The TH Interview: L. Hunter Lovins

L. Hunter Lovins is perhaps best known for her work as co-founder and CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute, an internationally recognized research center, widely celebrated for its innovative thinking in energy and resource issues. She has also co-authored dozens of papers and nine books, including the landmark work, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, which has helped to bring the concepts of "natural capital" and Natural Capitalism into mainstream business thinking through her company, Natural Capitalism Solutions.

Her areas of interest and expertise include Natural Capitalism, globalization, governance, land management, energy, water, green real-estate development, and community economic development.

In 2001, Hunter was named one of four people from North America to serve as a delegate to the United Nations Prep Conference for Europe and North America for the World Summit on Sustainable Development. She was also a Commissioner in the State of the World Forum's Commission on Globalization, co-chaired by Mikhail Gorbachev, Jane Goodall, and Vandana Shiva.

She has consulted for governments and the private sector, briefing senior management at Interface Inc., Bank of America, Allstate, Royal Dutch/Shell and many other companies, as well as the World Bank & International Monetary Fund. She holds a J.D. degree from Loyola University and several honorary doctorates. In 2000, she was named a Hero of the Planet by Time Magazine.

She is currently the president and founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, Inc. as well as a Professor of Sustainability at the Presidio School of Management - the first accredited MBA program in Sustainable Management.

In the first half of this two-part interview, Hunter talks a bit about her current international work promoting and implementing sustainability around the world.Hunter, thank you for taking the time to talk with us. Much of your work has been followed closely by many of us treehuggers, but I understand that you've lately been doing more international work. What kinds of things are you working on in this realm?

The work that I do around the world, particularly in developing countries, is primarily focused on showing how meeting basic human needs using the world's best practices in sustainable technology can leverage the creation of real jobs and real businesses that lead to genuine economic progress for even the most marginal of peoples.

And I understand you are creating a framework for this that might be more broadly adopted?

Yes, right now we are developing a very cool project that will work both domestically and internationally, called LASER: Local Action for Sustainable Economic Renewal, which pulls together much of the work that I've done over the last thirty years surrounding this question: How do you enable small, primarily rural communities, to create sustainable economies, to do it themselves, and to have the economies be strong at a local level, not just a piece of a global economy where they have no control over themselves?

And, we're combining that body of work with the work we've been doing in Afghanistan and other developing countries: using best practices in sustainable technologies to meet basic human needs. We're combining all of that work with some work by a wonderful woman named Gwen Hallsmith, who wrote a manual on how to implement the UN's Earth Charter, and a book called "The Key to Sustainable Cities: Meeting Human Needs, Transforming Community Systems." She works mostly with cities around sustainability issues, teaching them how to mobilize to achieve this sort of thing.

We're combining her process with our content, and writing a manual for how people can do this in their own communities. With any luck, we'll have gotten the funding to do that, working in conjunction with a center for sustainability and health and healing, called Deep Lake, being built in Michigan.

LASER is going to pull together lots of groups with different core skill sets in order to create effective programs. As soon as we have the manual written, we will post the entire thing to the web. This is not going to be a proprietary tool that we will then try to sell to people, but an open-source toolkit that we are offering to the world.

It seems clear that you see local economic development as intimately tied to sustainable development; can you tell us a little bit more about that?

Yes. There's the old saw, you can have either protection of the environment or you can have economic development. You can have social betterment, or you can have jobs. I think it's important, if we want to achieve a sustainable world in the time frame in which we simply must do so, to show people that these goals are not mutually exclusive, but that they actually support each other. Behaving in sustainable ways is one of the best ways to create businesses, jobs, and economic vitality. The LASER manual will show people how to do that for their own communities.

I understand that you've been spending a lot of time in Afghanistan, it seems like quite a trial by fire for sustainable development models. Is sustainability on people's minds in Afghanistan? How can embracing sustainability help Afghans emerge from their current situation?

Sustainability is on people's minds. I've been trekking over there and talking about it with anybody who will listen, whether it be the Head of Country for the World Bank, or the Asian Development Bank, or the other donor agencies. I've also been meeting with the Afghan ministers: the commerce minister, the foreign minister, the economic adviser to the president, the minister of industry and mines, the minister of energy, and also with the various NGOs that are working there.

