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Book Review: Environmental Debt

2014 August 2



Reviewed by Johanna Goetzel, Lead Researcher for Environmental Debt.


Environmental Debt: The Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy connects the financial and environmental crises – both causes and solutions. Author Amy Larkin shows how the costs of climate change, extreme weather and pollution combine to wreak havoc on the economy, as well as the earth, creating what she calls, “environmental debt”. Larkin proposes a new framework for 21st century commerce to empower profitable business that coexists with the environment. As she succinctly states: “No nature, no business.”

Intended for business leaders as well as those who acknowledge that ’business as usual’ cannot continue, Environmental Debt presents complex and provocative ideas in easy-to-read prose and includes numerous cultural touchstones to help ground the reader. Larkin artistically combines her expertise as an entrepreneur, producer and environmental activist, to deliver an approach for business to succeed without compromising nature.

Larkin introduces the “The Nature Means Business Framework”, comprised of three tenants: (1) Pollution can no longer be free and can no longer be subsidized; (2) The long view must guide all decision-making and accounting and (3) Government plays a vital role in catalyzing clean technology and growth while preventing environmental destruction.

Pollution can no longer be free and can no longer be subsidized.

In this first section, Larkin focuses on the example of externalities from coal production. A study developed by Greenpeace and researchers at Harvard showed that in just the United States, the full cost of coal extraction and combustion to society on top of the coal companies’ costs is $350 – 500 billion a year. These hundreds of billions of dollars, called externalities in economics, represent actual bills paid by fisheries, businesses, schools, municipal water systems, and unwitting families and their healthcare providers. Despite conventional wisdom, coal is not a cheap energy. Its price is cheap only because it is subsidized by its own victims. Larkin included two similar studies that estimate the externalities of oil in the United States at over $800 billion annually. In total the external costs of coal and oil is well over $1.1 trillion, the annual 2012 United States deficit. The section concludes that environmental debt is a serious contributor to fiscal instability. Larkin and her team at Greenpeace, where she worked as the Solutions Campaign director for six years, decided to take their names off the Harvard report so that it would have more salience in the business community.   As an environmental activist and businesswoman, Larkin and her book navigate this space expertly, drawing on personal anecdotes and peer-reviewed publications.

The long view must guide all decision-making and accounting.

This section recounts the catastrophic 2011 floods in Thailand and the historic land degradation that compounded the impact. These intense storms became catastrophic because of massive deforestation, much of which occurred in the 20th century. Without enough trees, the ground was unable to soak up the floodwater.   Local Thai factories that produced car parts were closed for months. These closures caused shortages for Toyota and Honda, and both companies were forced to suspend manufacturing in Kentucky, Singapore and the Philippines. Toyota alone suspended production of 260,000 vehicles (3.4% of its previous annual output) and tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs. Larkin explains how the logging in 20th century Thailand caused financial havoc around the world in 2011 — a good 20 years after it occurred. The people of Thailand, several governments, numerous companies and shareholders from around the world all paid the logging’s environmental debt. This section stresses the importance of long term planning with regard to business decision-making. Larkin commends Unilever, the first multinational corporation to do away with quarterly earning reports. Taking the long view requires a more holistic view of business success, focusing on the means to justify the ends.

Government plays a vital role in catalyzing clean technology and growth while preventing environmental destruction.

Calling on government to help support changes to the business world, Larkin focuses on how funding infrastructure has benefits for businesses and individuals. She provides the example of the Internet, one of the pieces of government-funded infrastructure we most take for granted today. The Department of Defense began work in the 1960s and 70s, and it was later catapulted to its full potential by the High Performance Computing Act of 1991, and is now used by everyone, thanks to government support. With regard to the role the government can play for energy transformation, Larkin suggests that it will inevitably end up spending billions of dollars to keep the lights on, as “this is government’s job.” The choice is whether to pay now for clean technology or pay later with environmental debt.   Larkin re-frames the current energy debate with this in mind.


Environmental Debt is Not Doom and Gloom

One of the book’s surprising revelations is that large numbers of multinational corporations are pushing for smart regulation in concert with activist non-profits and are implementing environmental changes in their own operations ahead of regulation. Environmental Debt showcases the courageous work of Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Tiffany’s, Unilever, Walmart and others as well as the frontier of innovation in design, financial reporting, and biomimicry to name a few. The emphasis on leaders within corporations helping to transform the Consumer Goods sector (a consortium of 400 of the world’s leading consumer brands and retailers) is inspiring. Larkin’s personal experience with these senior leaders allows her to draw on numerous examples of ‘revolutionaries in suits’ changing the world of business practice.

