Thursday, January 25, 2007

Amory Lovins: Eco-genius is 'Mr. Green' and also 'Mr. Slow'

My husband Paul posted an analysis of a recent article on Amory Lovins, called 'Mr. Green' in The New Yorker. Below is the post, but I wanted to add that Lovins also deserves a commendation as 'Mr. Slow,' from his departing comments in the article.

One of the main points of my book Slow Is Beautiful has to do with changing our view of materialism, and how money and wealth accumulation and international travel and SUVs, etc etc are so closely tied into our self-images, into status and validation of us as Americans and human beings, yet ultimately are as unsatisfying as the next fix for a junkie. Lovins accurately questions whether materialism is really satisfying our needs as human beings. It's wonderful to see this connection being made from an ecological point of view (in the simplicity and slow life movements we've been making it for some time, of course). The green (enviro, eco) community has tended to focus on enviromental degradation as a development and greed issue without asking why so much of humanity buys into destroying the planet.

Here's Paul's post:

There's an intriguing piece in the Jan. 22, 2007 New Yorker magazine by Elizabeth Kolbert (whose book "Field Notes from a Catastrophe" helped reshape the conversation on global warming science) on eco-genius Amory Lovins that deserves comment on several levels. First, it is journalism at its finest, a balanced, informative, sensitive, fair and challenging treatment that anticipates reader questions and answers them as best the format will allow. It shows that great journalism is a powerful venue, and is still possible in a culture where journalistic best practices are for most part ignored and violated.

It is also an insightful look at global warming, an issue which generally has been a poster child for over-the-counter journalism's great failings. In story after story demonstrating global climate change, media typically do not even mention climate change itself. Each disaster is treated as an isolated occurrence, with no attempt to show how it fits into overall climate changes, other incidents like it, and trends in weather or climate episodes. I've harped on this since last April, and Paul Loeb recently noted how media seem totally clueless when it comes to incorporating a global warming sensibility into weather, storm and related coverage.

The huge drawback with the New Yorker piece is, of course, The New Yorker typically does not post online. You have to read the story in print. You can't even buy it online. One of the reasons I still subscribe to The New Yorker is that I cannot read it online (it's about the only print journalism I do subscribe to, besides The New York Times, and the latter is shaky at this point). The other reason is that, as a lifelong journalist myself, I like paying for really great journalism. If The New Yorker gave me the option to pay for an online subscription, even if it cost more than print, I would do so. It's just that good.

All that said, the Lovins piece is worth tracking down at your library or dentist's office or whatever. Some excerpts follow, and note particularly the final point, because it really encapsulates the entire conflict over our future. We cannot on the one hand want to save the planet and on the other want to continue driving SUVs and flying to Bali, Mexico, Spain and Australia several times a year. We really need to examine what needs an SUV and international travel are addressing for us, and ask: Would not we be better served by satisfying those needs non-materially? (This by the way is the whole point of my wife Cecile's book, "Slow Is Beautiful.")

...perusing a report put out by the Colorado Public Utilities Commission, Lovins came upon a misprint: someone had typed an 'n' for an 'm' in the word 'megawatt.' He coined another new term: 'negawatt.' A negawatt is a watt of electricity that does not have to be generated because an energy-saving measure has obviated the need for it. By replacing a 75w incandescent light bulb with a 14w compact fluorescent bulb, an individual can, for example, produce 61 negawatts.

...According to Lovins, by swtiching to ultra-light vehicles (including airplanes) and implementing a variety of other 'end-use efficiency' technologies the U.S. could eliminate half of its oil needs. It would eliminate another 20 percent by substituting biofuels for oil, and the last 30 percent by replacing oil with natural gas. (Saving enough natural gas to replace a third of the country's oil could be easily accomplished, he maintains, by, among other things, reducing electricity consumption.) The cost of eliminating oil use entirely would, by his calculations, come to half of what, by official forecasts, would be spent on purchasing it. Meanwhile, the U.S.'s CO2 emissions would drop by 25 percent.

...I asked Lovins how his plan to save the world through energy efficiency could accommodate the open-ended nature of human desire. If, as he claims, conservation is profitable, what was to stop the profits from going straight toward more consumption?

'It doesn't automatically prevent that,' he said. But, he added, 'you might plow the money back into more efficiency rather than more powerboats and helicopter skiing. After all, you don't rewash your clean clothes in the cheaper-to-run washing machine, because your clothes are already clean. At some point, I think you get jaded by continuous trips to Bali.

'Your neighbors might point out that what you're doing is increasingly antidsocial,' he continued. 'On a moral or spiritual level, at some point you may discover you're not all that happy having more stuff or more travel. Trying to meet nonmaterial needs by material means is stupid and futile. Every faith tradition that I know decries materialism.'

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