With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am a member of several real environmental organizations, like Environmental Defense and Earth Island Institute.
Recently I have founded two new organizations: Natural Capitalism, Inc. (NCI), a for-profit consulting company implementing the ideas of Natural Capitalism in companies and governments around the world, and Natural Capitalism Solutions (NCS), a nonprofit research and educational outfit, building the new intellectual capital we need to advance these ideas and working with educational institutions here and abroad to inject the ideas of sustainability into all of the disciplines.
My own organizations, however, are not “environmental organizations” per se. Our primary purpose is not the protection of the environment, but rather the profitable solving of problems in ways that also meet environmental and social challenges. Both approaches are needed. I admire committed environmentalists like my mentor Dave Brower greatly, am very grateful for all that they do, and am honored to be a part of a larger ecosystem of groups working to create a sustainable society, of which environmental protection is a vital part.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
The mission of both organizations is to make Natural Capitalism and other frameworks of sustainability the central organizing principles of business and society worldwide. “Mission accomplished” would be the creation and successful management of a human society which, as my friend (and fellow alum of Brower U) Randy Hayes says, is more desirable than the one we have now, and whose way of life, if practiced by everyone, would lead to increasing biodiversity, wilderness, and ecological integrity.
To achieve that will require, first of all, buying time by using all resources taken from the earth or borrowed from the future dramatically more productively. Fortunately, doing this can be profitable, and can create the needed capital to implement the other two principles of Natural Capitalism:
- Redesigning all aspects of business and society to do business as nature does (biomimicry), running on sunlight, creating no persistent toxins, being “eco-effective” (McDonough and Braungart’s concept of Cradle to Cradle — though that phrase is actually the 20-years-ago concept of Walter Stahel, the Swiss thinker who is the father of many modern concepts of sustainability).
- Managing all of our institutions in ways that are restorative of human and natural capital.
NCI and NCS develop tools that enable leaders in business and government to meet their daily challenges in ways that are more sustainable. We implement these approaches with companies, countries, and communities, both in the developed world and especially in emerging economies. Our combined staff consists of about 15 people working variously on three books, several sets of curricula, and an array of implementation tools. Our senior people are often on the road, consulting, speaking, and teaching.
I am also now a professor of business at Presidio World College, a new school of business offering, I believe, the world’s first accredited M.B.A. in Sustainable Management.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
Like any start-up entrepreneur, I do whatever it takes. Now, as I often am, I’m working late, here alone, so I answer the phone, be sure the lights get turned out when I leave, and take out the trash before going home. On a normal day, I field phone calls and emails from around the world — a lot. Very commonly, I will spend a day consulting for a government, most recently those of Western Australia and Jamaica. Or it might be a large company like the International Finance Corporation, or a little nonprofit. I give about 100 speeches a year, mentor young interns, meet with corporate leaders and heads of state, talk into film cameras or radio mikes, teach M.B.A. students, write articles and books, build new PowerPoint shows for each presentation, and most fun, work with my partners, wrestling with ideas to create new intellectual capital. Then I sweep the floor at the end of the day.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
In some ways, I don’t know that I had much choice: My parents were activists. My mother organized in the coalfields of West Virginia with John L. Lewis, even against her coal mine-owning father. My father helped to mentor Martin King and Cesar Chavez. I was carried as a baby to my first demonstration, in support of the Quakers who were sailing the boat The Golden Rule into the South Pacific to try to stop the atmospheric testing of nuclear bombs. I grew up being taught to leave my campsite cleaner than I found it, to believe that I could make a difference and that I had a responsibility to do so.
My activism started in about 1963, working in such movements as fair housing and civil rights; I then moved on to anti-Vietnam War organizing, human rights work, and environmental protection. I quit being a member of Sierra Club in protest at the first firing of Dave Brower, and went with him to Friends of the Earth. In 1970, while taking double degrees in political studies and sociology, I planted a tree on the first Earth Day. The choice to go to law school was driven by the belief that this would make me a more effective advocate for social change (law turned out to be a lousy way of creating social change, but that’s another story …).
