Sunday, June 04, 2006


This is a never-before-published interview I conducted with Amory Lovins on the 4th July 1996. We met in the lobby of the Shell building in London on one of his whirlwind tours of the UK, a schedule crammed with meetings and appointments. A cross-town cab ride in torrential rain, in company with one of Lovin's aides, took us to Paddington Station for the train to Oxford which we both caught and on which I recorded this conversation.

JM: We use the term 'environmental technologies' as a umbrella concept to cover a wide range of tools and techniques. What do you think of the term?

AL: 'Environmental technology’ for many people means cleaning up what comes out of a pipe. In the new generation of environmental technologies, there is no pipe. Or as the architect Bill McDonough says, you take the filters out of the pipe and put them where they belong - in the designer's head so as to eliminate from the process everything you don't want to have to deal with and that shouldn't have been there in the first place. Another importance class of environmental technologies [are ones] that 1 think perhaps we oughtn't to call that - the very powerful new technologies for using all resources more productively; energy, water, materials, transport services. Technologies for elegant frugality, for doing more and better with much, much less.These are environmental in the sense that they prevent depletion at one end and pollution at the other and make a profit on both, and they usually provide a much superior service as well.But I am not sure that a hypercar with those qualities would be called an environmental technology; it has environmental benefits, but it's just a better car.

JM: What is the generic term you would use then?

AL: Well they might be called Green technologies but I think they are simply the way most technologies are going to be because they work better and cost less than, if you like, the 'brown' technologies that were based on a large throughput of resources from depletion to pollution whilst delivering a rather modest amount of an indifferent service. Typically, the technologies I have in mind have a much higher ratio of intelligence to mass than the old ones. There is not much to them materially - just enough to do the job -but a great deal of intelligence, and indeed wisdom, in the design. Typically [this is] learnt from nature, using nature as model and mentor rather than as a nuisance to be evaded. These technologies are not necessarily physical artefacts. They may be ways of designing a business. They may be ways of doing farming and forestry. They can be technique or concept or structure, not simply an object.

Let me give a few examples regarding ways of designing a business. Ray Anderson, chairman of Interface, a carpet company with about 2/5 ths of the commercial broadloom carpet market in the United States, had the nice idea that rather than selling rolls of carpet, he would lease floor covering services. Now currently if you maintain an office, you probably have to shut it down about every seven years to take up the carpet because it has got worn spots, stains or whatever. You take it out, take it to the landfill, put down a new one, get poisoned by the carpet glue in the air and then move back into the office - well, move back in and then get poisoned. What happens instead with his evergreen lease concept is that you lay down carpet tiles, which look the same, but 80 or 90 per cent of the wear is on only 10 or 20per cent of the tiles. So twice a year, little elves come in at night change the worn tiles to fresh ones. You therefore always maintain a fresh-looking carpet but you need not tear up the office to do it or disrupt your operations. Nothing goes to the landfill because the old carpet tiles are taken back to the works and remade into new ones. So the throughput of resources goes down close to a hundred fold, when you are through closing that loop, and not a drop a oil will end up getting used in the process, except initially for transport. Yet it is a much cheaper service to provide and to purchase, everybody makes more money on it and it looks better and works better.

Bill McDonough who I mentioned earlier, was asked by Steelcase, the largest US maker of office furniture, to design a textile to go on the backs of office chairs. He said: 'Alright, I'll design it, if you'll allow me also to design the production process.' They innocently agreed. So he started digging into the chemistry of dying cloth because he found that the present way they made the textiles in Switzerland, ended up with edge-trimmings treated as hazardous waste. Well what does that tell you about the middle of the cloth that you're sitting on. The first couple of dozen dye-stuff companies wouldn't let him in the door, but finally the chairman of Ciba-Geigy said 'Ok, you can come look at our dye-stuff chemistry.' He looked at three or four thousand dying chemicals and screened out any that caused cancer, mutation, birth defects, or were persistently toxic or bio-accumulative, or endocrine disruptors. Out of those six screens emerged 37 chemicals out of which he could make every colour except, initially, black. It would look better, the cloth would last longer and feel better because it wasn't being damaged by the harsh chemicals, and it turned out to be cheaper to produce with these safe chemicals because you needn't worry about poisoning either the workers or the environment.
So very costly processes of environmental and work­place health and safety compliance, toxic waste disposal and so on, simply disappear by putting the filters in the designer's head. Now this must give the companies that make dying chemicals a great deal to think about.

