10 September 2014
Hunter Lovins is on a mission, writes Sophie Morlin-Yron: to put the transformational technologies we already have to work for the benefit of people and business – and to re-create the economy so it’s no longer a machine for polluting the planet and devouring natural resources, but a mechanism for building and sustaining natural and human capital.
“What do you want your future to be? We have all the technologies to solve all the problems facing us. We can build a better world for us, for all of life on the planet.”
American author, economist, lawyer and environmentalist Hunter Lovins lives on a ranch in Colorado, north of Denver.
Here, she keeps horses which she buys at so-called“killer sales” – where people sell unwanted horses that would otherwise face slaughter. These are then rehabilitated at her ranch and eventually rehomed.
She speaks fondly of life on the ranch, the local community and rural activities such as riding, attending pie baking contests and celebrating the annual upcoming Hay Day.
But truth be told, Lovins spends most of her time on the road, traveling on her one-woman mission to make the world a better place. And her day-to-day reality is far from mowing hay and ‘angling horses’, she complains: “I live on a god damn airplane!”
Lovins has been in sustainability since 1972. She has won numerous awards, such as the European Sustainability Pioneer award and the Right Livelihood Award.
President and Founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions – a non-profit which educates decision makers on the benefits of green business and a regenerative economy. She is also a professor of Sustainable Business and has worked with the UN, governments and businesses in over 30 countries.
It was through working on a project called Green Afghanistan that she ended up with a membership at the prestigious Frontline Club in Paddington, London. And it is here, at Frontline, that I manage to get a piece of her time before she sets off for Heathrow, and her next airplane journey.
Engaging the crowds
“Howdy!” she greets me. Lovins is in London for the Green Economy Summit, organised by the Green Economy Coalition. On stage, her style contrasts starkly with the more conventional speakers’ approach to discussing climate change and how to kickstart a green economy, and I dare say she raised some eyebrows.
“How many of you went on vacation?” she asks the audience of sustainability professionals from around the world. After a small number of us have raised our hands, she says: “We don’t have time for vacation anymore!”
Her voice is loud and assertive. She goes on to say that the problems we are facing today are “vastly more severe than any of us are acknowledging. And even though we know that, we aren’t living our lives that way.”
If we carry on, business as usual, she says, “it’s going to get really ugly.” She believes the earth is facing collapse in terms of resources, agriculture and population, sometime between now and 2035.
She is a no-nonsense business woman who, at the age of 64, wears a trademark cowboy hat (even in boardrooms), but although she looks tired, she has the eyes and demeanor of a much younger woman.
In 1999 she set off on a journey to promote one of her books, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, which she co-authored together with then husband Amory Lovins and Paul Hawken. The book has since sold 100,000 copies and was translated into a dozen languages.
The modern-day economy is driving us toward disaster.
Lovins’ natural capitalism is very different from the established concept of capitalism. It is about people, ‘human capital’, and having an economy that works for 100% of humanity.
Put simply, Lovins believes the linear economy of today is depleting our resources and driving us towards financial and ecological disaster: “We dig stuff out of the ground, we put it through various resource-crunching activities and then we throw it away.”
So what is natural capitalism? No doubt capitalism in itself is a charged word. “What we are practicing now is bad capitalism”, says Lovins.
“We are liquidating several forms of capital, human and natural, in order to generate several other forms of capital: manufactured and financial stuff and money. And we define success as more stuff and money, not counting the loss of the human and natural capital.”
People all over the world are unemployed, she says – and that’s a waste of human capital.
Good capitalism equals well-being
The alternative is natural capitalism, or “good capitalism” as Lovins also puts it, combined with a new concept called ‘regenerative capitalism’, which has been developed by the Founder of Capital Institute, John Fullerton.
This regenerative approach, explains Lovins, covers what happens beyond dealing with the immediate threat and will be laid out properly in a soon-to-be-released report.
But overall, she explains, it’s all about sustainability and the enhancement of all forms of capital, to be able to create greater well being: “Wealth defined as money in a bank, digits on a computer screen, is a very pale form of wealth in the old sense of ‘weal’, of well-being.
“And if we and all our friends and neighbours got together, the first thing we’d agree to is: what we really want is to be happy, to be healthy, to live in an environment that sustains us, and can do so indefinitely. That’s the root definition of sustainability, that what we are all doing can go on, indefinitely.”
How can this be achieved? Improving efficiency is the first step, she explains. Then, companies should look at redesigning products using approaches such as ‘circular economy’ (a restorative approach where nothing is wasted) and ‘biomimicry’ (where product design imitates elements of nature).
Lastly, institutions should work to become regenerative of the forms of capital that previously have liquidated human and natural capital. “And there is growing evidence that, again, companies that are taking the lead in this are turning in the better business.”
Lovins says there are more than 50 studies from large companies such as McKinsey, Deloitte, and Harvard Business Review showing that there is a business case for behaving more responsibly to the people and the planet.
Large players in her portfolio
Among companies Lovins has consulted for are carpet giant and sustainability pioneerInterface, Unilever, clothing company Patagonia and US retail giant Walmart (who owns ASDA in the UK).
Walmart, she says, has come a long way in terms of implementing some sustainability measures, but still has a long way to go when it comes to looking after their people and they are stuck in what Lovins calls an “old mental model” of looking at people as a cost, something they demonstrated last year.
“Walmart got its tail in a crack about a year ago coming onto US Thanksgiving. They put out boxes in Walmart stores for employees and shoppers to donate food for employees who don’t make enough money to have a Thanksgiving dinner … What they are saying is: ‘We are not paying a living wage'”.
