Hunter Lovins, thinker on sustainability, answers questions
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.
I admire your guts and fortitude as a woman. Do you think being a woman makes you a “better” environmentalist? — Debbie Hindman, Denver, Colo.
I don’t know whether being female makes me better or worse at anything. I might be tempted to say yes, but then there’s Dave Brower, who has me beat on being an environmentalist, hands down. But then there’s Janine Benyus … and Randy Hayes … and Wangari Maathai … I know so many great men and so many great women whose hearts are pure and who are more committed than me that I’d sure be hesitant to turn this into any sort of competition.
Given that you are “local,” c’mon by our Eldorado office and let’s meet.
What connections do you see between the future of water and energy? Do you see any prospects for renewable energy that utilize ocean physics? Is there a way to use renewable energy to deliver a reliable supply of clean water to people in developing countries? — Megan Konar, Chicago, Ill.
The connections are almost endless:
On the policy side, we are making the same conceptual mistakes in water policy that we did in energy: seeking centralized, capital-intensive supply answers when efficient distributed solutions work better, subsidizing the wrong answers and thus making market solutions much harder to achieve, etc.
In ecological terms, carbon-based energy disrupts the climate, which disrupts the hydrological cycle, which disrupts vegetation, which further disrupts the cycle. Take a look at the recent edition of High Country News for a scary look at what climate change is likely to do across the West.
Pumping water takes a lot of energy. Heating water, ditto. Etc.
Yes, renewables from the sea may well be attractive. One friend of mine has an idea to make hydrogen at sea using bobbing buoys, tankering it to ships and ports. Clipper Windpower is exploring undersea currents to be harvested with wind-turbine-like machines.
The real issue, though, is not which technology to choose. Again, we need first to do the least-cost/end-use analysis: What forms of energy do we need, and what supply technologies will meet those needs at least cost? Until we know that, no supply option is the right answer.
Renewables in developing countries make a lot of sense, and are likely the only way that people there will be able to meet their needs. A friend, Raymond Wright, head of the National Petroleum Company in Jamaica, is promoting renewables there very successfully.
I am currently working with Bernard Amadei of Engineers Without Borders to bring renewables to Afghanistan. His students have used solar cells to enable children in Nepal to hook up a computer, and see whales for the first time. You really ought to see the smiles on their faces.
What websites, books, etc. would you recommend as must-reads for high school and first-year college students, in general and specifically related to natural capitalism? — Gwyneth Jones, Bellevue, Wash.
My colleague Christopher Juniper here at Nat Cap has an extensive reading list on sustainable business and economics that you can get from him at email@example.com.
The RMI website is also an excellent resource.
Tnep.net is a great site out of Australia. These folk are our Australian counterparts and partners.
Also see: Jonathan Porrit’s greenfutures.org.uk (Jonathan is kind of the Dave Brower of the U.K.) and sustainability.com, the U.K.-based, U.S.-officed outfit John Elkington (Cannibals with Forks) founded. Both are high quality organizations. Also see the International Finance Corporation, Lester Brown’s Earth Policy Institute, the work of Mathis Wackernagel, Development Gateway (a massive resource on development writings), Panda.org (the living planet index), Human Rights Watch, Arctic Circle, Literacy for Environmental Justice, UNEP (the U.N.’s massive site on all this stuff), David Orr’s writing (Earth in Mind, Ecological Literacy, The Nature of Design), David Suzuki’s writing (The Sacred Balance) and his many films (The Nature of Things, The Journey into New Worlds, The Matrix of Life, The Fire of Creation, etc., available from BullFrog Films).
I’ve also got the reading list from my MBA class. Write me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Can you tell us briefly what pissed the RMI board off so much that they felt the need to treat you so badly? — Peter Maxson, Brussels, Belgium
Yuck. How about you call me if you want the whole sordid story? I’m kind of under a gag order, and more, a promise that I will not say anything about the situation that would harm the environmental movement as a whole. Or better yet, how about let’s just move on and let our various organizations be judged by the work that they do.