We are seeing this shift to inherently safe ingredients, processes and products. To things that last longer. To things that can be made with little or no wasted material, with closed materials loops, with re-cycling, re-manufacturing and repair. Shifting from selling products to leasing services. We're seeing all of these rapidly emerge in a wide range of fields. Carrier, the world's largest maker of air-conditioning equipment, is shifting from selling 'chillers' to leasing cooling services. Schindler, a Swiss lift company [Ed: Currently the world's second largest], makes most of it's money not from selling lifts but from leasing vertical transportation services. The list goes on like this. We have many companies now that don't sell industrial solvents, which then become a very costly hazardous waste disposal issue, but rather they lease dissolving services.When you're through using the solvent you give it back to them. They own it all the time. They are responsible for it. They purify it and lease it out to the next customer.

Now that's therefore a set of examples, and there are many more, of a 'green revolution' in the design of businesses. This goes well beyond the usual concepts of say waste reduction, for example. Ray Anderson again has the concept, which is fairly conventional, of defining waste as any measurable input which does not contribute to customer value. He then, however, goes a step further and sets a zero-base waste budget- every measurable input is presumed waste until shown otherwise. That's a much stronger discipline in figuring out why are we using this stuff? Do we really need it to do the job right?'

Similarly there are new ways of designing farming and forestry systems. At present, a lot of chemicalised farming treats soil like dirt rather than like a biotic community, and seeks to substitute rather costly mechanical and chemical inputs for free ecological services, that actually are much more effective - as well as free - if properly looked after. We are finding that organic techniques are: at least as profitable, often more consistently profitable; more resilient in the face of weather, market and other surprises; more atention intensive - you need more eyes per acre to make it work right; much more supportive of family and community; less hazardous to people, animals, water, soil; and produce more healthy and nourishing food.
Similarly sustainable forestry practices are emerging as a good deal more profitable than the conventional extractive techniques where you can't see the forest for the board- feet. They offer astounding economic leverage because only a tiny fraction of the value of the forest is in the wood. Most of it is in other services provided, such as watersheds, well stabilisation, bio-diversity, recreation and so on, even aesthetic and spritual values.

Now, it is in the realm of technical devices and artefacts that the technological revolution becomes so dramatic in its economic and social as well as its environmental values. The Hypercar [is an] example. [This] is our term for ultra-light hybrid-electric cars. They can be sportier, safer, more refined, more beautiful, adorable and comfortable than present cars. [They] probably cost less to produce, use about 80 to 95 per cent less fuel, produce one per cent or a tenth of a per cent as much pollution and offer decisive competitive advantages to it's manufacturers, as well as the marketing advantages of simply being a superior car. It does not of course solve the problems of too many people driving too many kilometers in too many cars and may make them worse by making driving even cheaper and more attractive. But, I think, I would rather run out of roads and patience than out of air and oil first. And we ought not to run out of either because we ought to have real competition amongst all ways of getting around or not needing to. For example, being already where you want to be so you needn't go somewhere else. That means good land use as well as good telecommunications.
And non-motorised mobility options. 'All those that believe in individual mass transit-raise your right foot', as Dave Brower says. The Hypercar is heading rapidly to market. We are expecting it late this decade. For purely competitive reasons, [it has been developed] without help from any government mandate, subsidy or tax policy.

