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Discovering Amory Lovins

Discover magazine has a short (two-page) but terrific interview with Amory Lovins (of Rocky Mountain Institute and Winning the Oil Endgame fame). The article has Lovins talking about his favorite subject, energy, covering subjects like the relationship between weight and efficiency, the utility of plastic resins over steel, why the Pentagon should matter to environmentalists, and just how he's managed to grow bananas in Colorado (the picture on page 2 of the interview, of Lovins holding next to a solar panel while eating a banana, is worth checking out). My favorite bit, however, has to be his beginning comment:

When I give talks about energy, the audience already knows about the problems. That's not what they've come to hear. So I don't talk about problems, only solutions. But after a while, during the question period, someone in the back will get up and give a long riff about all the bad things that are happening—most of which are basically true. There's only one way I've found to deal with that. After this person calms down, I gently ask whether feeling that way makes him more effective.

As René Dubos, the famous biologist, once said, "Despair is a sin."

Comments (8)


Amory's amazing.

The interview with Amory should be linked to the debate about nuclear power recently posted here.

If we keep asking ourselves why? why? why? we want certain things, and ask ourselves what? what? what? is the next most sensible thing to do, we may find that we've solved the CO2 problem without needing nuclear after all.

That is, first, focus on energy services - not energy sources - and second, keep doing the most effective and profitable next thing. Know what you really want and keep doing the thing that makes the most sense to do next.

It takes a genius like Amory to make a tangled problem so clear and straightforward.

Despair may be a sin, but truth-telling isn't. I'm sure that people who go to hear (my hero) Amory Lovins already know about the downsides, but ... my neighbors don't. I just had a conversation with the really nice guy who sells me my car insurance. He doesn't really know if global warming is something to worry about, and he's heard that organic food can make you sick (the manure they use!).

I'm wrestling with this, because *how* to tell the truth at a time when the truth is almost unbearable is a really hard question.


I adore Amory Lovins. Easily one of the most brilliant and effective people out there. I saw him speak once, and it was inspiring. But quite a bit has changed in my understanding of the world's predicament since then, and were I to see him speak again I'd probably be one of those people asking about problems. And were he to ask me if I thought that made me more effective I'd say yes. Yes, despair is a sin, absolutely. But responsive, thoughtful pessimism can be very effective indeed.


Phil, I've been rolling that same thought around in my head since Friday. I think I may have discovered the book I actually want to write: Joe Sixpack's Guide to The Coming Disaster. It sounds like a joke, but really, I mean it.

I believe that most people will tend to make conservative, self interested choices and try to husband their resources carefully. Oh, they'll stop to help a stranger on the road (or at least they think they would) but they tend to support bootstrapping and self-sufficiency--they tend to think problems are personal and they are often blind to the extent to which problems and solutions really are shared and part of the commons.

At the same time, most people also want someone to tell them the truth and deal straight with them. But they want things to be simple and understandable. They don't see the world in nuanced shades, but in terms of right and wrong.

So, they'll gravitate towards simple answers that support their basic conservatism and self interested/self-sufficient view. The kind of answers that the energy industry is all too happy to provide and which The Righteous and Truthful (ahem...that would be us) have been very poor at providing. Any answer that starts out with "well, it's not so simple..." is dead on arrival.

So why would Joe Sixpack buy this book? First, I would write it in an entertaining way so he'd be charmed and amused (while I explain exactly how bad things could get if things don't change). Well, that's what I intend to do, anyway. But really, the reason is that I think there is a growing awareness in the general population that the government and the industry groups are lying. Joe Sixpack may hear from the powers that be that the basement is not flooding, but Joe Sixpack also knows what wet ankles feel like. I can sum it up in two words: "New" and "Orleans."

I think the answer to Phil's question (How to Tell The Truth?) is the old saw about eating an elephant: many small bites. If the bites are engaging, then before you know it the elephant is history. The problem is complicated but the explanation need not be.

I have not seen any interest anywhere else in a project like that. People don't want to dialog with Joe. He's got bad manners. He lives in a Red State. He drives a truck. A big, filthy, gas guzzling truck. He's the farging problem, isn't he?

Yes. That's why we really need to dialog with Joe. Only we won't call it "dialoging" because that word ain't in Joe's vocabulary. Look, Joe wants to know the truth. Joe is not the enemy. If Joe is your enemy, then you're pretty much doomed because Joe (in China, he's just "Jo", and in Mexico he's "Jose") outnumbers you by millions.

No, it's Big Fat Lies that are the enemy. Tell Joe the truth in a way that he can get it and Joe will find a way to get involved on the side of the good. Believe in Joe.


Oh, hey, before I got on the soapbox, I wanted to ask: when are the farging car manufacturers going to get it about materials? Lovins trots out these new plastics and they sound so wonderful. But how do we get them into use? It's enough to make you paranoid--this makes so much sense that They must be doing something to prevent this from getting into production.

So clue me in, someone. Is it just intransigence (i.e. industrial investment in existing technology and unwillingness to change) or are they afraid that people won't buy lighter cars because we believe Heavy Equals Safe?

I look at the press releases about Ford and GM I hope that maybe sufficient desperation in the American car business will get them to embrace real change. Yes, I know, pollyanna all the way, that's me.

Bjorn van der Meer:

Lovins: "Germany and Spain each install over 2,000 megawatts of wind power every year. That figure exceeds the average global net addition of nuclear power every year in this decade. Denmark is now one-fifth wind powered; Germany, about a tenth."

Interesting numbers. About 1-3.9% (depending on your sources) of primary energy sourcing in Germany was renewable Q1-3 2005. If we are only looking at electricity is it about 10%. But that does include Water, Biomass and Sun. Wind is about 6 % of electrical generation.

Germany is definitely not "one tenth windpowered". Yet.

Cheers B.


It would be good for WC to have a debate about Lovins. Is he right? Could we really kick the oil habit in the way he says?

I have been a fan of his from the beginning, when he was just a wrinkle-suited nerd among stuffed shirts; always he makes sense to me, but I remain puzzled by how little he seems to be listened to by the powers that be- or discussed by such folks as you-all.

If I have any money when I go, he's gonna get it, for the simple reason that he is doing what I want done.


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