Hunter Lovins: Ordinary People Can Drive Extraordinary Change

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Hunter Lovins: Ordinary People Can Drive Extraordinary Change

Renowned environmental activist reflects on the lessons she learned from her 35-year career at the forefront of the sustainability revolution
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We can all be change makers: L. Hunter Lovins shares lessons from her extraordinary career #NAEMForum @thegreentie

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016 - 9:00am

At next week's EHS and Sustainability Management Forum in Denver, L. Hunter Lovins will join more than 600 corporate leaders to discuss her personal journey from early environmental activist to influential advocate for systemic solutions to environmental challenges. We spoke with her this week to hear a little about her experiences and some of the lessons she has learned about what it takes to drive change.

NAEM: Who were some of your most influential mentors? Did they share any advice that has stayed with you?

Hunter Lovins: There's a difference between heroes and mentors. There are many people I look up to, respect and consider heroes. But a mentor is someone who takes you under their wing, takes the time to impart wisdom and life’s lessons. These are far rarer. I’ve been blessed to have several. When I was in third grade, I didn’t get on with school (a phenomenon I endured most years until I got to college). Back then, a woman named Ina Curry listened to my complaints, then opined: “Learn all that you can now, grow up, and change it all.” So I did. I’ve helped start a variety of schools, taught at many alternative schools, and have always remembered the sense of empowerment that regardless of how bad things are, suck it up, get through it, then change it.

Years later I was privileged to work with David Brower, our generation’s John Muir and Thoreau. Dave believed that reasonable people never changed anything. He was also fond of saying that if you have a positive bank balance you haven’t realized the urgency of the situation. Those positions did little to endear him to Boards of Directors. As the Executive Director of Sierra Club, he took out a full page ad in the New York Times to stop the Bureau of Reclamation from putting a dam across the Colorado River. He lost the Club its non-profit tax status, and got fired for it. He turned around and create Friends of the Earth. When the FoE Board fired him for borrowing to hire more young people to work to save the earth, he created Earth Island Institute.

Because of Dave, we still have the Grand Canyon. And many other wild places. And the world has more fighting environmental organizations. Those of us who learned from Dave call ourselves alumni of Dave Brower U. And we’re all still out there fighting for the planet and the living things on it. When the outfit I founded, the Rocky Mountain Institute fired me for saving it , I turned around and created Natural Capitalism Solutions.

NAEM: It can sometimes be lonely to be a pioneer, no matter the landscape. What was it like to be an early advocate for environmental sustainability? What were some of those early conversations like? What did you learn from those experiences?

Hunter Lovins: Exhilarating, maddening, frustrating and instructive. To know just how imperiled the planet is, how short the time is, how much we are losing, and to be unable to convince corporate executives to could make their companies part of the solution, when they believe that their only responsibility is to grow stock value so that they can retire with more valuable stock options is beyond exasperating.

But it is also instructive: it teaches you to get really good at framing a business case. I was once invited by some native Hawaiians to argue before the Hawaii Public Utility Commission that a particular diesel plant ought not get built. It was a lonely feeling: we were going to lose. The plant had already been permitted. But as I strode alone into a tiny high school cafeteria at the end of the road, the audience rose as one and cheered for me. Hat in hand, I argued that I was there not as the enemy of the utility, but to try to help it better understand opportunities to meet its obligations to its customers. Trying to build the plant could bankrupt the utility.

Somehow the Kahuna who had blessed me, and asked that the winds carry my words where they needed to be heard prevailed. The plant was cancelled. And I was advised that it’d be healthier if I didn’t come back to the Islands for a few years (the division of the utility that barged diesel around the islands was apparently not best pleased….)

When I did return, some years later, there were wind turbines on the West Maui Ridge and now the State has committed to go 100 percent renewable. I'm only one of hundreds of activists who deserve the credit, but I sure love watching those blades glistening in the sun as they elegantly power a finer future for the Islands.

NAEM: It seems like the tide is starting to turn toward sustainability, but we still have a long way to go. What are the changes you think we can achieve in the next 15-20 years?

Hunter Lovins: I believe, as does Tony Seba, Professor at Stanford, that the world will be 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. We are living in the midst of one of the profound transitions of human history: the triumph of the sun, and the death of fossil, as Michael Liebriech of Bloomberg New Energy declared back in 2015.  Jeremy Leggett is right when he says that his brilliant book Winning the Carbon War reads like an epic novel.  But he’s also right when he says that this opportunity could be lost. We’re in a horse race with catastrophe. As Maimonides said "Each person must see himself (herself) as though the entire world were held in balance and any deed he (she) may do could tip the scales.

Creating an economy in service to life is going to take the work of every one of us, every day. We have all of the technologies we need to solve all of the gnarly challenges facing us, but it will take excellent engineering and deployment to get it done. Creating a circular economy will unleash innovation and opportunity.

Sustainability is just better business.

We MUST make every energy-using device and facility as efficient as we can, as fast as we can. WE MUST deploy renewable energy as fast as we can. We MUST go carbon-free just as soon as we can. Then we have to start sucking it out of the air and putting it back into the soil using regenerative agriculture. We are going to have to transform every aspect of our society to implement an economy in service to life. This is a tremendously exciting time with opportunity for all, but we do need to get about it.

NAEM: As a leader of the environmental movement, you have a lot of influence over those you meet. NAEM members don't always enjoy that same level of visibility. What advice would you offer to those who are leading change within companies to help them gain influence in their organizations?

Hunter Lovins: The only reason I have only influence is that I insist on using it. I speak to anyone whomever will listen, but seek always to help them solve the problems that matter to them first. I talk to people where they are at, not where I am, listen first, then try to enlist their enthusiasm to co-create solutions. Every one of us, no matter our station in life, can always be helpful to another, showing them that we can do things in smarter, more efficient, more cost-effective ways that meet their needs, as we live a little more lightly on the earth, our only home. The more that you become the go-to person, the more you will be the person that people seek out, listen to and include in the important conversations. Just remember, always, what it is you stand for, and stay true to that.

Leadership is overrated. What really matters is doers. I often remind people of Tolkien’s story in the Lord of the Rings. We all seek a great leader. Like Gandalf. Gandalf said, “The rule of no realm is mine, but all worthy things that are in peril as the world now stands, those are my care. And for my part I shall not wholly fail of my task if anything passes through this night that can still grow fair and bear fruit and flower again in the days to come. For I too am a steward, did you not know?”

He wasn’t the CEO, or division manager. He was a simple wizard, made great by his travails, who saw himself as a steward. It’s not a bad maxim of leadership. But Gandalf also said of his hobbit protégé: "He believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. But that is not what I have found. I've found that it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keeps the darkness at bay: simple acts of kindness and love. I'm afraid and he gives me courage.”

Remember: in Tolkien’s story, it was the fun-loving, unassuming little hobbits who took on their shoulders the awesome task of meeting the menace to the world. They liked their second breakfastses. They wanted nothing but to return to their quiet lives in the lovely shire. They were scared, they didn’t know where they were going. But in the end, all the kings and warriors and wizards could just stand by as the little people saved the world.

Real leadership is extraordinary courage by ordinary people.

This little blue marble, Earth, hung in the vastness space, is the only place in all the known universe where there is life.

Will you protect it?

L. Hunter Lovins is President and Cofounder of Natural Capital Solutions. A renowned author and champion of sustainable development for more than 35 years, she believes that citizens, communities and companies working together within a market context are the most dynamic problem-solving force on the planet.

Keywords: Environment & Climate Change | EHS and Sustainability Management Forum | Hunter Lovins | National Association for Environmental Management (NAEM) | environmental sustainability | sustainability