I would love to hear your opinion on corporations. How do we know that the efforts of corporations like Shell at social and environmental responsibility are not just PR or greenwashing? — Amelia Kissick, Falls Church, Va.
Excellent question. Do mistrust them. Do so until they prove to you that they are saying and doing the right thing, and continue to do so over time. I am just finishing (with Anita Burke, who was fired by Shell under Phil Watts for being serious about sustainability when he clearly was not) an analysis of a thesis of mine that a commitment to sustainability should be and will come to be a hallmark to investors of management intelligence and integrity. Check it out in the forthcoming book Natural Advantage of Nations, due out this fall from Earthscan, and perhaps a Harvard Business Review article.
Shell learned from being complicit in the hanging of Ken Saro-Wiwa, but under Phil, it kind of forgot. Now it has the opportunity to remember again, and to return to the truly transformative work that Sir Mark Moody Stewart began.
Corporations have a lot of power. In David Korton’s words, they rule the world. But it is our responsibility to hold all companies to higher standards, to not patronize them (the Exxons of the world) if they do not start down the road to becoming truly restorative. We can’t expect a company to transform itself overnight, but we can sure insist that it begin to move in that direction.
I actually think that the folk at Bank Watch (a coalition of environmental groups watchdogging the Equator banks) have it a bit wrong. They ought to give the signatories to the Equator Principles a few years’ free ride — or a ride with a lot of dialogue — and go like hell after the banks that have not signed on. There has to be some reward for trying to be better global citizens.
But what if they sign on, then don’t make major corrections? Hypocrisy is the first step to genuine conversion. Let’s help these corporations understand that failure to begin is unacceptable, that beginning feels good, and becoming more truly sustainable makes them winners.
Are we pulling out the roots of the problem by showing corporations how much money they can save by being green? — Amelia Kissick, Falls Church, Va.
Nope, just starting down the route to the solution. Remember the three principles of Natural Capitalism:
Solving our problems 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.
The second principle is to redesign all aspects of business and society to do business as nature does (biomimicry), running on sunlight, creating no persistent toxins, and being “eco-effective” (McDonough and Braungart’s concept, presented in Cradle to Cradle).
The third principle is to manage all of our institutions in ways that are restorative of human and natural capital. These are the forms of capital in short supply and in which reinvestment makes the most sense.
But even Natural Capitalism is not enough. We then have to address the very important parallel agenda of ensuring that a vibrant and responsible civil society is creating the sort of future we all want to live in. Markets (an “ecosystem” within which corporations are only one creature) are very powerful tools, but only that. Markets make a good servant, a lousy master, and a worse religion. We’ve tended to confuse those roles of late in this country. It is time that we all think much harder about what really matters to us, what the real purpose of being alive is, and how to achieve those higher purposes. But here’s a clue: Most of what you can stick a price tag on ain’t it.
I am in the middle of writing my business plan and am concerned that some of my principles (sustainability, social responsibility, etc.) may be objectionable to potential investors. Do you have any suggestions for overcoming objections that these programs are “too expensive”? — Sandra Swayze, Lexington, Ky.
Expense is not so much the concern as return on investment. Your business plan has to show that you can sell your products at a sufficient price to repay the cost of inputs, including investment. This is just basic business arithmetic. Check out the whole realm of socially responsible investing (SRI). There are a growing number of SRI venture funds that take your principles as basic requirements to get their attention. Social Venture Network continues to be a good resource for people wanting to get into this field. Or write me at email@example.com for a list of relevant websites.
1. Do you think labor capital might be the third cornerstone of capitalism, which, when added to money and natural resources, would make corporations truly sustainable?
2. Do you see nuclear energy as having a role to play in a sustainable power mix?
3. Do you think the lawsuit against the five biggest power companies in America is a positive development? What do you see as rounds two and three?
4. Is China going to be the environmental nightmare that we read about?
5. How can we reach the American people to convince them that there is a responsibility associated with our privileged position in the global structure?
