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Take Note: Environmentalist Hunter Lovins on how businesses can reverse climate change

WPSU Take Note Hunter Lovins
Norm Clason
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Hunter Lovins

For more than 35 years, Hunter Lovins has consulted large corporations, heads of state, the Department of Defense, energy agencies and hundreds of state and local agencies on climate policies. She's the president and founder of the nonprofit Natural Capitalism Solutions (NCS) and a professor of sustainable management at Bard College. She has won dozens of awards for her sustainability work. Time Magazine recognized her as a Millennium "Hero for the Planet" and Newsweek called her the "Green Business Icon."

She says businesses that focus on natural solutions save money while also lowering their carbon emissions.

Here's the conversation:

John Weber 
Hunter Lovins thank you for talking with us today.

Hunter Lovins 
John, it is my pleasure to be here.

John Weber 
You've been in the environmental sustainability field for most of your life, but what interested you to start working towards climate solutions?

Hunter Lovins 
I got into trying to solve the climate crisis early on, because it is largely driven by energy policy, which was where I was working. And many of the solutions come out of doing energy in a smarter way. And in a way that costs less for all of us and delivers us a higher quality of life, a more resilient life, a more secure life. So they just naturally went together. Now the other big chunk of the cause of the climate crisis is how we do agriculture. Again, the huge chunk of the solution is shifting to regenerative agriculture, which will provide us healthier food, tastier food, and done right will cost less.

John Weber 
In your co-authored book, "Natural Capitalism" from 1999, your team introduced an alternative way of thinking about energy and natural resources with business as an important part of this solution. Can you talk about what Natural Capitalism is and what role business plays?

Hunter Lovins 
Natural Capitalism came from observing what the smartest businesses were already doing. When they began to recognize that business is the cause of most of the existential threats to humanity and to life as we know it on the planet. And business is the only institution on the planet big enough, smart enough, well enough managed, to be part of the solution. It just became natural to look at what smart companies were doing. So we worked early on with a company called Interface carpets run by a marvelous man named Ray Anderson, who had this recognition. He was asked to give a speech to his newly acquired employees of a company he bought, "what's your environmental policy?" He said, "Oh, do we have one? Quick somebody get me a book on the environment." He read a book called "Ecology of Commerce" by a man named Paul Hawken, who was one of the co-authors of "Natural Capitalism” and described the experience as "a spear in his chest" to realize that there was nothing about his business that was sustainable. And that he was part of the problem. And he said, "we're going to be the first company of the next industrial revolution", which is the subtitle of the book "Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution." Ray hired a number of us to work with him to figure it out, because the first thing he realized, "I have no idea how to do this." So he put together a dream team of some amazing people, including Paul, Janine Benyus, founder of biomimicry, Dana Meadows, who's the first person to use the word sustainability in the English language, David Brower, who was founder of Friends of the Earth, and a large number of people from the green building field, industrial design field. And collectively, we started looking at how Interface did business and ways we could drop its impact while keeping it in business. The first thing we found was energy efficiency and resource efficiency. Use all resources dramatically more productively. The principle is that we buy time by using resources dramatically more productively. For two reasons. One, it pushes off the worst harm now facing us, the climate crisis, the loss of biodiversity, running out of resources. Two, it saves money. When you have money, you can invest it in the second principle, which initially we called biomimicry, Janine Benyus' work of looking to nature for the answers. Nature makes a wide array of products and services very differently than we do. Modern industry heats things, beats them, treats them. Nature makes everything near to something that's alive at room temperature, with no toxic materials, shopping locally, no waste. Everything that you would consider waste in nature is food for some other part of nature. So if you apply those principles to industry, you begin to find amazing innovations. And indeed, Janine has gone on to create a website called "Ask Nature", which now a lot of industrial designers use when they're trying to figure out how to do something innovative. So the second principle is not just biomimicry, it is to redesign how we make and deliver all products and services using approaches like biomimicry, like the circular economy, so that you don't just throw stuff away. You figure out who is it that needs that product, and can profitably use it so that the scarce materials continue to cycle as nature does?