A new life
Lovins has had a long and successful career, but she wouldn’t be what she is today if she hadn’t had to start over after she was fired in 2002 from the company Rocky Mountain Institute, which she and her ex-husband Amory Lovins founded together in 1982.
She says the company had started losing money after the dotcom bubble in 2000. Lovins and an associate, a businessman she had brought in to help save the company, had gone off to get new business, and when they came back with a new contract, she and her associate were fired.
“We had made the executive director look really bad, and she realised that. So when we were beavering away to get this contract, she’d gone to the board and got us both fired. Now Amory had to be in on it. But I don’t know, because he won’t talk to me. Maybe they said to him: we’re going to fire Hunter and if you get in the way we’ll fire you too, and he didn’t want to start again.”
She, on the other hand, did start a new life: “I lost everything: home, job, community. See entrepreneurial challenge, begin again. So this guy and I looked at each other and said: Wanna go again? And so we created Natural Capitalism Solutions.”
An alternative to the modern economy
Listening to Lovins, it is not entirely clear to me where on the political spectrum her economic ideas fit. This may be because they are neither here, nor there, nor in between, but are more of an alternative way of looking at how humans live on Earth.
What is clear is that she believes in entrepreneurialism, and the value of having people involved in creating and making something that is of value to them.
“One of the things that people really want is a sense of meaning in their life. And I think this notion of regenerativeness is one of the better ways of getting that meaning. The constant state of becoming. The celebration of the entrepreneurial in all of us, of creating anew.”
And she is fundamentally a humanist – and her mission os far more to save humanity from itself, than to save the planet.
“George Karlan, the comedian, says: ‘Save the earth? the earth will be fine, it will shake us off like a bad case of fleas.’ And we’ve been through mass extinction events before. 60-90 percent of species go extinct, and the earth goes on.”
She also believes governments have an important role today, and she has a lot to say about subsidies – especially when it comes to the energy market.
The fossil fuel industry is far more heavily subsidised than renewables, she says, and although the final figures are unclear and to be investigated further, she has heard numbers of up to $9 trillion per year in fossil fuel subsidies worldwide. But she says the confirmed figures are high enough:
“The International Energy Agency says $1.9 trillion. You take all the subsidies being given to all forms of renewables and efficiency and any of the countervailing. It’s in the hundreds of thousands, maybe millions if you aggregate it all together. It’s sure not in the billions or trillions. So we have a very unlevelled playing field.”
Where’s your money?
Lovins says people can do a lot themselves and her solutions get right down to the nitty gritty of everyday life: it’s not about worrying whether or not your neighbour recycles, she says.
Instead, it’s about whether or not the big investment flows by business are being put into regenerative investments or degenerative investments, that matters:
“So where’s your money? If you have a retirement plan, is it invested in an adviser who is just investing in the general markets? Or is it with someone who is divesting of ownership and fossil, is investing in the regenerative opportunities? And there are a growing number of funds that are committed to doing this.”
On a smaller scale, she adds, “what is your company doing? Individuals at work can help their company save money, become more profitable, by beginning to move steadily in the direction of becoming a regenerative company.”
One minute she talks about the severity of these catastrophical issues, the next she is positive that change is on the way. I can’t help but wonder if she herself knows whether to feel hope or despair, but I am guessing it’s a bit of both.
But, she says, “we are winning” – and much of what has been achieved so far is all thanks to all the environmental organisations:
“Everything that all of these annoying tree huggers have been doing has built up to this momentum. There is recognition now on the part of the world’s major governments that we are at a crisis point, that the economy as it has been is no longer fit for purpose, and we’re going to start seeing changes. Now, the responsibility shifts to us to be explicit about what kind of a future we want.”
One can’t help but wonder if she practices what she preaches. She is the first to point out that one of her main means of transportation, aeroplanes, are perhaps not the most sustainable.
But how else will she make it to all these events and meetings around the world and proceed to drive change and work towards a better future? At home, however, her ranch is powered by solar power, and her town has a community solar garden.
Why don’t we all drive electric?
And she drives electric, a Nissan Leaf. She says: “I love it. No emissions! I plug it into my solar system and I continue to be gobsmacked: why don’t we all do that? The damn things are on the road now. Why don’t we all drive cars that need no gasoline?”
After our meeting, Lovins is off to wow people somewhere else. For motivating people seems to be what she does best. Finally, I ask her what she would say if she only had one minute to engage the world in taking action to secure a sustainable future. After the briefest pause she says:
“What do you want your future to be? We have all the technologies to solve all the problems facing us. We can build a better world for us, for all of life on the planet.
“Doing that is better business. Let’s engage the business community. Let’s build sensible regulations that enable us to be moving steadily in the direction that we want to be. And let’s reinvent the economy, starting at the community level, but also at an intellectual level.
“The economy we have now is going over a cliff. You know it. You talk to everybody, they know it. It’s going to go over a cliff financially. It’s going to go over a cliff environmentally. So we are on a bus headed for a cliff at 60 miles an hour enjoying the view out the window.
“Guys, first step: slow the bus. Second step: turn the bus around. And then, where do we want the bus to go? We can build a better world. Let’s do it.”
Lovins ideas are compelling, and I leave filled with thoughts, a vague fear of what the future will hold, a reinforced notion that I’m not doing as much as I could, and an eagerness to do more.
And this, it strikes me as I walk down the creaky wooden steps in the Frontline Club, was precisely what she wanted.