6. Are Americans more or less environmentally conscious and active than others in the developed countries? How about compared to the less-developed countries? Why?
7. Do you think Americans expect technology to solve our environmental problems?
8. What group of people do you see as ultimately leading America toward sustainability? In other words, where are you putting your resources?
9. What would you do differently in your career?
10. What is your favorite ethnic food?
–Paul Dueweke, Los Gatos, Calif.
1. My next book (well, one of ’em) with Walter Link is titled The Human Dimensions of Natural Capitalism. We go back and forth about whether there needs to be a “principle” around human capital, whether it is the key to implementing all the others, or just how to treat it. Clearly, this was mostly left out of the first Nat Cap book (though chapter 14 on Curitiba tried to get at it). But it is where I am focusing most of my attention these days.
2. No. This country has spent more money on nuclear power than on the Vietnam War and the space program combined, to get a technology that delivers about as much energy as wood. Most of the Cheney energy plan would subsidize nuclear and fossil options. Let’s not throw more good money after bad. There is no one who thinks that a nuclear industry could exist without subsidies. I believe the market has spoken.
3. As an apostate lawyer, I’m not a big fan of suing. (Don’t get your knickers in a wad, all you great environmental lawyers — what you do is very important, and I’m sure glad you are still out there. Especially because suits often open the door for folk like me to then go talk to these guys — and they mostly are guys — about what they might do instead.) So clearly, what to do instead needs to be round two, or maybe three. If the threat of a suit is going to get folk to the table, we need to be clear going in what our end game is. Confrontational environmentalists are often a mite weak on that, and it is where we need to put a lot more of our thinking. It’s easy to be against something. What are we for?
4. Ah, this may be the issue of our century. Lester Brown, one of the most prescient writers of our time, sure thinks so. There are both scary and exciting possibilities: China buying grain, emitting carbon, buying oil, polluting like mad, trampling human rights, ethnic and cultural integrity, etc. Or China driving a transition to a hydrogen economy, China installing windmills across Mongolia, China as the powerhouse of sustainable development. There is some indication that this could be as likely an outcome. Everyone who has the opportunity should do all that they can to nudge things in this direction, because if China does it wrong, we’re all in trouble.
5. This task is up to each one of us, to show how we can do this by our own actions, to talk to our families and friends, neighbors and colleagues. Each one teach one.
6. We tend to lag behind most Europeans, beat Russians and Chinese, and about tie the Japanese, though they are rapidly passing us — check out the excellent website Japan for Sustainability. And there is still much that even the most environmentally conscious countries can do.
7. Yes. And technology is an important part of the mix, but only part. For example, we can eliminate at least half of our carbon emissions cost effectively. But getting to the 60 to 80 percent reduction that the IPCC surmises will be necessary will likely take structural and behavioral changes. That is something we’re very good at if we’re convinced that it will improve our quality of life, but real bad at being dragged into. This is why the work of the Center for a New American Dream is so important. Check ’em out.
8. Corporations. Be sure to go see the movie The Corporation, just out. I think that some of the strongest leaders for sustainability are such people as Ray Anderson of Interface and Sir Mark Moody Stuart, who launched Shell down the sustainability road (though Phil Watts tried to make a U-turn). But this new breed of corporate leader can only go so far out in front of their customers. So each one of you is just as important.
