenting a series of companies (Wal-Mart and DuPont among them) that have begun conserving energy, improving efficiency, reducing waste, and generally shrinking their environmental impact with an eye trained squarely on the bottom line. "The economy is going to drive the sorts of changes we need if we have even a little of that foresight," she said, referring to insight that helps you recognize "predictable surprises," or what bestselling author Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls black swans.

What gives Lovins such confidence? Nonrenewable resources, by
definition, will run out, and business as usual will have to change.
"The future is not possible," she said. "And when the future is not
possible, you know you're staring a driver of change in the face." There's just one hangup: "We have this little problem with rate and magnitude. The
problems are coming faster than we thought and the solutions are coming
way too slow."

Finding solutions with as much urgency as our carbon burn-rate
demands requires a different mindset, Suzuki said. He described the
final weeks of his father's life, spent with Suzuki and his sisters.
"Never once did we say, 'Gee, Dad, do you remember that great car you
bought back in 1957? Remember those clothes you had?' It was all about
family and friends," he said. "Life is not about money or stuff. It's
about the kinds of things we do together in a joyful way."

All well and good, said Lovins--but not enough. "I don't care what's
in your heart. I care what you do." To get started, she suggested
looking to The Lord of the Rings. "In the end, it was these two fun loving, unassuming little hobbits who took on this task. The little people saved the world."

Share your thoughts: What do you think about the relationship
between ecology and the economy? Do you agree with David Suzuki, Hunter
Lovins, both, or neither?
Where do you find inspiration to go green?

Read more about the economy, climate change, and clean technology:

Chrysler Revs Up to Join Green Car Race

Lehman Bankruptcy Puts Squeeze on Clean Energy
Shopping Gone Good?
Green Cell Phone Evolution
Google Goes Big for Geothermal
Jake Brewer: Green Economy. Green Jobs. Now.
Grist: How to Find a Green Job