Hunter Lovins | A Green Business Icon on a Finer Future

by | Aug 13, 2018

I witnessed Hunter Lovins almost exactly a year ago at COMMON’s annual Unsummit, an organization I am proud to be a member of. She spoke to us directly after lunch and immediately awoke my dozing head and rustled my full belly. As she addressed us, I took in her long blond hair, kind eyes, distinguished and crisp cowboy hat, and unique Western attire. She is kind and passionate and simultaneously arresting, full of disquieting and devastating facts from her over 40 years of work in sustainable development. She dazzled me immediately.

Hunter is currently the President of Natural Capitalism Solutions, a 501(c)3 non-profit she co-founded, advising clients such as the U.S. Army, United Nations, even Wal-mart. She has addressed the World Economic Forum, U.S. Congress, the World Summit on Sustainable Development, and other major conferences. She’s also been named a “Green Business Icon” by Newsweek, a millennium “Hero of the Planet” by TIME Magazine and co-founded the Rocky Mountain Institute, a 50-person research center. Hunter began her career as an attorney, and was the Assistant Director of the California Conservation Project (known as Tree People) for six years, an urban forestry and environmental education group.

Despite her shoulder-to-shoulder proximity to facts of the world’s looming extinction date, she is ebullient about her work. Statistics that seem to be underrepresented in mainstream media of any kind, such as the fact that parts of the Middle East and Africa will be uninhabitable by the 2040s due to extreme heat, roll off her tongue while she evangelizes humans’ ability to intercede…if done so quickly.

“We are the first generation to have dominion over the earth and likely the last to be able to save it,” she says.

When we chatted a few months ago, we began with a common formality of politeness: talking about the weather. But because it’s Hunter Lovins, and because the changing weather patterns are some of our strongest indicators of imminent, and current, danger, we were already in our flow. I hope you enjoy this illuminating discussion with the one and only Hunter Lovins.

Thank you so much for taking time to talk with us. You spoke at our COMMON Unsummit last year, and I was floored. One thing that struck me about the content of your talk itself was the amount of pure, scientific-based facts that seem to be relatively unknown. Do you think that’s pure politics or another force at play?
Politics is a big chunk of it. There is also a vibrant denialist industry that is extraordinarily well funded. There is a growing problem of social media algorithms. We are only fed repetition of what we already know or care about. Our educational system doesn’t teach people to think or inquire, to chase knowledge. It teaches them to accept what they are spoon fed. So, there’s a whole host of reasons as to why we are a woefully under-informed nation.

Politics seems an ALMOST satisfactory answer to the query of why don’t the majority of us know these staggering and terrifying facts. But then I look at the facts you presented about parts of the Middle East being too hot to inhabit by 2040, and it just seems it behooves us all, no matter what side of politics, to know we might very well be extinct in this lifetime or two.
(Sighs) That’s pretty staggering. The implications of it are really staggering.

It just seems like a rhetorical question whether we all want this planet to exist in the coming decades. Don’t we want our children, our next generation, to have a planet to inhabit?
Yes…although increasingly people want Earth for themselves and their tribes, not for all people. So, now, if the Middle East is soon going to be uninhabitable, and they’re going to want to migrate to Europe, then ‘maybe we should build a big wall’, which is what the Hungarians are doing, and so are we.

What first set you on this path of championing sustainable development?
I’m not sure I had a whole lot of choice! My mother used to work in the coal fields with John L. Lewis, organizing mine workers. My father helped mentor Cesar Chavez and Martin King. They were around the house when I was growing up, so this was sort of what I’ve always done.

How do you define sustainable management? That’s what your organization Natural Capitalism Solutions focuses on, yes? Particularly for a company that might want to work with you?
We help companies, communities, countries implement more regenerative practices profitably. And what that is in precise terms depends entirely on the entity we’re working with. So, for example, I recently got a call from a corporate executive who works in the life insurance business who had been chatting with a friend. I had helped this guy some years ago implement a suite of sustainable measures for a restaurant chain. I told the guy at the life insurance company, first off you should chat with the team there to see if they even have an interest in this. If so, at what level we would be coming in. It’s very difficult to get a company to bring us in to do this when it hasn’t had that idea itself. So, in general, the work that I do comes to be because a company calls us up and says, ‘help!’. Help may be they’re getting attacked by a NGO. It may be that their marketing has shown that their customer base wants them to appear to be more sustainable. It may be that they read somewhere they can save money doing it. Depending on what the route in is, what we do with them may differ widely.

On average, how long does it take to do discovery with a company and then work with them?
Discovery is often just an hour. The work itself takes years, generally. In the case of the restaurant company, we worked with them for three years. We helped them create sustainable measures that were more profitable with every passing year. Profitability was huge to them, and it did pay them back very handsomely. We helped them hire an internal head of sustainability and set their processes for them and then turned them loose. It’s all very detailed when we’re engaged – going around to various sites, talking to various shareholders and internal employees and so forth. We also got them ahead of animal welfare issues so that they could take a responsible stance before it became a hot button issue, which it did. Activist organizations never touched them. But it depends company to company.