9. Whooeee. A lot. Maybe never have taken up caring, so I could be a happy cowgirl … Okay, that’s not an option. I would have learned earlier that not stepping on people’s toes unless really necessary confers greater longevity at one’s chosen job. I would have learned more science — I’m reading the big dummies guide to chemistry now, teaching myself organic chemistry. In this field we have to learn a new discipline every year or so. Universities seem to want to turn out people who know more and more about less and less, and the solutions we need now require expertise across all the disciplines. I gave a talk in Australia to a university group that was arguing for greater interdisciplinary studies and pointed out how my basic Nat Cap lecture draws on about 30 disciplines from economics to ecology to atmospheric science to engineering to sociology to biology to art and all of the humanities …
10. Steak. (Ain’t us cowboys an ethnic group?) Seriously, I love many ethnic foods: Most recently, I have been pigging out on Afghan cuisine (lamb will do just fine, thank you); I love New Mexico-style chili, especially cooked by my friend 2D, wife of my favorite cowboy singer, sitting out on their back porch overlooking the Gallinas River Canyon (where All the Pretty Horses was shot ), sipping whiskey and singing cowboy songs. But too, I love Chinese dim sum, Dzo liver high in the Himalayas, fried grubs in Australia, sauteed eland sitting in a brush Kraal in Africa, spanikopita, pad thai, arak, and so on. If I can’t pronounce it, I’ll likely take a shine to it.
Do you really compete in rodeos, and if so, how on earth do you rationalize or compartmentalize that behavior? What makes it ethical or humane or environmentally compassionate to use, abuse, and torture animals? — Mary Martin, West Palm Beach, Fla.
Okay, y’all. Standing invite: Come rodeoing with me and let’s see just whether it really is as cruel as you’ve been led to think. I bet I convince you that those animals are treated pretty durn well. Yes, some back-country rodeos still haven’t come into the 19th century, some abuse occurs, and most everyone in the rodeo family abhors that and works hard to put an end to it. Truthfully, most rodeos take good care of their stock. Why? First of all, cowboys are pretty good stewards. As people, they care about their animals. They live with a connection to animals that most city dwellers never experience. Second, only healthy stock performs well. Third, good stock costs a lot of money — like thousands of dollars. And they also pay attention because all those animal activists will shut ’em down if they do not live up to high standards. And a good thing too. I’ve gotten in some folks’ face for treating their stock badly — yeah, even a real bar fight or two (but that really is another story).
Conversely, the bucking stock, were they not in a rodeo, working maybe 25 times a year for eight seconds a time — you do the math — would be touring France in a can. These are often spoiled saddle horses that would hurt someone, then go to the killers, were they not going down the road to another rodeo. Horses from “Born to Buck” programs have some of the cushiest lives of any equine athletes. For more information on how rodeo animals are treated and the high standards that rodeo contestants are held to, take a look at this site.
In my events, only a true partnership between a completely willing horse and rider give you a shot at winning. Now, if you are saying that humans should not use, eat, or interact with animals in any form, well, we’ve got a disagreement.
I don’t think you need to wait for someone to produce a super-efficient truck. Why not just run it on used vegetable oil? — Jessica Barry, Kingston, N.Y.
Mmm, yes. As soon as there’s a reliable source of biodiesel where I drive, I will likely swap the ol’ Ford in on a diesel. I about made that switch that last winter, but woof, Jessica, have you seen the price tag of new trucks?
Could you use your influence, your “celebrity,” and your credibility to get environmental groups to put their turf pride on the back burner so they can work together to influence governments and corporations to change, before it’s too late for all of us? — Ed Ciaccio, Douglaston, N.Y.
Ho! Great idea, Ed. Now, how would you suggest that I go about this? Seriously. I am a huge fan of pooling our efforts, and of getting over the tendency we all have to strut our egos. No argument, we should be doing as the pioneers did — all getting together for a barn raising, or all throwing our weight behind a stuck wagon. Eileen Clausen at the Pew Center on Global Climate Change is doing excellent work pulling corporate leaders together on this. Richard Sandor’s work is also having that effect. But, as Dave Brower points out, when environmentalists are in trouble, they circle the wagons and shoot in. I’m sure open to any suggestions as to what I can do to help achieve what you suggest. You’re spot on, I’m just not smart enough yet to know how to get it done.
Businesses have to compete in the world we live in, not the world they would like to live in. How can a socially and environmentally conscious business compete? — Nancy Karloff, Akron, Ohio
Nancy asks a really good question, but it takes a long answer to do it any justice. It is precisely the topic of an article that Walter Link and I are writing with Sissel Wagge, the brilliant director of research at Natural Step. We’re aiming it at Harvard Business Review. I hope to have the next edit done in a week, and anyone who wants, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I’ll sent it to ya for a peer review. It’ll also be up on our website as soon as we get it published.