While still in law school I ran into a young man who was planting smog-tolerant trees in the forests around Los Angeles. I suggested that he was working on symptoms, that the real problem was smog, and that he should go back to the city and work on that. Andy Lipkis answered, asking me how he should do that.
I suggested that he go back to the city and talk to people about smog. He asked how one did that. I said you find what folk are interested in, talk to them about that, and there ya go — pretty soon, you’re talking about smog.
He said, “Right, that’s trees.”
“People love trees,” Andy pointed out. “If they plant a tree in the forest, they care about their tree. In this way, they come to care about the forest.”
I became his assistant director and together we created California Conservation Project (aka TreePeople), which is still in operation. I took and passed the California Bar, but kept on full time with Treeps.
The sense that we were still dealing with a symptom dogged me, though. It seemed that the real cause of smog was the misuse and misunderstanding of energy. So, from 1972 on, I tried to teach myself energy policy. It wasn’t an academic subject back then, and I read a lot of useless reports that would have better served as fuel.
In 1973, the Arab oil embargo hit and suddenly energy was on everyone’s mind. Despite a flood of people proposing some new form of energy supply that your and my tax dollars should pay for, none of the official policies made any sense. President Nixon proposed to spend 75 percent of all discretionary income in the country building power plants. If he had succeeded, there wouldn’t have been enough money left to pay for all the activities that were supposed to use all that energy.
It wasn’t until 1976 and Amory Lovins’ piece in Foreign Affairs — “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” — that I found an internally consistent approach to solving the energy challenge. The trouble was that Amory, a physicist, wrote so technically that almost no one would take the time to try to understand him. I only did because a man I highly respected said that this was the approach for which I had been searching. But I had to go through the article with a ruler and a dictionary, line by line, figuring out just what he meant. None of the other TreePeople would even try. So I translated Amory’s end-use/least cost analysis into English and started teaching it to the third graders and senior citizens to whom we were teaching environmental education.
Stripped of the technical language, it made a lot of sense (and still does). His analysis asked: What is it that we need energy for? Illumination, comfort in buildings, mobility, hot showers, and cold beer. And what is the cheapest and best way to meet our desires for those services? Turns out when you ask it that way, no kind of new power plant makes any sense, because electricity, a very expensive and high-quality form of energy, is only needed to meet about 10 percent of what we really use energy for. Most of our needs just require low temperature heat or liquid fuels to run vehicles. But almost every official energy policy starts with what kind of power plant to build. Even many environmentalists ask, “Should we use PVs or wind rather than nuclear or coal?” Wrong. We should construct our buildings so that they stay comfortable using insulation and good passive solar design, our cars so that they will get 100 mpg, and our factories so that they have no carbon emissions. Doing this turns out to be the cheapest option, buys the most environmental protection, and is the only policy that preserves a democratic society. It’s a lesson we still have to learn: Technology is the answer! But what was the question?
The chief economist of Atlantic Richfield thought what I had done was pretty neat, and introduced Amory and me — I guess we have big oil to thank for that — and in 1978 Amory and I integrated our careers.
We worked together for Dave Brower, as policy advisors to Friends of the Earth. FOE paid about enough to pay the phone bill. But we loved it. Dave had a gift for hiring young activists who needed little supervision and would work for almost nothing if they had the chance to change the world.
Amory and I traveled the world, getting married somewhere along the way. We based out of a rented room in London, but mostly out of a big brown suitcase named “House.”
Then Dave got fired again around 1981. Dave had once more pissed off his board of directors for refusing to be reasonable. Russ Train had once pleaded with him, “Dave, be reasonable.” Dave answered, “Reasonable people have never accomplished anything.” He was also fond of saying, “If you have a positive bank balance you haven’t realized the urgency of the situation.” This refusal to be normal founded the modern environmental movement, but it drove boards of directors to distraction. Dave never was a good manager, just the best leader with whom I have ever worked.
