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Sustainability expert has major concerns, but is also optimistic

Barry McNamara
03/20/2012
When speaking to a Monmouth College class the day following her public lecture on campus, sustainability expert Hunter Lovins neatly summarized the main message she is conveying these days:

“We’ve been stressing ‘Save the polar bears,’” she said, in response to a question about why the U.S. hasn’t taken a more serious interest in sustainability efforts. “It should be, ‘Save your wallets.’”

During her public lecture, titled “Climate Capitalism: The Business Case for Sustainability,” Lovins gave several examples of ways that sustainability is saving companies and municipalities big money. She also provided sobering food for thought on why we she believes we must turn to sustainability or face dire consequences.

Those consequences, Lovins said, are already happening, such as the loss of ecosystems and growing consumption in China (1.35 billion population) and India (1.2 billion).

“Our oceans are becoming acidic, our coral reefs are disappearing, and if the same happens to the Amazon – our Earth’s lungs – it could be game over,” said Lovins, who is the president and founder of Natural Capitalism and a professor of business at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute. “As for China, if its economy keeps growing at its current rate, they will need more oil in 2050 than what we currently lift. … The International Energy Agency is predicting that oil will soon be $250 a barrel. You and I will not like the consequences of that.”

She told the audience, “If you don’t like the scariness, it’s up to you to do something about it.”

That requires a change in the way society thinks, and Lovins opened her talk by showing evidence that “what you believe determines what you do.” Centuries ago, explorers heading west in the continental United States were convinced they would need to cross water to get to “the island of California,” so they laboriously carried the makings for boats with them as they traversed the Rocky Mountains.

Eventually, said Lovins, the explorers arrived and reported back, “‘California’s not an island.’ The response was, ‘Yes it is. That’s what the maps say.’”

“What in our maps is wrong?” Lovins asked. The answer, she said, is that many people’s “maps” say that sustainability is not worth the effort, that our coal and oil will never run out and that we can go on conducting business as usual for centuries to come.

Lovins’s map says something different: “The future’s not possible at the rate we’re going.”

She shared a quotation that alluded to the seriousness of the situation, which she attributed to the late entrepreneur Ray Anderson: “If we insist on ruining the planet, we have to stop claiming we’re a superior species.”

But the news isn’t all bad.

“I think this is an exciting time,” said Lovins. “I pin my hopes on innovators and entrepreneurs. We know what we need to know to fix these problems, and we get to innovate our way out of them.”

As an example, there are no longer as many worries about the Earth’s atmosphere. The reason, Lovins said, is “the world got together to solve the CFC (chlorofluorocarbon) problem. The hole in the ozone has been closing.”

She shared other success stories, such as the town in Germany which is “car-free”; plans for a European/Middle East Smartgrid that will make the best energy uses of coastal waves, solar power and prominent winds; and various corporate and civic commitments to becoming 100 percent renewably powered. A success story in the U.S. is General Electric, which started its Ecomagination project in 2005, with a goal of decreasing energy costs by one percent. The project has resulted in 22 percent savings, and if Ecomagination were a separate company, Lovins said, “It would be in the Fortune 130.”

The benefits of going 100 percent renewable, she noted, are a win-win, because the entities not only save money, but an environment is created in which more work gets done, so much so that “sustainability is worth doing to increase productivity, forget energy savings.”

But those energy savings are hard to forget when they reach six figures, such as the $700,000 one company was able to save by simply turning off its computers when they weren’t in use. Small businesses can get in on that act, too, as one company Lovins mentioned saw its monthly power bills decrease from $220 to $90.

“We use twice as much energy to produce a unit of GNP as do our counterparts in Europe and Asia,” she reported. “We have the ways to solve these problems. It’s a question of will.”

Or, as author and futurist Buckminster Fuller once said, “The best way to predict the future is invent it.”