Given new tools and techniques, do small local factories feeding local markets make economic sense? — Patrick Gallagher, Albuquerque, N.M.
Interesting idea, Patrick. I’ve not really looked at the economics of this, though the excellent work by David Korton, whom I highly respect, on relocalilzation sure seems to have merit. Local organic food is something that each one of us can and ought to invest in. For starts, join your local community-supported agriculture outlet.
What advice would you give John Kerry (should he win) toward a successful and effective reversal of Bush policy, regardless of the majority in Congress? — Tim Wagner, Salt Lake City, Utah
He could appoint a guy named Ira Feldman as head of EPA. That’d be a good start. Another friend of mine, Tom Weis, who worked with Gary Hart long ago, has just put together a very thoughtful proposal for an initiative on energy independence. Groups like the Apollo Project, Union of Concerned Scientists, NRDC, and others have very good policy platforms all ready to go. A serious effort to use energy efficiency and renewables to get off oil would dramatically strengthen American security and our economy and do wonders to protect the environment.
But all that is getting just a mite ahead of ourselves, Tim. Job one is to get Kerry elected. I think we’ll all be real pleased at how good he will be, and how knowledgeable he already in on environmental issues. And no, just as I told the Clinton folk, I do not want to move to Washington. I’d make a lousy bureaucrat.
Have you and your staff approached any nonprofits to help them incorporate sustainability as they help people recover from natural and human-made disasters? — Carol Bergmann, Milwaukee, Wis.
When I was at RMI we held a design workshop, at the behest of the brilliant Navy surgeon Eric Rasmusssen, on how to design refugee camps more sustainably. Actually, it was that event that lead, ultimately, to where I am now, but that, also, is another long story. Anyway, after the event, RMI dropped that ball. A group called Carebridge tried to pick it up and to some extent we are now working with Bernard Amadei of Engineers Without Borders and the NGO Village Earth. I’d sure be thrilled to talk with any relief agency that is interested in any of our ideas.
How might you suggest I go about attaining gainful employment with NCI? Alternately, what other ways might you suggest one go about getting work of this sort? — Gabriel Scheer, Seattle, Wash.
Send us a resume to email@example.com. No promises — we are still in start-up mode and money is tight, but let’s talk. Also check out Green Careers, ecojobs.com, environmental-jobs.com, greenbiz.com, and sustainablebusiness.com.
Buckminster Fuller said, “The 21st century is when we find out if the human race is a failed experiment.” What do you think is more likely: pass or fail? — Nick Peckham, Columbia, Mo.
Good question, Nick. Bucky had a way of putting things, didn’t he? The best answer I’ve seen comes from my dear friend Dana Meadows. She wrote:
We think a transition to a sustainable world is technically and economically possible, but we know it is psychologically and politically daunting … The sustainability revolution, if it happens, will be organic and evolutionary. It will arise from the visions, insights, experiments, and actions of billions of people. It will require every human quality and skill, from technical ingenuity, economic entrepreneurism, and political leadership to honesty, compassion, and love.
Are any of the necessary changes, from resource efficiency to human compassion, really possible? Can the world actually ease down below the limits and avoid collapse? Is there time? Is there enough money, technology, freedom, vision, community, responsibility, foresight, discipline, and love on a global scale?
The world faces not a preordained future, but a choice. The choice is between mental models. One model says that this finite world for all practical purposes has no limits. Choosing that model will take us even further beyond the limits, and, we believe, to collapse within the next half century.
Another model says that the limits are real and close and that there is not enough time and that people cannot be moderate or responsible or compassionate. That model is self-fulfilling. If we choose to believe it, we will get to be right.
A third model says that the limits are real and close and there is just exactly enough time, with no time to waste. There is just exactly enough energy, enough material, enough money, enough environmental resilience, and enough human virtue to bring about a revolution to a better world.