John Weber 
And biomimicry is kind of like looking to nature to kind of come up with a new design solution, right?

Hunter Lovins 
As Janine says, the first step is to invite a biologist to the design table and ask them whatever problem it is you're trying to solve, "how would nature do that?" So for example, I was with some young mechanical engineers at the University of California, Berkeley. Their design challenge was how do we build a robot that can go into tiny spaces where there have been collapsed buildings in say, an earthquake and find people? So they said, "what goes into tiny spaces?" Somebody said, "a cockroach!" Cool. So they built a little robot that looked just like a cockroach. And it couldn't get out of its own way. They said, "Huh." They went back and they filmed how cockroaches move. And they realized what a cockroach does primarily is scurry. So rather than build a robot that looked like a cockroach, they built one that worked like a cockroach that scurried like crazy. It's the world's fastest robot. What looks like eyes are little cameras, and it has telemetry in it. So it can send a signal back with what it has found. I fell in love with this little robot. The point was, you're not copying nature, you're learning from nature. So a guy in Japan who was dealing with the fact that the bullet train caused a sonic boom every time it exited a tunnel, was out walking, and he was a birder. And he saw a kingfisher enter the water with not a ripple. He said, "how's it doing it?" And realized it's the design of the beak. Think of a bullet train, it looks like a bullet. It's a completely conical nose cone. The belted kingfisher has a dip, where its head comes down to its bill, that design change enables it to enter the water without a ripple, they've redesigned the bullet train to look like a kingfisher and the stop sonic booms. It's a disciplined process of understanding what the problem is you're trying to solve and then looking to nature going out into nature, and saying, "How would nature solve this problem?"

John Weber 
For many years, you've talked about, you know, resources being taken from the earth and kind of borrowing from future generations. Now we're looking at kind of these new climate reports that have come out. Can we safely say there's time for future generations to reverse the effects of climate change?

Hunter Lovins 
It's not given to us to know the future, it's only given to us to know what we're going to do today. The best models show that time is very short. And so we need to buy time in every way that we can. But the best models also show that we can decarbonize essentially entirely by as early as 2035. The UN reports say that we have to decarbonize by 2050. That gives us 15 years in there wiggle room. We also know that nature has an amazing capacity to soak up our wastes, to detoxify human wastes. Nature based solutions can absorb more than all the carbon we emit every year, substantially more. That means we're rolling climate change backward. And this gets to the third principle of Natural Capitalism, which is to manage all institutions to be regenerative of human and natural capital, the two forms of capital that are in short supply. Our current economic system is designed to measure, manage, enhance material stuff and money. Those two forms of capital are enhanced by things like globalization and increased velocity of trade. So we measure GDP, gross domestic product, the speed with which money and stuff moves through the economy, forgetting that there are at least two other forms of capital, human and natural, which are place based and which needs to be managed in a different way than money and stuff. So when we begin to be good capitalists, stewarding and enhancing all forms of capital, we find that things like regenerative agriculture, managing farming, ranching, in the way that nature does is a way of soaking up vast amounts of carbon. This was discovered anecdotally by people like Bob Rodale from here in Pennsylvania, the Rodale Institute,

John Weber 
Yeah, Kutztown University.

Hunter Lovins 
Bob realized that if you take food waste, and compost it and return it to the soil, you don't need to buy all those expensive fertilizers. If you use things like integrated pest management, you don't need to use poisons. And he developed a whole approach to growing vegetables that delivers higher quality, denser nutrition, tastier food at lower cost. Out in the Dakotas, a man named Gabe Brown was going broke growing commodity corn and soy. He says, "I'm going broke. I'll try anything." Somebody said first of all, go to no till, stop breaking the soil. When you plow soil and invert it you decarbonize, denitrify the soil. This is what's adding to the climate burden. So go to no till. But then he said, "Well, I have to use lots of herbicides and pesticides." And people said, "No, plant cover crops, particularly deep-rooted cover crops." So he did that. They take nutrients out of the air, put it into the soil. Some of these plants have roots 10 feet long. But now his fields are covered with cover crops. He said, "How am I going to get rid of all this vegetation? I'll turn my cows out." Now he isn't having to grow hay or buy feed for his cows. Gabe says, "I'd rather sign the back of the check than the front of the check. Anything I do to cut my cost is keeping me in business." So he's eliminated the use of fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, lower costs. What he hadn't realized is when you add animal impact to things like no till and cover crops, the grasses soak up enormous amounts of carbon. The deep roots take it deep into the soil. Gabe went from a little under 2% soil organic matter in his fields to over 11% on average. Some fields as high as 15%. Every 1% increase in soil organic matter is 5 to 10 tons of carbon per acre and 20,000 gallons of water holding capacity. Gabe is rolling climate change backward. Oh, and he's now wildly profitable because he's cut his costs. And because he is producing more nutrient dense food, people mail order it from all over the country. He's selling into high value niche markets, and he's being copied. So down in Bluffton, Georgia, a man named Will Harris took his fifth-generation cattle operation now grows a wide array of products from cage free eggs to vegetables, to heirloom pork, slaughters that locally. He built his own slaughterhouse. Does agrotourism, people want to come to see this and to see the bald eagles. When he first started there, he'd every now and again see a bald eagle around. He now has 80 breeding pairs of bald eagles feeding in part off his free-range chickens. Will says, "you know I'm told I'm supposed to tithe to the church. I guess I'm tithing to nature." So he's selling eggs and chicken and all of these other products. They did a third party verified carbon accounting; he's putting more carbon back into the soil than his cattle operation is emitting. His neighbor commodity peanut farmer on the same acreage has four employees. Will has 167 employees. So the little neighboring town of Bluffton, Georgia has come back to life. He's doing economic development. All of this begins to fit together and is a huge part of the solution to the climate crisis. So you put these three principles of buy time, redesign how we make and deliver all products, manage all of our institutions to be regenerative, and you have an answer that is oh, just better business. I was sitting with Ray Anderson of Interface carpets in 2001. And Ray was baffled. He said, "everything I'm doing to implement more sustainable practices is enhancing every aspect of shareholder value." He said, "That's not why I'm doing it. I'm doing it because it's the right thing to do. But it's all more profitable" I said, "I've learned something." It makes you more attractive to impact investors who are a growing share of the market, particularly of young capital. There's about $40 to $60 trillion, about to shift from in general, old white men to their kids. All of whom are millennials or younger, half of whom are women who have a very different value set. They are looking for responsible companies to invest in. When you're more responsible, you are more attractive to the best talent who want to work for clean companies. So you attract and retain talent. Once you have that talent, they are more productive. They're engaged. An engaged workforce is up to 18% more productive, 21% more profitable according to Gallup surveys. Put them in good green buildings with good lighting, energy efficient, clean air, your workforce is going to be more productive, up to 16% more productive. You're better able to manage your supply chain. This is why Walmart issued its sustainability scorecard to its 100,000 plus suppliers. It better enables them to manage their supply chain. So question number one, "Do you measure your carbon footprint?" Question number two, "Do you report to the Carbon Disclosure Project?" The who? This is a group of kids in the UK, who in 2000, created this little project asking the biggest companies on Earth, "What's your carbon footprint?" Surprise, nobody answered for a year or two. The kids are now backed by institutional investors with over $100 trillion in assets. Now essentially every major company on Earth reports to Carbon Disclosure Project. So you put all of these reasons together in the integrated bottom line. It's just better business. You'll make more money and you'll be happier.

