“Hunter Teaches the Virtues of Green Business Development”
(by Douglas Brown)
16 May 2013
Climate-change activist L. Hunter Lovins teaches at several universities, runs a few nonprofits, writes books and gives talks around the world. She was named a “green business icon” by Newsweek, and a millennium “Hero of the Planet” by Time magazine. The Longmont resident is, simply put, an international leader in the field of sustainable development and climate change, with a particular emphasis on business and how capitalism can thrive in a green economy. When she talks about the topics — and she probably spends most of her days immersed in conversation about things like hydraulic fracturing, solar energy, carbon credits and drought — facts and figures roll off her tongue, and a certain passion captivates her. Listening to her, you think: Here is a person I want on my side.
The forester, social scientist and lawyer has been fixated on sustainable development for decades. In 1982 she co-founded with her then-husband, Amory Lovins, the Rocky Mountain Institute, a Snowmass nonprofit that wrestles with sustainability issues. Now, among many other things, she leadsNatural Capitalism Solutions, a nonprofit that helps businesses turn green.
Lovins, 63, who grew up in the mountains east of Los Angeles in a family of social activists, first moved to Colorado when she was 15 to go to high school. She never looked back, and she rarely removes her black cowboy hat, at least in public.
Given Lovins’ high profile, you might expect an office with a certain kind of green grandeur — something contemporary, with concrete floors and exposed metal and beetle-kill wood. But it’s just a small, turn-of-the-last-century farmhouse with creaky floors and sagging bookshelves and a draft in downtown Hygiene, which is little more than a rural intersection with a store and a cafe in unincorporated Boulder County.
The beat-up (and charming) farm house, the miniature town with its market selling homemade tamales and local lamb — these are Lovins’ kind of places. She lives on a nearby ranch, where she keeps a lot of horses and routinely adopts dogs. But she spends a good bit of her time in this atmospheric slip of a town.
Douglas Brown: I read your book, “Climate Capitalism.” It was full of hope, but it was infused with doom, too. Are we doomed?
Hunter Lovins: Business as usual, your kids are doomed. We are losing every major ecosystem on Earth. Three are tipping into collapse — coral reefs, the Amazon (which is the earth’s lungs), and the oceans are acidifying. Acid in oceans dissolves the shells of little things like phytoplankton, which produce like half the oxygen on Earth. This has happened two or three times on Earth. And between 60 and 90 percent of the species on Earth vanished. The Earth itself will be fine. As George Carlin said, it will shrug us off like a bad case of fleas. But I am sentimental about this human experiment.
DB: Now for the hope part?
HL: All of this risk is unnecessary. It’s not profitable. It’s not good business. What gives me hope is when those wild-eyed environmentalists at Goldman Sachs tell you the companies that are leaders in the environment have higher stock value than their less sustainable competitors.
But hope is not a strategy. The strategy is the business case, it’s the fact that we have all of the technologies we need to solve all of the planet’s problems, in energy, in food, in manufacturing, in transportation. We know how to support an even larger population than we have today.
DB: Can you give me some concrete examples of sustainable success?
HL: The green economy is happening despite the best efforts of the fossil lobby to slow it down. In California, the green economy has grown three times as fast as the traditional economy, and a quarter of the jobs created are in manufacturing, compared to 9 percent in the traditional economy. Look at Beaver County, Utah. In 2009 they completed their first wind farm, and the effort brought $85 million to the community, with 250 new jobs, they increased the tax base from $60 million to $3 billion, because they now have a big company paying taxes, and all of these people with good jobs, paying taxes. If we want to solve the economic crisis, the jobs crisis, the climate crisis, build strong economies, we can do all of this at the same time.
DB: Are there easy steps?
HL: Don’t keep computers on 24/7. Then count light bulbs. Count those 100-watt light bulbs in a corporate headquarters and do the math. Typically, they have hundreds of hair dryers going on all the time, essentially, because incandescent light bulbs are energy eaters. Change them to LED lights. This country wastes between $5 billion and $10 billion a year on lights, and another $2.8 billion on computers being left on. You start adding up this free money and there is lots of money to begin the green transition.
DB: You nearly marinate in alarming statistics and trends every day. Does it freak you out?
HL: I used to be a firefighter EMT. One of the things we are taught is when you are afraid, act. Do something. If everything is going to pieces, do your job, and you’ll get over being scared. You can sit and just get horrified by the science, or you can do something about it. When you do something you encounter all of the wonderful people who are showing we can solve this problem, at a profit. So let’s get on with it.
DB: What do you most fear?
HL: I’ll oversleep and miss my airplane.
DB: What is your favorite way to spend time?
HL: Teaching. I teach at four universities this year. I help create new schools, and we are building a whole new way of doing education that we are calling Madrone Project, which is short, curated videos of sustainability thought leaders. A teacher can put a whole class on this app.
DB: Who are some favorite historical figures?
HL: Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King. They were around the house when I was growing up. My mother organized with John L. Lewis in the coal fields of West Virginia. My dad was an urban sociologist working with people in Los Angeles.
DB:Who is a favorite fictional hero?
HL: Frodo, from “The Lord of the Rings.” These little hobbits took on their shoulders this task of saving the world and they were scared and they didn’t know where they were going, but in the end all of the kings and warriors and wizards stood by while the little people saved the world. Which is to say that real leadership is extraordinary courage by ordinary people. (Lovins then quotes, verbatim and at length, a passage spoken by the wizardGandalfin “The Lord of the Rings.”)
DB: What is your most treasured possession?
HL: I suppose my cat, although I’m not sure it’s a possession because he has his own life. Peetie. His mother was killed by an owl. And I raised him from when he was tiny. He’s about 4 now.
DB: What is your most obvious characteristic?
DB: What do you most deplore in yourself?
DB: What do you most deplore in others?
DB: If you could come back to life as an object, what it be?
HL: If it had to be an inanimate object, I think it would be the Hindu Kush mountains. They are magnificent, and think about all that they see. They have watched the fall of empires going back toAlexander. Tolkien said you fall under either the sea doom or the mountain doom, and I definitely fall under the mountain doom.
DB: If you could live anywhere, where would it be?
HL: I can live anywhere. And I have not found a place I love as much as Colorado. I came here when I was 15, to the Colorado Rocky Mountain School, and knew I had found home.
Douglas Brown: 303-954-1395, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/douglasjbrown