Abundant Opportunities

"Plug up the leaks" is a formula that can help solve many of our energy, water, economic, and even security problems

One of the articles in Sustainability (IC#25)
Originally published in Late Spring 1990 on page 20
Copyright (c)1990, 1997 by Context Institute

One of the brightest lights in the sustainability movement continues to be Rocky Mountain Institute, a remarkable think-tank nestled in the heart of Colorado. Hunter and Amory Lovins founded RMI in 1982 to explore opportunities for increased efficiency in our technologies, economies, and energy systems. While their work is gaining more recognition of late – Amory flies around the world consulting with governments and utilities – there is clearly still a lot more we can do to consume a lot less of almost everything, as Hunter describes below. Contact RMI at 1739 Snowmass Creek Rd., Old Snowmass, CO 81654-9199.

Robert: RMI has such a wide range of programs to promote sustainability. What are some of the major opportunities for achieving sustainability that you’ve identified – and that society is still overlooking?

Hunter: Let’s start with energy. Since 1979 we’ve gotten seven times as much new energy-sup-plying capacity from energy savings in this country as from all the net increase in conventional supply sources. We’ve also gotten more new energy from renewables than from any or all of the nonrenewables.

This news travels very slowly, however. The problem is things like the cracks around Mrs. Jones’s windows – Washington DC and the national news have never heard of Mrs. Jones, let alone her windows, so when she insulates or caulks up the cracks, nobody knows about it. People may think that there’s a lot being done in nuclear, coal, oil, and gas, but in fact individual actions to save energy and to use renewables are far outpacing them. And there is vastly more that can be done in that area, because the technologies are vernacular and available to everyone.

Robert: I’ve heard some amazing figures from Amory about the potential energy capacity that still remains to be harvested by investing in energy savings.

Hunter: Amory’s now saying that with the best demonstrated technologies, it’s now cost-effective to save nearly four-fifths of all the oil currently used in the United States. That’s more than forty times the amount they think might be under the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and we can save that amount at a cost averaging under three dollars per barrel. And with the best technologies now on the market, mostly less than a year old, we can save at least three-quarters of all the electricity now used in the country at a cost averaging around 0.6 cents per kilowatt-hour. I’m reminded of the saying from "Pogo": "We are confronted by insurmountable opportunities."

It’s not necessarily a bad thing that we haven’t captured those opportunities – capturing them takes time – but we ought not to think we’ve exhausted them. There are literally thousands of new technologies, and some well-known old ones like passive solar design, that will allow us to live more comfortably, save money, save energy, and at the same time avoid the ill effects on the planet caused by digging up and burning conventional fuels.

We hear of new technologies every day. We met a guy who retrofitted an airport with efficient light fixtures. By the time he had gotten to the end of the concourses, he had to turn around and do it all over again – because manufacturers had just come out with even better models. And it was cost-effective to do it again. That sort of thing will be facing us for the indefinite future.

Robert: So we’ve got decades’ worth of opportunities to mine, as it were.

Hunter: Absolutely. And as a result, there is no rationale whatsoever for building any more conventional facilities, drilling for any more oil in fragile areas, or digging for any more coal. We could even, if we got a little more aggressive about capturing those savings, begin in an orderly fashion to write down the existing power plants whose presence is bothersome for one reason or another – nuclear plants too close to cities, for example, or coal plants that are particularly dirty.

Similarly, capturing those opportunities in a systematic way is one of the best ways to do economic development, particularly at a local level.

Robert: I know that Economic Renewal Project draws on the same thinking as your energy work. Can you explain the connection?

Hunter: Energy people used to think the answer was to go out and get more, rather than use what we have more effectively. You can liken it to a bucket with a hole in the bottom: people keep pouring more in the top and it keeps draining out! Since in energy we’d found that the cheapest thing to do was to plug the hole in the bucket, it occurred to us that this might be true in economic development as well. At RMI we set about looking for opportunities to do that, and found lots of them.

In a typical community, something like 80% to 90% of the money spent on energy leaves the community. That money is not available to spur economic growth or increase well-being within that community. That’s also true of the money spent on food, health care, and a number of other necessities. So the first principle of economic renewal is to plug the unnecessary leaks of money from a community.