John Weber 
If you're just joining us this is Take Note on WPSU. I'm John Weber and today we're talking with Hunter Lovins climate activist and president and founder of nonprofit Natural Capitalism Solutions (NCS). Backing up a little, Hunter, the Biden administration and large corporations like Walmart have made regenerative agriculture a priority. We're seeing this type of farming kind of get adopted on a larger scale than the recent years. And back to what regenerative farming basically is, is less tilling more cover crops, kind of more interplay with animals and things. So you're not just tilling and reusing and doing commodity crops. How does it feel to see ideas like from "Natural Capitalism" and your Natural Capitalism Solutions group kind of get adopted by larger corporations and scaled than just these individual farmers?

Hunter Lovins 
Ray Anderson died in 2011. He never saw the change that he helped create. Dana Meadows, the author of the landmark book "Limits to Growth" died in 2000. Dana always had faith that these changes would come. They had to. It's the right thing to do. She never saw it. I'm seeing it. I'm living the changes. So when General Mills announced a commitment to regenerative agriculture, they put forth five principles, minimal disturbance of the soil, keeping the soil covered 365 days a year, cover crops, animal impact. When you go through the General Mills principles, their Gabe's principles. And I went, "how did they find them?" Simple they hired Gabe. Then a man in India named Vijay Kumar, read about those principles, and added four more that were indigenous to India. Now they don't eat cattle, but they use the cattle, take the urine the manure, make a mycorrhizal inoculant. Mycorrhizal fungi is one of the elements in soil that mineralizes carbon. They make a fertilizer and this inoculant coat the seeds in it. They use no toxins, no commercial fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides, and they use women in the villages to spread this message. Vijay has been working in a part of India where there had been high levels of farmer suicide, because with the so called "green revolution", telling farmers to get big or get out. Buy expensive machinery buy commercial seed fertilizers, herbicides. The farmers are going broke and they were poisoning themselves and their families. Vijay has shown them how they can have higher nutrient density in their food, no poisons, and plant three times a year. Previously, they could only plant once right before the monsoon. They now have three harvests a year. They're more profitable. They're healthier. This is spreading all across India to millions of farmers. In Africa million delay, calls it agroecology. I don't care what you call it, it's the same set of principles. Showing that the Gates Foundation funded AGRA project which had promised to double farmer productivity and failed. Based on again mechanization, chemicalization, industrialization, can be supplanted by local farmers using essentially the same principles of regenerative agriculture to produce the food that they eat. Far more leafy green vegetables, far more fruits that feed the villages as opposed to the commodity export market. Dramatically increasing health in the communities and doubling production. Making the farmers more profitable. Again, all of this sequestering carbon. So we can solve the global climate crisis through regenerative agriculture, at the same time that we're eradicating poverty, increasing health around the world. Couple that with renewable energy, which is spreading rapidly. In India, India recently cancelled orders for 14 large coal plants because they said it can't compete with solar. Solar is coming to Africa at the village scale brought in by entrepreneurs. At the industrial scale, the utility scale because it's cheaper. New solar comes on at a cent per kilowatt hour, three cents a kilowatt hour. Couple solar with batteries at three cents a kilowatt hour. It's still cheaper than coal, gas, oil, any of the fossils, which is why solar is now sweeping the world. Yes, we are still dependent on fossil energy. We have until 2030 to decarbonize by 50%. So the Goldman School at University of California, Berkeley came out with a study recently showing that if the US went to 90% renewable energy by 2035, we'd save a trillion dollars a year, and laying out all the ways that we can do that. Dr. Mark Jacobson at Stanford, same thing his Solutions Project has gone state by state by state across the US. Country by country around the world, showing how the entire world can be 100% renewably powered. It's happening. I'm seeing it, I'm living it. I drive a Leaf, a little electric car. I traded in a Porsche. The Leaf's a better car. It's more fun to drive, more creature comforts than the Porsche I traded in. Now, Porsche has come out with an electric. I was at the Frankfurt Motor Show. Oh gosh, better part of 10 years ago and they said, "Do you want to drive an electric Porsche?" Yes. Oh my. (laugh)

John Weber 
It has like a speaker in it to make an engine sound. I remember hearing about this.

