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Loaves and Fishes: An Interview with Amory Lovins

Susan Witt:  Would you tell us what you think is the most pressing problem facing the environment over the next ten years?

Amory Lovins:  The next ten years are the prelimaries for our species’ final exams, in which we discover whether this bold evolutionary experiment of combining a large forebrain with opposable thumbs was really a good idea.  Practically, that means: can we get our act together enough to do what we know how to do to solve our environmental problems or, better still, eliminate and avoid those problems, not at a cost but at a profit, in a way that is trans-ideological, attractive to everybody, and with no, or hardly any, losers?

But as Edwin Land (inventor of the Polaroid camera) said, in order to have a new idea we need to stop having an old idea—for example, “Protecting the climate is costly,” when actually it is profitable because efficiency is cheaper than fuel; or “We ought to be emitting less pollution,” when what we ought to be doing is calling our wastes and emissions “unsaleable production” and designing them out completely, because we don’t want to go out of business making things nobody wants; or “The more resources we save, the more expensive it gets until it is too expensive and we have to stop,” when actually we know how to design in an integrative fashion that makes very large resource savings cost less than small or no savings.

The prescription for what we need to do is in a book Paul Hawken, Hunter Lovins, and I wrote called Natural Capitalism (  It’s about a way of doing business as if nature and people were properly valued but without needing to know or signal what they are worth. In fact, natural capitalism is very profitable right now, even today when nature and people are valued at roughly zero.  It combines radically improved resource productivity; production redesigned on biological lines with closed loops, no waste, and no toxicity; a “solution economy” business model that rewards those two changes; and then re-investing the profits in the kind of capital we are shortest of, namely natural capital.  The hundreds of companies that are starting to do this are realizing stunning competitive advantage.  This idea is spreading rather rapidly in the business community. And business, unlike many of our other institutions, really has what it takes to solve tough problems quickly.

So I think there are many good things going on, but it is still a race.  The late Donella Meadows was asked whether we have enough time to turn around our destructive treatment of the environment, and she said, “We have exactly enough time, starting now.”  She was right, but we need to use the time very well.  I am encouraged that the search for intelligent life on earth is starting to turn up promising specimens, but we need to get organized quickly to do what we know how to do and haven’t yet gotten around to doing widely enough.


Susan Witt:  Are you optimistic or pessimistic about the future and if optimistic, based on what?

Amory Lovins:  Dave Brower said that optimism and pessimism are different forms of the same irresponsible surrender to something close to simple-mindedness—I forget exactly the word he used. Optimism and pessimism are both, I think, rather odd attitudes because they treat the future as fate rather than choice.  I think we have learned over the past few decades, if not millennia, that the future is choice. We can create it, and we can do so very flexibly.

James Branch Cabell said, “The optimist proclaims we live in the best of all possible worlds; the pessimist fears this is true.”  I don’t find these terribly useful categories, but I think that there is a lot to make us focus on the glass being at least half-full and filling up rather than being half-empty.

Of course, there are many bad things happening, many of which will go on happening, and there is a lot of suffering in the universe.  But one of the many reasons for being rather sanguine that we may actually get out of this mostly in one piece is that brains, as Gifford and Libba Pinchot remark, “are evenly distributed, one per person.” Most of the people, therefore, with most of the brains, are not rich white folks, especially not rich white men. They are mostly women, poor people, and people of the South, who are now starting to have a voice in the global conversation.

As we see the beginnings of a global nervous system, a lot of really good ideas are coming from those previously disenfranchised people.  One of my favorite examples comes from Curitiba, Brazil, a city the size of Houston or Philadelphia. It has quadrupled its population in twenty years, and its per-capita city budget is fifteen times smaller than that of Detroit, yet it’s one of the world’s great cities­—by design. Its brilliant design process, run largely by architects and by women, treats its formidable social, ecological, and economic needs not as competing priorities to be traded off but as integrated design elements with synergies to be captured.  This illustrates, at the level of designing a city or a society, the same entrepreneurship and the same principles of natural capitalism that we are also seeing more and more carried out at the level of an industrial process, a product design, a market strategy, a company, or a whole industrial sector. And, again, it is taking place because it works better, it costs less, it makes more money, it gives you happier customers and happier workers, it’s a lot more fun.

At Rocky Mountain Institute we are working now with the owners of upwards of ten of the world’s top fifty brand names.  Without any marketing, these corporations come to us, liking our approach of working with early-adopting companies to make them such conspicuously successful natural capitalists that their rivals will have to follow suit or lose share.  And many of those companies are bringing us, at their highest levels, business strategies so radical that you’d think they were written by Greenpeace activists, only more so.  They will make more money that way, they will have more fun, everything will work better.

I think the other main reason for focusing on the good news, of which there is a great deal, is that the more we think about the positive and the more we get inspired by it, the more likely we are to emulate and spread it.  Occasionally, when I am giving a talk on all the great things that are going on and how we can do more of them, somebody gets up in the question period and says: “Yes, but the world’s going to hell in a handbasket.  Look at all these dreadful things that are happening.”  I am perfectly well aware of all that, so I let this person talk for a while until he or she starts to run down and then I say, “Well, does feeling this way make you more effective?”

René Dubois said despair is a sin, and I think concentrating on the things that are going wrong, and thereby putting ourselves in such a frame of mind that we can’t do things right, is not an appropriate response.  MullahNasruddinwas once asked which is more valuable, the moon or the sun.  He answered, “The moon, of course.”  “Why is that, Great Mullah?”  “Because it shines at night when we need the light more.”  I bless and praise those who shine at night, and I am really glad that many concerned and responsible people are working to stop the destruction, but I think it’s also important that we not focus on the bad stuff so much that we forget to do the good stuff that will turn it around.  I think if we all put our shoulders to the wheel, we will pop ourselves out of the mud pretty fast and look back on this and wonder what the fuss was about.


Susan Witt:  Please describe your own work and how it is addressing the environmental concerns you describe.

Amory Lovins:  I work with over fifty people at Rocky Mountain Institute. You’ll find us on the web at  We try to foster the efficient and restorative use of resources to make the world secure, prosperous, and life-sustaining.  We do this in a rather unconventional way, often using competitive business strategies to do our outreach.  We are also rather entrepreneurial.  We earn over half our revenue, mainly by consulting for the private sector.  By the way, because they pay us for it, they pay more attention to the results.  We have also had four for-profit spin-offs.  Whenever something gets to the point where it will work better as a for-profit, we tend to hive it off, like calving an iceberg, and then use the freed-up desk, budget, and attention to do the next big thing.

The areas that we have traditionally worked on are advanced energy, water, and transport efficiency; natural capitalism, which is an overarching theme for most of our work, and other business innovations; sustainable farming and forestry; a bit on genomics; green real estate development; local economic development; profitable climate protection; global security; and how they are all connected.

The connections turn out to be crucial.  In Borneo in the fifties, the Dayak people had malaria.  The World Health Organization had a solution: they would spray DDT all over, which they did.  The DDT killed the mosquitoes, and the malaria declined; so far, so good.  But of course, there were side effects.  The roofs of the houses, for example, started to fall down on people’s heads, because the DDT had also killed tiny parasitic wasps, which had previously controlled the thatch-eating caterpillars, which then proliferated and munched up the thatching.  Then the colonial government solved that problem by giving people tin roofs, but folks were driven nuts by lack of sleep because of the noise of the tropical rain on the tin roofs at night.  Meanwhile, among other problems, the DDT-poisoned bugs were quietly being eaten by geckos, little lizardy critters, and they in turn were eaten by cats, so the DDT built up in the food chain and killed the cats.  Without the cats, the rats flourished and multiplied, and soon the World Health Organization was threatened by potential outbreaks of typhus and sylvaticplague.  It was therefore obliged to parachute 14,000 live cats into Borneo—”Operation Cat Drop,” courtesy of the British Royal Air Force out of Singapore.

This shows nicely that if we don’t understand how things are connected, quite often the cause of problems is solutions.  What we try to do at Rocky Mountain Institute is understand and harness the hidden connections so that the cause of solutions is solutions.  Then we can solve—or better still, avoid—a problem in a way that solves or avoids lots of other problems at the same time, without making new ones so that somebody has to parachute cats.

Our work is very diverse.  At the moment we are helping put together a bipartisan consensus energy policy.  We are helping the Navy and some UN agencies redesign refugee camps from scratch on biological lines.  It is a kind of loaves and fishes problem:  How do you deal with a million people who just showed up and make them, along with those already living there, all better off at small and declining costs and improve the environment and make it such a success that even if the refugees never could go home again, it would be okay and they would really like to stay there?

We have been helping the military figure out how not to waste fuel, because the Defense Department is the biggest oil user in the world and shouldn’t be.  Of course, we also have other ideas on how to be safe and feel safe in ways that work better and cost less than present arrangements.  We are working with a wide range of companies around the world to implement radical resource efficiency and thereby protect the climate at a profit.  We are continuing to push the frontiers of green real estate design, finding that the same integrative design that makes green buildings more pleasant, comfortable, and productive to be in, as well as very friendly to the environment, also happens to give them better market and financial performance.  We are developing new Web-based tools for sustainable local economic development.

The list goes on and on.  We are even thinking about the human dimensions of natural capitalism and how to re-invest in culture and community and how this relates to the issues of trade and globalization.  What can we learn about genomics, particularly from some other troublesome technologies we have dealt with before like nuclear power?

I think this work is attracting more and more adherents across the whole political spectrum and especially in the private sector because it makes sense and makes money.  It is quite trans-ideological, and we are of course non-partisan and work with everybody.  We are also non-adversarial.  We try not to tell people they are wrong; we honor their beliefs as we would our own, even if we disagree with them.  This is an art that might be called aikido politics, where you don’t fight with an opponent, you dance with a partner.  You are committed to process, not outcome, in the belief that from a good process will emerge a better outcome than anyone had in mind in the first place.  And then, of course, if that good outcome emerges, as it generally does, your job is to make sure that whoever needs to take credit for it will do so, whether deservedly or not.

In the Tao Te Ching there is a remark about water: “That that which is of all things most yielding can overcome that which is most hard is a fact known by all but used by none.  Being substanceless, it can enter in even where there are no cracks.”  We need to use the same subtly effective approach in dealing with conflict and diverse ideas about what ought to be done.

I think, finally, of a poem by David Whyte, which is the frontispiece of Natural Capitalism.  It is called Loaves and Fishes.  

This is not the age of information.
This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time
of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

Publication By

Amory B. Lovins

Amory B. Lovins, a 1993 MacArthur Fellow, is a consultant physicist and environmental scientist who advocates and analyses efficient energy use and “soft energy paths”– technologies based on solar, wind, biofuels, geothermal, etc. that are commensurate with their task. Lovins has advised the energy and other industries as well as the U.S. Departments of Energy … Continued

Susan Witt

Susan Witt is the Executive Director of the Schumacher Center for a New Economics, which she co-founded with Robert Swann in 1980. She has led the development of the Schumacher Center’s highly regarded publications, library, seminars, and other educational programs, which established the Center as a pioneering voice for an economics shaped by social and ecological principles. Deeply engaged … Continued

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