We focus on the things people can’t do without – energy, water, food, health care, housing – and seek ways to keep money in the town. The best example we’ve heard of comes from Osage, Iowa: about ten years ago, the head of the municipal utility decided he didn’t want to pay to build another power plant, so he worked with his customers to help them save energy. They’re now saving over $1,000 per household per year, and they’ve had several rate cuts totaling about a third of the real rate. As a result they have more people wanting to locate in Osage. Two new factories also came to town. It increased demand.

Robert: What happened then?

Hunter: The head of the utility just went back out and got more active saving energy. He also drew the direct parallel between energy savings, money savings, and economic development opportunities, and he put bill stuffers in the envelopes that said "Spend the money you saved on Main Street." Local grocers and car dealers are now saying, for instance, that "The only reason I’m in business is the energy-saving program. People now have money to spend on my products." So there’s a direct tie-in between those two concepts.

Robert: What’s your strategy for getting these models more widely disseminated?

Hunter: We realized that our little institute can’t provide service to all the communities around the country – indeed, around the world – that need it. So we focus on embodying the information in a series of workbooks and case-studies that citizens in any community can use step-by-step. The books show people how they can (1) plug the leaks, (2) strengthen and support the existing business community, (3) create an entrepreneurial climate where new businesses can start and flourish, and (4) recruit from outside the community only to the extent that you’ve identified holes you need to plug, and to the extent that you will get a net economic gain.

Robert: Are the opportunities in economic renewal as rich as those in energy efficiency?

Hunter: Probably more so, because they embody all of the energy opportunities, plus the full range of what makes people be and feel secure – how we feed and employ ourselves, and grow to old age in good health. These are the very issues the concept of sustainability tries to get at. What we have tried to do is take all that we knew about all of those areas, and roll it into one program.

Robert: As part of that program, hasn’t RMI also been looking at water and agriculture?

Hunter: Yes, and again we’re trying to apply the same conceptual lessons that we learned from energy – using the resources we have more productively. In water the analogy is very direct. Water policy has been concerned with larger, more centralized supply in almost every instance. That’s very expensive and, in many instances, environmentally damaging. By using water more efficiently – with technologies such as low-flush toilets, faucet aerators, high performance showerheads – you can cut a tremendous amount of water use in the urban residential sector. In fact one town just cut per capita use by a third in the first year with no loss of service quality.

Something like 80% of all the water in the country goes to irrigation, so using water more productively in the agricultural area could add up to huge savings and reduce costs for farmers. Energy and water savings are also directly related. California’s biggest use of electricity is pumping water. A lot of the justification for building some of the big power plants in the Pacific Northwest was to provide electricity for pumping water for agriculture. So you can see how the solutions start to work together.

Robert: And agriculture? Do we have similar opportunities there?

Hunter: Agriculture is an area in which we may have some of the greatest opportunities – and where we are currently courting disaster. We are in almost no way imitating the way that nature would do it. Researchers like Wes and Dana Jackson at the Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, are trying to develop an agriculture that more completely mimics the natural system. While that will take a long time, there are already a lot of hopeful lessons we can draw. In the short run there’s no question that growing monocultures of annuals – made possible by vast inputs of chemicals, fossil fuels, fossil water, as well as overcapitalized and overmechanized systems – is unsustainable.

We’re not only courting another Dust Bowl, but a whole host of environmental disasters. Agriculture is sorting out to fewer, larger farms pushing in the direction of disaster faster, and smaller part-time farmers who can stay on the land only because someone in the family has another job. That’s not the way to be stewards of our land.

I’ve had fun discussions with some of the brighter economists and people in the business world about "What is value?" Some of them argue that value is only what people think it is – that economics is no longer driven by production and by tangible things that you can stockpile and eat and use. But the conservative in me comes back to the belief that what makes economics possible is what we grow and construct with our own hands; that the land – the biosphere – is, ultimately, the only real value. Modern agriculture is abusing it rather severely, and we are, of course, exporting all of these concepts to the rest of the world. So they’re doing the same thing, with disastrous results.

We need urgently to reach a greater consensus on what a sustainable agriculture might look like, and how to do it. There are a lot of people doing good work on this, from the Meadowcreek Project in Arkansas, to New Alchemy Institute in Massachusetts, to the Land Institute [see "Resources" on page 62]. These are the real centers of hope, I believe, because if we’re going to get into real trouble, it will come from abusing our water and agriculture. I really don’t think that a nuclear exchange between the US and the Soviets is very likely right now. I hope. (Although India and Pakistan, or Israel and Iraq are another story.)