In what ways do you try to convey this message?

The last time I went, I hand-carried a manual on how to home-make biodiesel to the man who is working on the World Bank Alternative Livelihoods Program. And this is a good example of (1) why it's so important, and (2) one of the ways we can get this done.

The economy of Afghanistan is between 60-80% dependent on the growing of opium poppies. I imagine much of the rest is donor dollars.

You and I, and the rest of the American taxpayers, in the last 5 months, spent $80 million buying diesel from Pakistan just to run the North Kabul power plant, which, even when it's working well, provides electricity something like one night out of three for the city of Kabul.

Once you get outside of Kabul, when it gets dark, it gets real dark-- unless you have a diesel generator. A lot of the rest of the aid money goes to enable people to buy diesel to run those things. So of course, the air quality in Kabul is like going into the Pits of Mordor. You can see the pollution in the air, just hanging there.

What they're doing now for energy is incredibly unsustainable in just about every way: economically, environmentally, and, from a health standpoint. And, just about everybody acknowledges that if Afghanistan doesn't come to grips with the drug problem, it is already, or it will soon become, a narco-terrorist state. Any hopes of democracy will evaporate, the warlords will take control again, and we'll be fighting an endless insurgency.
Instead of our tax dollars paying for soldiers to go out and eradicate poppy fields, and at the same time having our tax dollars go toward buying diesel fuel from Pakistan, how about we help the farmers learn to grow the oil crops to make biodiesel, so that we create jobs, economic vitality, flow of value through the economy, get the economy off of drugs, and create a sustainable way of meeting peoples needs for energy, all at once?

By hand carrying that manual, I helped to show that the technology exists, and that this is something that the people can do now. Last I heard, based on that interaction, a woman there has created a program to do exactly that as part of the World Bank's Alternative Livelihoods Program. It really is gratifying to have that kind of direct impact on future of a country.

Afghanistan basically has to rebuild everything. Another one of the books that we sent was the book that I helped write on green development. Traditional Afghan building technology, if a bit of energy efficiency were introduced, such as tightening up the doors and window seals, and the concept of passive solar, would pretty much keep occupants comfortable with no inputs of diesel or wood for heating.

One time when I was there I met with a woman who was the architect, trying to convince USAID to build energy efficient clinics. They're supposed to build forty clinics around the country. They've built one or two. They're stick-built western style buildings with no heating in a climate that gets extremely cold in the winter. No considerations for passive solar heating. In one of the clinics the doctor borrowed a diesel generator, but of course didn't have any money to buy diesel. This is bad for the Afghans. It is also a waste of American taxpayer's money. We know better ways to build buildings.


Do you believe that economic development can go hand in hand with sustainable development?

Yes, and this is a critical point. We know how to meet people's needs for energy, for water, for housing, for sanitation, and for transportation, with much more sustainable technologies than are traditionally brought by development agencies.

Most of what is called development around the world is really donor nation dollars hiring donor nation contractors to deliver last century's technologies, in such a way that the jobs and the economic benefit go right back to the originating donor country.

And when the dollars, the contractors, and the programs leave, the people in Afghanistan, or Africa, or wherever the so-called "development" is being done, are no better off than they were. If anything, they're worse off: perhaps building a massive coal plant for which they've taken foreign debt; or put in some piece of infrastructure that they don't really know how to run, that isn't creating local jobs, and isn't meeting local needs. And, everybody's wasted a lot of money and time. We can do a lot better than that.

The work that I do in Afghanistan is, first of all, conveying information about what's possible: what the best technologies are from around the world, putting people together, networking, and, in many cases, simply hand-carrying in the reference materials.

We recently shipped a whole library of books on renewable energy and energy efficiency, and they're going into the library of the new Center for Renewable Energy, which arose, in part, because of a conversation with the incoming Energy Minister, which is another story in and of itself. . .

And what is that story?

Here again, it's an example of what's possible in an emerging country.

I had thought that a friend of mine was going to be named energy minister. He was not. Instead, a man named Ishmael Khan, who is said to be a warlord was named to the post. I said to my Afghan friends, "Well, I guess I'd better talk to the guy."