That model might be wrong. All the evidence we have seen, however, from the world data to the global computer models suggests that it might be right. There is no way of knowing for sure, other than to do it.
As someone who loves the earth and all of its marvelous creatures, how can you prevent yourself from falling into depression and despondency at the terrible things that are happening? — Richard Arnold, Errington, B.C., Canada
Yeah, I hear you. Dave Brower said, “Our victories are temporary, our defeats are permanent.” Focus on all that is going wrong and you can work yourself into a genuine case of disempowerment. But don’t go there, Richard. For me — and that’s all I can really speak to — the antidote is to do whatever I can, every day, to make a difference. Gandhi said, be the change you want to see in the world.
My partner Walter Link tells me that this is all part of a thousand-year (or more) evolution of humans to something a mite more enlightened (we’ll write more about that in our new book — if we ever get time and financial support to write the durn thing). He feels (as Dana did — I once asked her if all this energy and resource efficiency that we did at RMI was anything more than just rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, and she said that it was very important, because it bought time — something we are very short of in the face of eco-catastrophe — to put in place the more fundamental answers) that our job at this time is to do all we can to save as much as we can of ecological and cultural integrity, for that time when humans will be wise enough to treasure it. But, he cautions, we should know that we will not live to see the ultimate result. Perhaps that’s okay. Dave Brower said that a goal that can be achieved in your lifetime isn’t worth having.
For me, happy comes from serving, from doing the best I can. Will it be enough? Will we make it as a species? Janine Benyus (author of Biomimicry) says that these are the lessons our species need to learn if we want to get to stay home.
I dunno. My friend Jason Elliot, author of the luminous book An Unexpected Light, says, “Never forget that we do not know the outcome of things — a good thing. You can only see where the twisting canyon leads from up above, and that’s not the view we’re given. Those curvy bits can come a shock, though.”
There’ll be lots more curvy bits, no doubt. And it’s not given to us to know if any of what we do will make a difference. We know, as Dana said, that deciding that it won’t will ensure that outcome. And I’ve found that happiness comes from doing something every day to make someone else’s life just a little bit better. It’s part of why I was an EMT for so many years on my local fire department (something I need to join up over here) — it’s a right now, very real way to make a difference. And it feels so durn good every time I do that.
1. How has the sensibility of Natural Capitalism flourished or shriveled in large-scale and small-to-medium-scale business circles as a result of the Bush administration’s support of maximum-resource-exploitation tactics? Who are some new champions of Green Practice equals Green Profit?
2. What’s your response to Bill McDonough’s charge that advocates of measures like energy efficiency and waste reduction are just “less bad”? — Jean Ponzi, St. Louis, Mo.
1. Some businesses are making profound changes, and profiting. Some are greenwashing and profiting. And some, like Exxon, are still profiting and being bad. It really is up to each of us to determine with whom we will do business, and to start to enforce superior environmental performance by voting with our dollars.
My sense is that Natural Capitalism is only really starting to take off. I consulted a week ago with a company, Xanterra, that has Natural Capitalism as its formally stated basis for doing business. Around the world, I am seeing a great deal more interest in these ideas, and will go so far as to say that we are at or near to the tipping point at which it will soon be a sign of irresponsibility for a business not to be moving seriously in this direction.
And durn near every business has a long way to go. Paul Hawken is tracking the best companies in the world, and should release that list shortly. It will be a real eye opener about what is possible, and how far even the best “green” companies in this country have to go to catch up with the world’s best.
But some more champions? How about our landlord Joe Palumbo? The building our office is in is really an art center (Joe is a sculptor, in addition to a developer and a green builder). The place is made of recycled materials, entirely wind powered, and increasingly efficient (we share the cost of upgrades). Joe also runs the Eldorado Corner Store, buying local fuel and vegetables, selling mostly organic and fair-trade products. He wants to stick up a wind turbine and solar panels, so we’re looking into helping him get a grant to do that. Now he is taking these ideas to his real-estate development up in Longmont.