Robert: The real danger lies in things that remain relatively invisible, until they’re so bad they’re disastrous. There are obvious security implications here – which leads to my next question. What’s currently happening with RMI’s security program?

Hunter: In that program we ask, "What is it that makes people be and feel secure?" Our researchers have come up with a three-fold approach, which will be out in a book this August called Reclaiming Security: Beyond the Controlled Arms Race.

They say, first off, that many of the roots of conflict lie in resource inefficiency – so we need to identify those roots of conflict and eliminate them wherever possible. They then point out that conflicts will still arise, and we need to strengthen the international and local systems for resolving conflict peaceably. They list a rich menu of ways to do that. Last they acknowledge that some conflicts will not be resolved peacefully. They then present a long list of actions that nations and subnational groups can take to defend themselves – non-provocatively and nonviolently, but effectively.

My favorite gadget of the kind – though it’s not really part of the argument – is the "goo bomb." If you think that you’re going to be attacked by tanks, you could make precision-guided munitions which you could shoot at a tank and which would, among other things, "slime" it. A thick, gooey, adhesive polymer coats the tank – the treads won’t run, the turret won’t turn, the air vents don’t work, so the guys have to open the main door, get out, and walk home.

We’re also looking at the security and development implications of things like global warming. The energy efficiency strategy I mentioned not only saves money, but displaces fossil fuels more cheaply than burning them, so pollution is avoided not at a cost but at a profit. A lot of people in the Third World are unhappy about giving up their one chance at development to allow the developed world to continue its wasteful ways. But on the contrary, everybody can be better off.

Sustainable development is now a buzzword in the international community. While there are a lot of people who are dissatisfied with the "bureaucro-babble" around it, the basic concept is an essential one – the traditional approach to development is not sustainable anymore on this planet. It is, after all, only a little planet. We all depend on it. As Chernobyl showed, the actions taken on the other side of the planet affect us very directly here. I can understand people in developing countries being annoyed at our waste of resources, but the answer is not their additional waste of resources – it’s all of us using resources more efficiently. Energy efficiency is not only one way to help the developing world develop, it may be the only way to enable them to afford it.

Robert: Some of our problems grow out of well-intentioned actions taken in the past that, in hindsight, look very unwise. But obviously you don’t believe that we shouldn’t act because we might act wrongly.

Hunter: Absolutely not. We should seek to understand as much as we can. We should know intuitively that, as John Muir said, everything is hitched to everything else in the universe and that our actions will have interactions that we didn’t expect. We should look for those and seek, wherever we can, to have those interactions be benign. But unless we know that we understand all of the interactions within a system, we should know that we’re going to get some surprises.

We should also take actions which, as much as possible, mimic the patterns that were there before us – the patterns by which the natural world operates. Amory and I wrote a book a few years back called Brittle Power in which we sought to outline a design science of resilience, in this instance to design a resilient energy system to enhance national security. Natural systems exist because they are resilient. The important features we identified for energy systems include things like system diversity, small components, rich interconnectedness, dispersion, renewable supplies, and modularity. Resilience involves avoiding highly centralized solutions. By applying these kinds of design lessons to any system that we build, we can have a little more confidence that we’re not just building our own next problem.

Robert: How would you characterize the historical moment we’re in now? What’s ahead for RMI and your peers in the sustainability movement?

Hunter: We’re approaching, if not already in, a "teachable moment" on all of these issues. For a long time only a small fringe of people was interested in these matters, but now a much wider audience is listening. As we continue to experience some of the ecodisasters lurking out there, that audience will grow.

There’s a danger of people calling on the sustainability movement for instant solutions. And there are many things that can be done in the short run, as well as many things that will have dramatic returns – but we risk making the same mistake we’ve criticized others for if we move too quickly and give people the sense that technical fixes will be sufficient.

The sustainability movement, particularly our portion of it, needs to think more about the nature of sustainability. We have a staff member who points out that RMI’s approach – advocating the use of technical fixes implemented within a market doctrine – may in its own way be part of the problem. Without a more fundamental understanding of the drive behind economic systems to ever greater resource throughput and resource trashing, and a reining in of those tendencies, no amount of efficiency may save us in the end unless we also decide how much is enough.

Robert: So you are also experiencing the rush of interest reported by others in the movement?