Nine o'clock one night I got a call from a friend, Rosebeh Shure, who said, "If you still want to meet with Ishmael Khan, I can make it happen. We need to leave right now, and it will only be for five minutes."

So, off we go into the night, (which, as a westerner, you're not supposed to do) and drove across town. We arrived and were searched at gunpoint, an AK-47 pointed at my belly, and then we were shown into a small room, actually, an amazingly simple room for a man who is said to be a warlord. Inside the room sat an older gentleman. My first thought was, "He has kind eyes."

We went through the normal Afghan hospitality of raisins, almonds, and tea, and then he looked at me, and I figured, "Well, I've got five minutes."

So, I launched into a talk similar to one I've given many times there, saying that he has the opportunity of a life-time. If he's going to rebuild the infrastructure of Afghanistan from scratch, how about doing it right the first time?
I asked if I could show him some pictures. He nodded. hauled out my laptop, propped it on my knees. He sat beside me and together we looked at pictures of what the best communities and companies are doing around the world: what Sacramento and Germany have done with wind and solar, and other programs in communities around the world created to use energy more efficiently.

I described why these are cheaper and better as a way of meeting human needs. Forty-five minutes later I was still talking, and it occurred to me I ought to shut up. So I thanked him. He asked me some questions, and then he asked me if I would advise his ministry. I told him that I would be deeply honored, but begged him to tell me if anything that I might say seemed to him to be wrong. "These are decisions," I said, " that should be made by Afghans." He smiled and said that this was the only basis for a friendship. Shortly after that that I heard that a new Center for Renewable Energy had been created. So that's where the books, donated by Solar Energy International, are going.


Are there other more focused educational initiatives there?

Yes, I also spokewith the Dean of Engineering at the University of Kabul. My friend Bernard Amadei's marvelous organization, Engineers Without Borders. He managed to talk the University of Colorado's entire engineering curriculum on DVD. We've got the DVD's but right now we're stalled a bit with bureaucratic wrangling.

When I was there I was told I had to meet a guy from USAID who was coordinating various offers of help to the university, and he said, "Oh, maybe we can slot this in, perhaps in two years time." I was stunned. I replied, "Wait! Wait! I can have these things shipped to me now, they're ready to go. I'll buy the DVD player and a TV, or the students can check them out and take them home." He didn't seem to sense the same urgency, and now that program just sits. The DVD's are here in Colorado.

When I was there a year ago, the engineering department had one computer, and they didn't even have the capability to read a .pdf file. A young engineering student promised me he'd download an Adobe Reader for them. And the rest of the engineering department was just a bare concrete building, which a month prior to that hadn't even had the land mines cleared out of it.

Sometimes, as I sit here in Colorado, with all these various programs underway, part of me wants nothing more than to return to Kabul, and spread this information around the country. It is such an opportunity. Thankfully there are many good people there who are continuing this work

In what ways are you engaging local industry there?

I am working with a group called the On The Frontier Group (OTF). They use an approach called cluster competitiveness, in which they pull various players from a given industry together, and help them build an "industry cluster," to work together to increase the global competitiveness of that industry. They're working now with the fruit and nut growers, and with the hand-woven rug producers.

Afghanistan has been at war for 25 years. Many of my young friends have never, until now, known peace. Before the wars, they were one of the world's finest producers of dried fruits and nuts. They have, for millennia, produced spectacular hand-woven carpets, and could again.

These could both be very important export industries, but, left to their own devices, the various players would waste resources competing with each other, and not position themselves well to compete on the world market. So USAID has funded OTF to help these industries become globally competitive. OTF has hired Natural Capitalism to work with them to bring sustainability information to the clusters.

We're in the process of writing a set of business cases showing why it's in the interest of fruit and nut growers, and the carpet manufacturers to make their products without toxic chemicals, with fair labor, and, in the case of fruits and nuts, without artificial fertilizers. That does two things: it reduces the cost to the growers, (as they don't need to buy expensive chemicals from abroad) and it also enables them to sell their products into the high value-added markets, in Europe, the US, and Japan. If they were to sell, say, raisins, as a raw commodity export, they're competing with ordinary raisin growers anywhere.

The Indian market likes to buy afghan dried fruit because they taste so much better than what they can get anywhere else. One of the reasons they taste so good is that they don't have all of the artificial chemicals in them. But the Afghan fruit is not marketed as being superior because it is chemical free.