Hunter Lovins 
Yeah, you can make it go "vrmmm vrmmm!" if you're silly enough to want to. I truly enjoy the quietness of my Leaf. And so I drove it around Frankfurt. I want one. They said, "Okay $200,000." I don't want one. But now the prices are coming down to...well the Porsche slightly reasonable. The Leaf is competitive with basically any new car. My next car is a truck. The Ford Lightning. Fully electric the most popular vehicle in the world, not just truck. The Ford F-150 pickup truck is going electric. I never thought I'd live to see that.

John Weber 
Like companies who are slow to adopt changes like Ford, embracing electric energy that that you see is a really good sign for the economy and for this movement, right?

Hunter Lovins 
Yes, Ford stock skyrocketed on the announcement of the Lightning. And Ford is in the process of building a massive battery factory at what is it BlueOval. These changes will permeate society, delivering to us a higher quality of life. When the polar vortex hit Texas in the spring of 2021, thousands of people died because Texas was wholly unprepared. Now they could have been, it had gotten cold in Texas before. They could have winterized their electric producing equipment. They didn't. They pocketed the difference and killed people because of it. Except this one old boy who plugged his Ford pickup truck that has a little generator onboard into his house. The lightning can run your house for four days. That's Homeland Security. I have a five-kilowatt solar system on my ranch. SimpliPhi batteries in my garage. Power goes out, the only reason we know is that the clocks are now blinking. The system has an isolation relay. Power goes down, we keep running, power comes up we reconnect to the grid. It's bright and sunny in Colorado today I'm sitting in Central Pennsylvania. My system is chunking out electrons selling it to the local utility. This is just a good deal for everybody. And everybody can do this.

John Weber 
On the subject of that polar vortex and situations like that, many of our listeners in Central Pennsylvania, they don't live near rising sea levels or particularly prone to wildfires. So these very visible signs of climate change. How would you expect locations like Central Pennsylvania to experience these effects or other effects from climate change in the coming years that might be more visible?

Hunter Lovins 
You're going to start seeing floods. There have been massive floods in Pennsylvania and there will be more of them. What we're seeing now are called bomb cyclones. Rain bombs, where you get massive flooding, just all of a sudden. We had one of these at my ranch. I was driving home, I could see lightning along the mountains, my husband called and said, "Don't come home, just go get a motel." He said, "there's four foot of water going over the entrance to the ranch." And I was like, "I'm in a truck I can do that." Drove up, was like, “I can't do that." Wound up driving around parking at a neighbor's and walked across the fields. Foot of water in Colorado. You're going to get that here. You're going to get tornadoes. As we speak, tornadoes are battering the south. Tornado Alley is moving. It's moving east. It'll come here. I hate saying that. I do not wish this kind of destruction on anybody. And yet climate change is going to bring it to all of us. The UN projects, left unchecked, there will be 3 billion climate refugees in the world. Where are they gonna go? Even if you live in a place that has a benign climate, and increasingly everywhere will have less and less benign climates, the displaced people are going to want to come live on top of you. Our future is in our hands. We are the last generation to be able to do anything about the climate crisis. And what's slightly frustrating is we know all of the solutions. They're cheaper, they work better, they deliver higher quality of life. What's an incredibly exciting is they're starting to be deployed. We're in a horse race with catastrophe. The good news, we're in the race.

John Weber 
Hunter Lovins, thank you so much for talking with us today.

Hunter Lovins 
John, it's been my pleasure.

John Weber 
Hunter Lovins is the president and founder of nonprofit Natural Capitalism Solutions (NCS) and a professor of sustainable management at Bard College's MBA in sustainability program. She has won dozens of awards for her sustainability advocacy and continues to see climate solutions with communities and businesses. For more information on Hunter Lovins' work visit wpsu.org/takenote. I'm John Weber, WPSU.

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