The book resonates with readers of all ages and no mater where they are in their professional careers by localizing examples of how transformations are possible. She concludes, “Today, wherever you are, there is a sense that the ground is moving, both financially and environmentally. We need to reboot a crashing system. There is a real hunger to build a foundation so that the twenty-first century doesn’t feel so bloody scary. Look around your office, your home, your school, your government. We are all facing very difficult choices. It is time to work together.”

Johanna Goetzel worked with Amy Larkin developing the content for the book, providing editorial support and guidance. Previously Goetzel and Larkin worked together on the Greenpeace Solutions campaign, helping transforming the business sector in the US and abroad. Goetzel now works on environmental health policy, focusing on the ROI for population and planetary health. She eared her Masters in Climate and Society at Columbia University and a Bachelors of Arts from Wesleyan University. She can be reached at




Weighing in on Waste: Leveraging Markets for Health

2014 June 13

By Johanna Goetzel and Jody Dean

It would come as no surprise to most that what we eat has impacts on the plant and population health, however what we don’t eat also matters. When we discard food we lose valuable energy in the form of calories, waste the energy that went into production and transport and increase food costs through lost value.  In continued support for last week’s World Environment Day, we can link our food and consumer markets to improve health.

In the US we discard approximately 40% of the total food produced. This is equivalent to 20 lbs of food each month, or $2,275 a year of unconsumed food for a family of four.  Additionally, food waste now accounts for more than 25% of total freshwater consumption and about 4% of total US oil consumption.  The climate impacts of food waste were acknowledged by New York City Mayor de Blasio, who signed a resolution to reduce the City’s climate “foodprint.”

In parallel with the trends in waste, 46.2 million people are currently living in poverty, which is the leading cause of hunger.  This makes wasted food an even greater problem, as discarded food could have been used to meet food demand. Addressing hunger in the United States can therefore become part of larger program to reduce wasted food, energy consumption and dollars.

This connection between waste and hunger creates opportunities to tackle both issues from an entrepreneurial standpoint. One such Boston based initiative, Spoiler Alert, attempts to leverage this connection through a mobile software platform that provides real-time information on supply and demand for excess, expiring and spoiled food. This venture not only has the ability to reduce waste and address food insecurity, but also to create new revenue streams by bringing together all stakeholders in the food-supply chain.

Multinational corporations such as Walmart have also found creative ways to turn waste into value. In line with their zero waste program, Walmart has expanded their waste reduction initiatives to include not just recycling and food donations, but also a waste diversion program that transforms used cooking oil into biofuel.

These innovative cross-sector collaborations can stimulate markets to favor healthier lifestyles, improve the environment and foster sustainable practices, effectively creating a “win-win”approach to health promotion.  

Power down to power up: Screen-Free Week 2014

2014 June 4

May 5-11 is this year’s national Screen-Free Week, encouraging everyone to turn off digital entertainment and turn on life. At work, trends of increased sedentary behavior have proven negative health impacts but a screen-free philosophy can encourage regular breaks, improving your concentration and your health.

Since 1970, Americans work an additional 200 hours per year, translating to more hours in chairs and in front of screens. Both of these ‘risk factors’ contribute to the growing weight of the nation.

Dr. Wilmot, a research fellow at the University of Leicester, found that people with the highest sedentary behavior had a 112 per cent increase in their relative risk of developing diabetes; a 147 per cent increase in their risk for cardiovascular disease; and a 49 percent greater risk of dying prematurely — even if they regularly exercised.

According to research by the Health Enhancement Research Organization (HERO) employers incur large costs from their obese employees, between USD $644- 2,500, per person per year. Companies are now reevaluating metrics for financial success and worker productivity, investing in their office environments to promote health.

A fun way to take a break, for physical and mental well-being can be to follow the lead of Dr. Yancey, professor of health services at UCLA who advocates for group exercise breaks and a simple workout that can be done at work. Studies show that these can reduce sick leave and workers’ compensation claims. As an employer, investing in well-being leads to productivity increases, with absenteeism costs falling by about $2.37 for every dollar spent.