Have you been meeting with any resistance?

Yes, but not direct, just inertia. Some of the "official experts" brought in are now saying: "If you want to increase production, then you use all these chemicals." And I'm saying: "No, no, no, whoa! You're organic now! Stay that way, and badge yourself as a premium organic product so that you can capture that high value market."

It's the same thing with the carpets. The wool comes from herds kept by nomadic people who wander across the land, in a way of life that's been going on for millennia. If they graze their herds, using the best of what we know about livestock management used to bio-remediate even desertified rangeland, perhaps they can bring back the grassland that was lost during the droughts of the last decade. They can also produce the wool in ways that don't use chemical dyes, and chemical treatments.

Then, they can weave it in ways that use people in non-exploitative ways, and sell the carpets in the US and Europe to people who may be chemically-sensitive, or who just don't want chemicals in their carpets, to people who care about fair trade, and to people who care about promoting a value chain that is providing sustainable livelihoods in places like Afghanistan.

One of the things that we we are seeking to do is to convince the Afghan members of the carpet cluster that they should pursue high value-added sustainable production by showing them that there is a real market out there.

And any of you reading this, if you want to help, please answer this survey attached below, at the end of this interview. This will help us to show the carpet producers that there are people out there to whom this stuff is important.

So how does your work in Afghanistan fit into your picture of the creation of a more sustainable world?

You can go to Wal-Mart and buy a so-called oriental carpet that was made in a factory in China, perhaps by prison labor. Or you can buy a carpet that was hand made in Afghanistan. The latter is far more beautiful, will last a lot longer, and contributes to the building of a viable economy in a place where, if the United States walks away again, we'll have a repeat of what happened the last time we walked away.

Remember that 9/11 came about in part because Al Qaeda was able to set up its operating bases in Afghanistan. Whether you care about sustainability, or fair treatment of people, or plain-old homeland security, for those of us here in the US, enabling Afghanistan to build a viable sustainable economy is very important.
And, lest anybody think that I'm so all-fired noble for the life that I live running around the planet-- I get way more out of this than anybody.

One of the things that I am getting from the Afghans is a new understanding of what happiness is, and what it means, to be truly alive, to be truly present in the moment.

A dear friend of mine, Jason Elliot, who wrote a beautiful book about Afghanistan called An Unexpected Light, says, "The greatest shock, I believe, to which the outsider has to adjust in Afghanistan, is the effect, bewildering at first, of encountering a people who do not seem to fully depend on their surrounding for their happiness. A people whose dignity is not drawn from the material things of the world. This infectious love of life leaves a deep mark on the visitor. It has a healing effect on the spirit. Years of conflict and privation have done nothing to erode the Afghan sense of humor."

I've been adopted by an Afghan family, and my Afghan brother, Qais, a brilliant kite fighter, is largely responsible for keeping me safe while I'm in Afghanistan. Qais writes emails to me that are wise far beyond his young years. One of the things he is teaching me is how to be truly happy, despite any material privations that may face me.
We spent Christmas morning together, a year ago, flying kites. The whole neighborhood was flying kites from the roofs of buildings. Stephen Landrigan, and Irish playwrite friend of mine who lives with us there said, "It's emblematic of Afghanistan that children take scraps of plastic bag, a couple of crossed sticks and a little bit of string, and get these things airborne when there's no wind." Many of these people have nothing. No things. And yet, they have a happiness that is foreign to most Westerners. That has been one of the greatest gifts of the people of Afghanistan to me.

Thank you so much Hunter. We'll be back next week to talk a bit about some of your work in the U.S. and other parts of the world. (Also, thanks to Presidio MBA Student Edward West for co-conducting this interview and diligently transcribing the entire thing, and Treehugger's Kyeann Sayer for top of the line grammar and editing skills) Finally - here's a link to the survey that Hunter mentioned about the market for sustainably produced Afghan carpets - LINK HERE.

Please check out PART 2 of this Inverview here.

The TH Interview: L. Hunter Lovins
L. Hunter Lovins is perhaps best known for her work as co-founder and CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute, an internationally recognized research center, widely celebrated for its innovative thinking in energy and resource issues. She has also co-authored