We sided with Dave, so it was clear that we were going to be out of a job, too. This wasn’t much of an economic loss, but it’s nice to have a title. So one day, driving across the country to go teach at Dartmouth, Amory and I idly discussed what we were gonna be when we grew up. We both felt that the really interesting areas to explore were not in any one discipline. We were into the interconnections between such areas as energy policy and water, economic development, national security, environmental protection and social justice, and nuclear non-proliferation.
But there are only 36 hours in a day and only two of us. It seemed to me that if we were ever to get out of doing just energy policy, we needed some help. So somewhere in one of those big flat states, maybe Iowa or Ohio, I suggested to Amory that we bring together a small handful of colleagues for whom finding and understanding and acting on these interconnections was their life passion too, and create an institute.
Amory’s answer was, “Oh horrors, administrivia!” I said that I would do the administering and he could focus on the quality of the research — and Rocky Mountain Institute was born. We took a quarter of a class that we had taught at Dartmouth to Old Snowmass, Colo., to help us build the first passive-solar, super-insulated, semi-underground “bioshelter.” Some of them stayed on to become staff. We figured we’d be about 12 people with a budget of a couple hundred thousand.
When I was fired in 2002, RMI had a staff of 54 and a $7.4 million budget — and a board that prefers “reasonable people.”
So, like Dave, I’m starting over. With my partners David Elliot and Walter Link, and a great staff of now about 15, counting interns, we’ve created Natural Capitalism, Inc., to take these ideas into business, and Natural Capitalism Solutions, to conduct research and education. I’d always figured I would live out my life in Old Snowmass, but who was it that said, “If you want to make God smile, make a plan”?
And like Dave, I never go out without a toothbrush and my passport. I just don’t know where nightfall might find me. For about a two-month period last February to April, I slept in my own bed five nights.
But tonight, perhaps, if the gods be kind, when I’m done, I can go home, climb up on my good little roping mare, and remind myself why I live in the Rocky Mountains.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
398. I receive about 100 a day, about half of which I try to answer — the other half are messages I read to keep current with such information gold mines as Grist.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
I was born in Ripton, Vt., nearest neighbor to Robert Frost.
When it became clear that I could no longer live in Old Snowmass, we were fortunate enough to find 10 acres and a small log house about a 20-minute drive from our office in Eldorado Springs, Colo., my second home while I’m in town. The horses and dogs like it, too.
What has been the worst moment in your professional life to date?
When the chair of the board of RMI walked into my office with no warning and told me that I was terminated, effective immediately, leave the building and speak to no one, and I realized that Amory had gone into hiding and hadn’t the guts to tell me that 30 years of a partnership had died.
Another was learning, after I went into the home that I built with my own hands, and still owned, to get some photos that had belonged to my mother, before leaving Old Snowmass for Boulder, that RMI had called the sheriff on me, trying to get me arrested for theft. Given that I had for the past 15 years been a member of the local fire department and had spent a whole lot of winter nights working wrecks in the canyon with the sheriff’s boys, they just grinned and wished me a great drive to my new home. I crossed the continental divide laughing the whole way. And I guess RMI is still mad about it. But it’s really not that funny …
What’s been the best?
Waking up every day to the opportunity to give it one more go. There’s a great cartoon of a ball field scoreboard that has the realists against the idealists. The score runs realists one, idealists zero until the bottom of the 9th, when it reads realists zero, idealists one.
There are lots of great moments: walking into a high-school cafeteria way up at the end of the road on the Big Island of Hawaii to try to talk the public utility commission into not letting the utility build a diesel power plant in the last part of the island that had clean air, and having a packed room of local people rise to their feet when they saw my cowboy hat. It must have affected the PUC — they cancelled the plant a few weeks later.
What’s on your desk right now?
In my office in Eldorado Springs, overlooking South Boulder Creek, and so close to the state park that we look out on the soaring rock ramparts that are some of the best climbing in the world: a stack of the books I use on a daily basis (including copies of most of the nine books I’ve authored), about 50 to-do notes to myself (not organized to anyone else’s eye), a can of peanuts (sardines are in the top drawer), a Chicago Climate Exchange paperweight with a printout of the first day’s trading ticker that Richard Sandor gave me, a tiny tortoise shell (holding paperclips) that I found at the Meadowcreek Project David Orr created in Arkansas (before he went off to be famous and write all those great books), my G4 laptop that travels the world with me, and a small lamp, holding up my cowboy hat. Oh, and a Bengal tiger print (my totem animal) hangs above my desk, along with a photo I took years ago of the Maroon Bells Wilderness.