You said something interesting earlier, something to the effect of “if it appears to be sustainable”. Do you find that some of your clientele only approach you for the appearance of sustainability or warding off attacks? Are some truly altruistic and concerned with their footprints?
Truly, it is all over the map, and I don’t care! Policy is the first step to real change. I’m very happy to work with a company that is approaching this for appearance’s sake first, because then I can show them how sustainable management can save them money. Realistically, when times are lean for companies, what gets shed are environmental and social programs, and we show them there is a diverse business case for behaving responsibly. Everything from cutting costs, risks, legal liabilities, enhancing ability to attract investment, retain the best talent and brand equity, and how a company tells their story and maintains their supply chain. We call this the integrated bottom line.

Do you stay optimistic in the face of these constant and overwhelming facts? You seem to.
(Sighs again). When I start to feel less than optimistic the antidote to that is to get active, to go out and begin implementing change wherever I can. It can be daunting. The amount of change and the speed with which we have to change is REALLY daunting. What gives me the most hope is that we know how to roll climate change backwards. If we use regenerative agriculture, holistic grazing, we take carbon out of the air and put it back in the soil. And again, doing this is profitable. And the numbers are roughly, if, and this is a big if, we did holistic management on the world grasslands, over the next 30 years we would get back to 280 parts per million concentration in the atmosphere, e.g. pre-industrial levels. We know how to do it, and that’s a point at which it becomes obvious to everyone. Whether California burns up or everybody leaves the Middle East or whatever the trigger event is that makes it obvious, this is really what has to happen, and we know how to do it. And that’s largely the thesis of my next book, Our Finer Future, that I just sent out to the publisher. The challenges we face are daunting; the solutions that we have at hand are very effective, and so we are in a horse race with catastrophe. The good news is that we are in the race!

When will the book come out?
I was just told it will be shipped to warehouses in August and will really hit the streets early September. It’s going to be the flagship fall book of New Society Publishers.

That’s incredible. When you were mentioning regenerative agriculture I wondered if you work with Kiss The Ground at all? Are you aware of them?
I have, and I am aware of them. I’ve worked mostly with Savory Institutes thus far.

We are very friendly with Kiss The Ground, and they actually spoke and led a workshop at our retreat this year. They did start to get into the science of why this matters, which I find incredible.
Well, if you couple energy efficiency with renewable energy with regenerative agriculture we can profitably solve the most challenging crises facing us (climate change), and then we move on to all the others. It’s going to be much tougher, for example, to deal with inequality. The book walks through a whole series of policy measures that can beat that as well.”

I guess a final question that is really present for us running Of The Wolves and having so many individuals from around the world joining us is – how do you tell others to stay active? For a lot of people who are not a part of a massive, impact-driven cooperation- what are some activities they can do that make a difference?
Well, my friend Kate Wolf once said. ‘find what you really care about and live a life that shows it’. So, whether it be early childhood education or cleaning up beaches, or any of the sustainability issues or social justice, get in touch with what really matters to you and then ensure that every day you do one thing. You can do two things if you want, but at least do one thing.

YES. Yes. Thank you for that.
Start looking at your life in relation to the issues that you really care about. Are you part of the solution or are you part of the problem? I just met with a young man who started a company to enable people to have sustainable lawns. Lawns turn out to be our third largest crop in this country. Equivalent to wheat. We pour onto lawns herbicides and pesticides and fertilizers and use a great deal of energy to mow them, and for what? This guy has a set of products that enables you to have a sustainable lawn. Things like microbials in with the grass, so now you don’t need fertilizer. It’s about having a healthy microbial soil, so now you don’t need to mow the lawn. It’s all about feeding the microbial community and to minimize carbon so your lawn can be a climate solution.

Incredible! What does he need to do to make it a reality? Or is it already?
Oh, he’s getting a company together to do all of this. You can go on his website and put in your address and calculates what kind of environment you are in and what your lawn needs.

Oh, that’s perfect, I was just thinking how he can make this information easy and convenient for everybody. That’s such a great example of my question earlier – the question of “I’m just one person, what can I possibly do?”
Each of us everyday vote with our dollars – are you spending them at certified corporations? Are you buying local? Do you know who is supplying what it is your buying? Is it locally owned? Hence the money that circulates. That’s a huge act.

And we live in the information age, so all of these questions can definitely be answered.
Again, it goes back to what you care about and are you living your life according to your values. A group of us helped this company called Change Finance, which demonetized impact investing, and so for the price of a pizza you can own and impact investment. We rang the bell on Wall Street last November, and we are finding that people are wildly excited by it. We were in a cab talking about the launch of the company and what not, and the cab driver goes, “What are you talking about?!” So we told him, and as soon as he dropped us off he got on his phone and bought our little EPS. It’s a financial product that is totally fossil fuel free. What’s your money doing while you are sleeping? If it’s in any normal investment, you are owning fossil companies, you are owning all the bad guys. You don’t have to be.

I look forward to diving into this a bit more! Thank you for all that you do – the choices you make and the life you live, they are just so incredible. This has been so overwhelmingly insightful having this conversation with you, and has made me think about my one thing I’m going to do today. That is share this with thousands of other people!
That matters!”

It does matter, thank you. And I’m grateful for all your tireless work and teachings.

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