I testified to the city council that it really ought to join Chicago Climate Exchange, and told a long-time restaurateur how he is saving thousands of dollars retrofitting light bulbs and HVAC systems in his operations. These ideas are just as important for the little guys as for the sustainability hall-of-famers I usually talk about.
2. He’s right — sort of. But only sort of. Eco-efficiency, alone, is not enough. But it’s a very good first step. It is adherence to Disney’s first law — “wishing will make it so” — to think that we can take today’s companies and make them restorative tomorrow. They will achieve that only through a process of exploring what sustainability (another term Bill hates — and with some reason — but it is still the best we’ve got) means for them, experimenting with capturing the low-hanging fruit, taking a leadership role, as Interface has, then finally achieving the status of a truly restorative company. This process, as we are outlining in our Natural Capitalism Field Guide, now in production, takes time, and takes a roadmap, menu, Helix (as we are calling it). So watch for this new book — out, I hope, this fall.
For years, RMI has been promoting a story about Osage, Iowa, claiming that energy efficiency saved the town millions of dollars and boosted its economy. Fact is, the savings calculations are wrong and Osage is a very, very average small Iowa town — i.e., it hasn’t been doing very well at all. Shouldn’t the good guys have higher standards than the bad guys? — John Feather, London, England
I’d be curious, John, where you get your information. Mine, from the folk who did the work in Osage, is very different. Now, communities change over time, and the man who ran the Osage Municipal utility, Wes Birdsall, who achieved the several-million-a-year savings, has moved on, achieving similar savings in other institutions (universities and such). Recent history is replete with outfits that took energy efficiency seriously when there was a perception of a need, and lost that concern when oil prices plummeted because all the efficiency did its job. That does not make the numbers wrong; it just means that we need to pay attention again — and that we are still confronted by insurmountable opportunities, as Pogo said.
Thanks for your inspiration. How do you see financial and investment businesses evolving? — James Shaffer-Bauck, Eastsound, Wash.
Ah, very important — perhaps the most important leverage point in all of this work. Now here’s my dream: This is an idea that my partner David Elliot and I conceived on a plane ride back from some consulting gig we did. There are now 25 banks around the world, collectively representing something like 85 percent of all project finance, that have signed on to what are now called the Equator Principles (really the International Finance Corporation’s set of corporate governance, social, and environmental responsibility standards — not bad standards, though the Equator banks only pledge to abide by them voluntarily and then only for loans over $50 million). Suppose all those banks also commit to give, with every loan they make, expertise on how to increase the sustainability and profitability of a company? This would make adherence to the Equator Principles much more attractive, and confer a genuine competitive advantage to the banks that increased the sustainability of their clients.
How could this happen? We’ve proposed to IFC and several other institutions that they help us create a global network of these experts. Such experts are out there — I know some, and those know others, and more are entering this nascent market every day. Creating such a network, served by a good web interface so that its members could carry on a conversation about global best practices, would bring sustainability into the big time. The banks should fund this — it is very much in their interest. So far no one has stepped up. But it is one of those big projects that I am going to see accomplished before I die.
With this global network in place, the financial institutions would become one of the most powerful levers for implementing sustainability. For more information on the concept, see equatornetwork.com.
I compliment you on your courage to rebound from your unfortunate and unjust — in the way your situation was handled — departure from RMI. I want to know your definition of sustainability and your hopes for a more sustainable world. Also, as a long-time vegetarian, I must beg to differ about a sustainable meal, and consider a meal of organic fruits, vegetables, nuts, and grains as the ideal sustainable meal. — Gill Brociner, New York, N.Y.
Thanks, Gil. I was not the only one badly injured in that “transition.”
There’s a cowboy cartoon by Mad Jack that shows an ol’ boy under a horse that’s flipped and is kicking the tar out of a picket fence, pickets flying and dust roiling. His friend is setting ahorseback a few yards away. The ol’ boy says to his friend
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