Hunter: Oh, yes. The movement as a whole is in danger of being overwhelmed with demand. When we set up the Institute we were, initially, three or four people. We’re now the better part of forty people, with a $1.5 million budget, and we face all the same problems of any small business. We cannot continue to grow, but the demands on us grow daily. We’re struggling with how to answer the hundreds of letters we get every day from people saying, basically, "What can I do?"

Robert: And you shouldn’t have to service individuals. You should be servicing resource centers around the world.

Hunter: Yes. Although I hope we never get too busy to work with individuals who care. But this is an instance in which an active government information program would help. Optimally, there should be government programs as well as locally based groups that are well-enough funded and staffed and equipped to cope with the demand for information. Federal or foundation funding for local service groups who can answer phones and put information in envelopes would go a long ways towards advancing the sustainability movement.

The other service that government could perform is systematically to identify and purge barriers which, in many cases, it has put in the way. In the energy area, for instance, the federal government subsidizes mostly the worst choices to the tune of something like fifty billion dollars a year. That’s your and my tax money going to things like more power plants and coal mines. The situation is similar in agriculture. Subsidies to both probably account to close to half the federal budget deficit.

Robert: What else does the movement itself need to do to be more effective?

Hunter: It ought to network among itself better. That’s hard. It requires getting up and going to conferences, or paying attention to computer bulletin boards, or reading magazines – but we do need a better sense of coordination.

We also need to be tied in as directly as we can with the people in the business sector and seek to involve them. There are a rapidly growing number of what could be called "socially responsible businesses" or "green businesses," and that’s very exciting. Ultimately, when people realize how much money there is to be made in a lot of these areas, and if consumers consistently cast their economic votes for what advances sustainability, things can shift very rapidly.

Robert: What are some of the major surprises of the past decade? What are the things that haven’t worked out the way you originally projected?

Hunter: The biggest surprise was our inability to hold RMI’s maximum size to where we thought it would be, which was around a dozen. The thing that surprises other people is the strength of market mechanisms in implementing technologies which even ten years ago were considered radical. But that wasn’t a surprise to us. If market theory is correct, an increase in price, or in the convenience of responding to price signals, will bring about fundamental change. The increase in the energy prices, in hindsight, brought about the flood of efficiency technologies that we’ve seen. That capped the price. I suppose the real economic lesson is that the price of the sustainability and efficiency technologies will be the ultimate market cap – which means that since we can save all of that energy at such a low price, the technologies that we’re concerned about [nuclear power, chemical agriculture, etc.] are inherently over with. It’s just a question of transition time.

Robert: What can people do to speed up the process?

Hunter: There are three things that ought to be the task of people concerned about promoting sustainability: identify the technology that will get the job done the way we’d like to see it; identify the barriers holding it up; and get information to people. Find and break down those barriers.

Robert: I would include social technologies in there as well – the software as well as the hardware.

Hunter: Oh, yes, absolutely. Then the people will truly do it themselves. We’ve long been fond of the Lao Tzu quotation: "Leaders are best when people scarcely know they exist, not so good when people obey and acclaim them, worst when people despise them. Fail to honor people, they fail to honor you. But of good leaders who talk little, when their work is done, their tasks fulfilled, the people will all say, ‘We did this ourselves.’"

The Parachuting Cats

by Hunter Lovins

In Borneo in the early 1950s, the World Health Organization was faced with the problem of malaria among the Dayak people in Borneo. They had an answer that was short, simple and wrong, which was to spray DDT all over the place to kill the mosquitoes that carried malaria. The mosquito population declined, the incidence of malaria declined, and everybody declared the program a success.

They discovered, however, that the roofs of people’s houses were falling in on their heads. It seemed that the DDT had poisoned wasps which parasitized thatch-eating caterpillars. Without the wasps the caterpillars proliferated, they ate the thatch in the roofs, and the roofs fell in.

WHO found it also had a worse problem, which was that the DDT had built up in the food chain – it got into the insects, which were eaten by little lizard-like creatures called geckos, which were eaten by the cats. The cats died, the rats flourished, and the World Health Organization was faced with an outbreak of sylvatic plague and typhus, which it had itself created. It was then obliged to parachute live cats into Borneo.

The lesson one should draw is that in many instan-ces, the cause of problems is prior solutions that were not thought out well enough. All things interact, often in ways we don’t understand. But at the same time, if we understand the interactions better, the solutions we come up with will go further than we might initially have thought. The solutions can then beget even more solutions.

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