Power down to power up and take a moment to move away from screens this week.

Source: Washington Post Workout at Work Poster (

Investing in Women: Farming for the Future

2014 March 10

Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum is an exceptional woman who advocates for connecting physical and psychological well-being as part of the global ethos for improved health.  The Vitality Institute is honored to count her as one of our Commissioners.

Rhonda’s heroic past, documented in her book, is only a shade more exciting than her work today as a farmer. Rhonda developed a love for farming early in life when she spent her summers on a family farm in Ohio. Today she grows nearly all of her own food in Paris, Kentucky, a practice she considers good for the body and environment. She believes that the closer food is to its natural state, the better it is, “if a product has more than five ingredients, it is not a real food.”

Agriculture is the single largest employer in the world. Rhonda is one of many female farmers worldwide, but in the minority of female land owners. Women farmers produce more than half of the food grown in the world, yet receive only about 5% of agriculture extension services and own about 2% of land worldwide. Closing the gender gap in agriculture will have economic benefits for world’s economic and food system. S. Ayyappan, Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, said “By failing to invest in women farmers we are handicapping ourselves in the quest for sustainable and more productive agriculture systems and more food-secure societies.” With this global sentiment and individual demonstration of resilience, we celebrate women farmers worldwide and thank them for their efforts in literally putting produce on our plates.

Rhonda considers herself privileged to have her own farm, and in her own words, she tries to be an example of how people can live.  On a final note, Rhonda offers the two rules that she lives by:

  1. The fact that you have made a mistake in the past is not a good reason to keep doing it.
  2. Don’t let other people’s expectations of you limit your own expectations of yourself.

Honoring resilience and inner strength, The Vitality Institute wishes a very happy (belated) International Women’s Day to all.

No nature, no business

2013 October 4

Har­mo­niz­ing the Rules of Busi­ness with the Laws of Nature

Envi­ron­men­tal Debt: The Hid­den Costs of a Chang­ing Global Econ­omy, writ­ten by Amy Larkin and researched by Johanna Goet­zel, was released by Pal­grave Macmil­lan June 25, 2013.


The book con­nects the finan­cial and envi­ron­men­tal crises – through both causes and solu­tions. The book intro­duces the “Nature Means Busi­ness Frame­work for the 21st Cen­tury,” which pro­vides a road map for con­nect­ing the Return On Invest­ment (ROI) of busi­ness with the sur­vival of the nat­ural world.

The three pil­lars of the The Nature Means Busi­ness Frame­work aim to empower prof­itable busi­ness that, by nature, coex­ist with the envi­ron­ment. They are as follows:

(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’s “great­est hope is that Envi­ron­men­tal Debt pro­mul­gates new ideas into the cul­ture that in turn change our under­stand­ing of busi­ness.” The book reveals the com­mon ground between busi­ness, civil soci­ety, sci­ence, reli­gion, cul­ture and  pol­icy reform­ers. The ideas pre­sented in the book take on extended life through an online forum called The Tran­si­tion Agenda, hosted by RESOLVE, where indi­vid­u­als from a vari­ety of sec­tors can dis­cuss and engage with issues essen­tial to our sur­vival. No nature, no business.

Reviews of the book have been encour­ag­ing. Pub­lish­ers Weekly writes: “For any­one inter­ested in envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nomic pol­icy, this is a fas­ci­nat­ing, provoca­tive book. Brisk, bold, and blunt, Larkin is a dev­as­tat­ing critic of cur­rent busi­ness prac­tices, but she wants to inspire, not scold.”

A New York native, Larkin writes about local and global issues in a clear and direct way.  Her years of work with Green­peace along with her entre­pre­neur­ial expe­ri­ence present the short and long term impacts of envi­ron­men­tal debt. The tone is encouraging–action is pos­si­ble, and the time is now!

Amy Larkin blogs for the Huff­in­g­ton Post about these and other issues.

What is the future of food in New York City? Quinn, DeBlasio, Weiner weigh in

2013 August 7

coauthored with Jody Dean–

The Bloomberg admin­is­tra­tion is com­ing to a close and the search for a new mayor is in full swing. In addi­tion to the usual pol­icy ques­tions typ­i­cally raised dur­ing a may­oral race, the 2013 can­di­dates were offered an unprece­dented oppor­tu­nity to out­line their plat­forms on food policy.

The need for more resilient and sus­tain­able food pol­icy and infra­struc­ture for New York is well doc­u­mented, and is the sub­ject of a num­ber of food sys­tems and anti-hunger orga­ni­za­tions. Spear­headed by the Brook­lyn Food Coali­tion, the ground­break­ing “May­oral can­di­date forum on the future of food in New York City” was con­vened to engage the can­di­dates in a dis­cus­sion about food pol­icy as an “eco­nomic, health, envi­ron­men­tal and labor ini­tia­tive.” Through this forum, the pub­lic and over 1,000 atten­dees were able to hear the posi­tion of each may­oral can­di­date on issues related to food pol­icy, food access, and the future of food in New York. These top­ics, while essen­tial to the health and sta­bil­ity of the city, are fre­quently left out of may­oral debates or tied in with other issues, such as education.

Mayoral Candidate Forum

Of the nine declared can­di­dates, six attended the forum, mod­er­ated by Mar­ion Nes­tle, Pro­fes­sor in the Depart­ment of Nutri­tion, Food Stud­ies, and Pub­lic Health at New York Uni­ver­sity. The ques­tions posed to the can­di­dates fall under three ban­ners: healthy and sus­tain­able food for schools, expand­ing access to ser­vices and aid pro­grams (SNAP and WIC) and labor issues within the indus­try. The con­ver­sa­tion included a dis­cus­sion about how best to inte­grate a food pol­icy platform.

Hunger is a com­plex prob­lem and it is essen­tial that it is addressed on mul­ti­ple lev­els. Food avail­abil­ity, one impor­tant piece of com­bat­ting hunger, is an issue that impacts the entire eco­nomic and social sys­tem. Food access and uti­liza­tions are fac­tors cen­tral to strength­en­ing the links between food, com­mu­nity, health and eco­nom­ics under the purview of the mayor. Can­di­dates must think about the under­ly­ing fac­tors includ­ing socio-economic sta­tus that limit food acces­si­bil­ity, avail­abil­ity of resources, and allo­cate more fund­ing for social safety nets.

Accord­ing to Feed­ing Amer­ica, 2011 cen­sus data shows that the State of New York is 14.7% food inse­cure. Rate of food inse­cu­rity are higher, on aver­age, in the five bor­oughs: in Queens, 14% of  the pop­u­la­tion is food inse­cure.  In Man­hat­tan (Kings county) 20.4% and in Bronx, 23.3%.

NY Food Insecurity

All par­tic­i­pat­ing can­di­dates spoke about the SNAP pro­gram and noted the over­all pos­i­tive impact for par­tic­i­pants, though can­di­date John Cas­ti­ma­tidis men­tioned that he pre­ferred the WIC pro­gram, which he believed was less prone to fraud.

Sug­ges­tions to improve SNAP in the fol­low­ing ways were discussed:

1. Des­tig­ma­tize assisted food aid programs

2. Extend free meals  through the sum­mer and max­i­mize par­tic­i­pa­tion (a posi­tion advo­cated for by the Food Bank of New York)

3. Offer more oppor­tu­ni­ties for enroll­ment (and locations)

4. Increase the num­ber of ven­dors who can process SNAP (improve tech­nol­ogy in stores and bodegas)

Another area ripe for expan­sion is increased part­ner­ships with farm­ers mar­kets and CSAs to pro­mote con­sump­tion of fresh and sea­sonal fruits and veg­eta­bles.  Fur­ther, pro­grams like the Dou­ble Up Food Bucks (DUFB) pro­gram that matches money spent by SNAP par­tic­i­pants up to $20 per trans­ac­tion for the pur­chase of state-grown pro­duce. The pro­gram, already in place in Michi­gan, could be imple­mented in New York stores and farm­ers mar­kets. Many green mar­kets already accept EBT in New York and per­haps green carts can also be out­fit­ted with the tech­nol­ogy to do so.

Sev­eral can­di­dates, includ­ing Anthony Weiner and Bill De Bla­sio, spoke of appoint­ing food czars or deputy direc­tors of food pro­grams who work cross-sectorally to develop pro­grams and then part­ner with local groups like Just­food to mon­i­tor and eval­u­ate progress.