The same technological revolution that permits this sort of leapfrog, with better peformance and lower costs, is occurring in many other areas. For example, we have recently done experimental houses, in temperatures ranging from -44°C to +46° C , which is a range of 90 Celsius degrees. Houses that require however no heating or cooling equipment cost less to build and are more comfortable to be in. We recently had a design for retrofitting, that is improving, the air conditioning system of our California office, with only three per cent of the original air-conditioning energy use. This 97 per cent saving actually made the building more comfortable. We recently analysed a way to retrofit an existing twenty-year-old giant glass office tower in a way that would save three-quarters of its energy, greatly improve comfort and amenity, and pay for itself in minus five to plus nine months. As it was twenty years old, you had to renovate it anyway for other reasons, like age and CFC's. Renovating it to quadruple its efficiency and make it work and look better would cost essentially the same as simply replacing what was already there.

There are many, many examples from motors, lights, office equipment, household appliances, building envelopes - all of these technical sectors. Even industrial production equipment, where two-fold to ten-fold efficiency improvements can be made. These improvements are highly profitable and can improve function and service quality.

JM: My understanding of what you do is that you spend a great deal of your time travelling the world convincing governments and institutions about the nature of these possibilities.?

AL: Yes, and even more time working with the private sector to implement them. We feel that the main centres of action now are in corporations and communities as well as individuals. We place much less emphasis on governments.

JM: Why is that then?

AL: Governments are necessary and good at certain things but stopping up the cracks round my window is not one of them. I think governments should steer not row. It is important to have government, amongst other things, to get the rules right. We ought to be rewarding architects and engineers for what they save and not what they spend, and correcting the other perverse incentives that afflict all 25 or so parties in the real estate value trade, who are systematically rewarded for inefficiency and penalised for efficiency. So, guess what, we get a huge stock of immediately obsolete buildings. We are starting to understand what are the market failures in buying resource efficiency and how to correct them by tweaking the trim tabs to help the market move properly. So, I think government has a very important role of that sort and can use market forces a great deal more creatively than has been done so far. A small example. Rather than primarily relying upon building standards, useful though they are, as a floor for performance, one ought to have a sliding-scale connection fee. When you connect your building to the grid, if it's efficient, you get a rebate; if it's inefficient, you pay a fee. How good or bad it is determines the size of the rebate or fee, and the fees pay for the rebates, so it's revenue neutral. This motivates continuous improvement, whereas building standards are obsolete before the ink is dry and there's no incentive to do better. You could do the same thing for cars; to get good cars on the road and bad cars off the road faster, by having this sort of debate. It transfers well from those whose inefficient choices impose social costs to those whose efficient choices save social costs. I am very excited by the speed of change and the quality of much upper-management now in the private sector and also, I might add, in the military services, where I've been working lately. There are some astonishingly
decisive and exciting managers there who know how to lead, not simple to manage. Forexample, we have been overhauling how the US Navy designs buildings and procures design services and equipment for buildings. I can't imagine, even though we have worked with some excellent companies, a private sector firm that would move as quickly and as well as they did in that instance.

JM: So how are you viewed in the US as an institute? Where do you fit into the general scheme of things?

AL: I think we have earned a certain amount of respect for foresight and using advanced technologies and market forces in a creative fashion to work better. We don't lobby. We don't litigate. We're not an environmental group but what we do has important environmental benefits and we talk to everybody. We are completely trans-ideological, non-partisan, non-sectarian, and well known for saying what we think.

JM: So what change have you noticed, say in the last five years?

AL: Very rapid and impressive rise in interest and activity in the private sector towards the same ends.
There's now a whole generation coming up of visionary green CPO's, who are leading major companies in quite unexpected, extremely interesting and constructive directions. We have long felt that the private sector is probably the most important source of constructive action on the world's major issues because it alone has the resources, skills, agililty and organisation to get difficult things done fairly quickly. It certainly has the motivation because it is turning out to be so much cheaper to save resources than to consume or produce them. Resource productivity or resource efficiency is not a panacea, but it is certainly a very powerful tool, perhaps the most powerful we know, for slowing down depletion and pollution.

No comments: