August 4, 2004
Engaging interview with a sustainability activist
"Activist" is a word that makes me cringe for some reason. It conotes limited thinking, single issue focus and typically the finges of things. But aren't entrepreneurs "activists" for their companies? How do unpopular ideas get popular? Through activism.
Grist magazine just published a very interesting interview
with Hunter Lovins, president of Natural Capitalism, Inc. Lots of good thoughts on the right questions to ask when thinking about energy sustainability. The most productive approach by far (after all these years) is to design better, more effecient energy consumption devices. It can be done.
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?
Posted by Martin at August 4, 2004 7:19 AM
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And if you haven't read the book already, I highly recommend reading Natural Capitalism - it's a real brain flex. The first chapter alone is a roller-coaster ride. It starts with a very simple question ("Why are cars inefficient?") provides a simple answer ("Because they're mostly made of steel.") and then engages in a lateral thinking experiment ("What if they weren't?") that deconstructs the modern car until all that's left is a carbon-fibre body with 20 parts instead of 400 that requires almost no tooling to build and an electric engine that requires no transmission due to the reduction in weight. A hypercar, as the book calls it.
The book does this with a half dozen technologies, each with the same precise, logical approach, supported by case study evidence and financial impact assessments. The only answer the book doesn't provide is: why isn't this stuff running out of the lab and into the world? The technology is there, but although the book provides all the necessary evidence that the tech is real, the designs proven, it fails to address the real problem: change is difficult. Perhaps that is the next place where Hunter and Amory Lovins could focus - I think that is the key to unleashing an environmental revolution.
Posted by: Brendon J. Wilson at August 5, 2004 9:28 PM
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