The food ser­vice indus­try is an essen­tial piece of the food econ­omy in New York and as such, the mil­lions of par­tic­i­pants must be respected and pro­tected to ensure safety of food and work­ers and fos­ter an inclu­sive com­mu­nity where food brings us together instead of mag­ni­fies the socioe­co­nomic divide. A large por­tion of the food ser­vice pop­u­la­tion can­not cur­rently afford suf­fi­cient food for them­selves or families.


Those seek­ing to improve the wages and well­be­ing of food work­ers must also acknowl­edge that a large pro­por­tion of food-service work­ers com­mute long dis­tances to work. The Gothamist illus­trates this fact with a map with cen­sus data to show just how long com­mutes to jobs in the City are for many work­ers. They reported that in Man­hat­tan, twice as many work­ers com­mute from another county (1.6 mil­lion) as live there (830,000). Time spent in tran­sit is time lost for wage earn­ings. The eco­nom­i­cally strat­i­fied city means that there are a very few peo­ple who work where they live.

Can­di­dates spoke of real estate changes that could help reduce the pro­por­tion of sales that go toward rent (John Cat­si­ma­tidis said that in New York it is close to 10 per­cent while in New Jer­sey it is merely 1.5 per­cent). Chang­ing this by increas­ing 80–20 hous­ing and mixed use real estate could rad­i­cally change the goods and ser­vices econ­omy. Other inter­ven­tions includ­ing the fol­low­ing can help in the short term:

1. Increase the min­i­mum wage. The Gen­eral Indus­try Min­i­mum Wage Act has set a $7.25 wage in many states, includ­ing New York. Accord­ing to can­di­date Sal Albanese, that is not liv­able wage.

2. Hire locally when pos­si­ble, develop neigh­bor­hood economies to sup­port food systems.

3. Increase edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties for indus­try workers.

While a food pol­icy plat­form was osten­si­bly the focus on the forum, not all of the can­di­dates address this issue directly within their cam­paigns. Rather than answer­ing the ques­tions about hunger, school food and the food econ­omy, many instead rolled these issues into other sec­tors of their cam­paign plat­forms, such as dis­plea­sure with Mayor Bloomberg’s pol­icy ini­tia­tives or reduc­ing the amount of money spent on healthcare.

This seems to indi­cate that despite the focus on food sys­tems pro­vided by the forum, the future of food in New York City may not yet be at the fore­front of the city’s polit­i­cal con­scious­ness.  His­tor­i­cally, the work around these issues has been car­ried by non-profits and com­mu­nity groups, and that trend is likely to con­tinue until city gov­ern­ment embraces the idea of devel­op­ing a more sus­tain­able and resilient food system.

On sev­eral occa­sions the can­di­dates spoke of the need for col­lab­o­ra­tion between gov­ern­ment, busi­ness and civil soci­ety. Food sys­tem gov­er­nance effi­ciency can be increased through hav­ing an open col­lab­o­ra­tion. Some can­di­dates spoke from per­sonal expe­ri­ence, includ­ing John Cat­si­ma­tidis, who is the owner of Grist­edes,  about the advan­tages of larger stores and chains. Oth­ers advo­cated for bode­gas and fresh carts to receive greater sub­si­dies and sup​port​.In all cases, it is impor­tant to sup­port the equi­table oper­a­tions of  a com­bi­na­tion of small mar­kets (and incu­ba­tor spaces, like  La Mar­queta  men­tioned by Chris­tine Quinn) and larger chains where sup­ply chains are clearly stated (i.e. Whole Foods).

Strate­gies for build­ing a more inte­grated and resilient food sys­tems will likely emerge when can­di­dates are pushed and held account­able. Mar­ion Nes­tle noted her “aston­ish­ment” that food was a tak­ing a pri­mary focus in the race, how­ever there is still a lot of work to be done in address­ing the under­ly­ing issues of access, health­ful­ness and expand­ing SNAP and WIC. The forum was a great occa­sion for dia­logue. More oppor­tu­ni­ties for dis­cus­sion about food econ­omy, ecol­ogy, and polit­i­cal sys­tems are essen­tial for New York’s sus­tained health.

Links to each candidate’s cam­paign issues are available:

Chris­tine Quinn

John Cat­si­matides

Anthony Weiner

Sal Albanese

Bill De Blasio

John Liu

Bill Thomp­son