Who is your environmental hero?
No way, I could not name only one: Of course Dave Brower, and Dana Meadows — the two greatest environmental writers of our age. And Dave Orr, Paul Hawken, Bill McKibben, Dennis Meadows, Denis Hayes, and Janine Benyus.
Once in college, someone asked me who my hero was. I thought a moment and said, “Me. No one else is responsible — I am. So it’s got to be me.” Hemingway once said that everything is your fault if you’re any damn good. And for a week or so all the other students said, “Well then you are our hero, too.” They got over it. But I didn’t. I still feel that I am responsible to do all that I can.
Who is your environmental nightmare?
George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Paul Wolfowitz, and that whole gang who care more about the aggrandizement of themselves and their ability to pillage the public coffers and the wealth of the rest of the world than they do about the fate of the young men and women of American and Iraqi descent whom they have condemned to war. In the name of access to oil (Halliburton’s), we are scattering depleted uranium shells all around that country, and sowing the seeds of hatred with which our children will have to cope. Not to mention their efforts to drill ANWR, or the Roan Plateau, or the Powder River, or …
What’s your environmental vice?
Hauling an F-250 truck down the road with a trailer loaded with horses, going to the next rodeo. C’mon, all you car guys: Build me a super-efficient, hydrogen-powered, hybrid pickup truck.
How do you get around?
Walter Link encouraged my desire to have a convertible, so I drive a very efficient Mitsubishi Spider, red, as long as I don’t have to haul anything — then I take our truck. Favorite means would be by horse or foot — you get to know things better when they go by slow.
What are you reading these days?
What’s your favorite meal?
Locally grown, grass-fed beef steak. It may be the most truly sustainable meal there is.
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m a workaholic.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
How can I give just one? The wilds of Baja, or Nepal; watching lions and elephants drink at a remote water hole in Botswana; the Robinson Jeffers country of Big Sur; the Blue Ridge of Virginia, where part of my family has lived since before the Revolution; the Windstar, a thousand acres of critical elk habitat that I saved from becoming house lots; the oak and grass woodlands of the Santa Ynez valley; Williams Lake in the West Elk Mountains of Old Snowmass, where I’d ride and eat brookies and cutthroats fresh caught from the snowmelt; or Coldwater Canyon park in the Santa Monica Mountains of California, still the headquarters of TreePeople almost 30 years after Andy Lipkis, my brother Paul Sheldon, and I talked the city of L.A. into giving it to Treeps as our home.
But now I am working hard to become native to my new home, the grasslands north of Boulder, just east of the ancient Front Range of the Rockies.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
Dave Brower said, “I’m an environmentalist — everyone who lives in an environment ought to be one.” That is still the best reason I’ve heard.
What important environmental issue is frequently overlooked?
Social justice. Dave Brower was fond of quoting Adlai Stevenson, who said in 1965:
We travel together, passengers on a little space ship, dependent upon its vulnerable reserves of air and soil, all committed for our safety to its security and place, preserved from annihilation only by the care, the work and, I will say, the love we give our fragile craft.
We cannot maintain it half fortunate, half miserable, half confident, half despairing, half slave to the ancient enemies of humankind, and half free in a liberation of resources undreamed of until this day. No craft, no crew, can travel safely with such vast contradictions. On their resolution depends the security of us all.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Trio Bel Canto (Greek folk dancing). And I’m still dancing to ‘em. But my favorite music is cowboy — the folk who make homemade music on the back porch and we all sing along.
Mac or PC?
Mac, despite 95 percent of my staff being PC folks.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
My friend the folk singer Kate Wolf said: Find what you really care about and live a life that shows it.
What are you happy about right now?
That I have been given the opportunity to do the one thing that I’d ask each one of you to do.