Hunter Lovins is President of Natural Capitalism Solutions(NCS,) a Colorado non-profit that educates senior decision makers in the business case for a Regenerative Economy. NCS, helps companies, communities and countries implement more sustainable practices profitably.
My Definition Of Success | A variant of a poem by Bessie Anderson Stanley (often inaccurately attributed to Emerson) says it well:
“To laugh often and much; to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children; to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends; to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others; to leave the world a little better; whether by a healthy child, a garden patch or a redeemed social condition; to know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is the meaning of success.”
But even more, success will be knowing that I have acted in such a way as to become a good ancestor: by my work, I will have given future generations the chance at a finer future, free from fear of eco-catastrophe or societal breakdown. I likely will die not knowing whether this has been achieved, but as my old boss David Brower said, a goal that can be attained in your lifetime is not worth having. This is the work of many of us and for many years. But it is my life’s work, and has been since I was young.
I Am Driven By | Dr Sylvia Earle says it starkly: what we do in the next ten years matters more than what humanity does in the next 10,000 years.
We’re losing. We are losing every major ecosystem, living beyond the planetary boundaries, yet not meeting even the minimum standards necessary to ensure human dignity. We need to create an economy that keeps us in what has been called the safe operating space. My goal, as Buckminster Fuller urged, is a world that works for 100% of humanity. As our book The Way Out: Kickstarting Capitalism to Save Our Economic Ass[v] describes, we have the ability to deliver this, have all the technologies to meet the needs of all the world’s people. Yet we are growing ever more unequal, ever less rich in natural capital as what Randy Hayes calls “cheater capitalism” converts natural and human capital to financial and manufactured capital. This way lies revolution and ecological collapse. And soon. Instead we need to implement what I call Natural Capitalism, living within our carbon budget, using market mechanisms to implement entrepreneurial solutions, governed by democratically chosen policies to ensure equity and fair distribution to all, regenerating human and natural capital in all that we do.
Vacations can wait. It’s important to do what your body needs to keep functioning, to continue to serve – any good firefighter knows this: if you go down it just takes someone else away to deal with you. But there’s no time to waste. “The earth will be fine,” as George Carlin says, “It’ll shake us off like a bad case of fleas. It’s humans that are in trouble.” I can’t stand the thought that our greed and stupidity will end this magnificent human experiment.
My Highlights | Many, many moments. The awards (and there have been many) mean little, except to confer credibility among those who value such things. It means vastly more that there are a number of people walking around today because my EMT skills came in handy. There is no more humbling and exultant feeling than to save a life, or someone’s home from fire.
My husband and I rescue horses, dogs, cats, and people. We train the critters so that they can find a forever home. We’ve also raised a number of young people who might otherwise have gone wrong. It is a true joy to see them living full, productive lives.
Winning my first rodeo buckle was a great moment, as is every buckle won since. Though in the last decade taking time to go rodeoing, to keep a competitive horse trained, burning the gas to haul down the road have all seemed luxuries it’s time to do without.
As CEO of Rocky Mountain Institute I saved a thousand acres of ground from being turned into McMansions. It was critical elk habitat, a beautiful valley. We put a conservation easement on it, pledged it as publically available open space, and set about bio remediating it, using Allan Savory’s Holistic Management. People came from miles around to walk the land, to love it. After they fired me RMI sold it to make money. Bastards.
The proudest moments are when my students excel, create new businesses, gain tenure at a young age and follow me as teachers, get their books published, win their own awards, get elected to public office, or get arrested as change agents. When they make a difference all the work is worth it.
Then there are the stories I can’t tell because other people think it was their effort that created the accomplishment. As has been said, there’s no limit to what you can achieve if you don’t care who gets the credit. Buy me a good single malt some day and I’ll tell you the stories…:-)
The Difference Between Good And Great | The great ones anticipate what will be needed and are doing it before anyone else thinks to try. The hockey player Wayne Gretsky said that he didn’t skate to where the puck was but where it was going to be.
At Natural Capitalism[xiii] we often start initiatives that are then taken up by others. At that point we leave that field, and move on to the work that is needed which no one yet is doing.
A Key Talent | Communication. The ability to write, and to speak. These are learned skills. You learn to write by writing. And having a great editor. Read the corrections, rewrite and do it again til it’s right. You learn to speak by getting up on your hind legs and speaking. It’s said that fear of public speaking is stronger than fear of heights, snakes or spiders. My parents gifted to me very young the chance to perform for visitors, and in school. When public schools and I didn’t get along (the teacher hit me so I hit her back) my mother started a school – Sequoyah– which is still going today, more than 50 years later. Professors from my father’s College taught the classes (their kids were all in the school). So acting was taught by the drama professor, biology by professional biologists, writing by great authors. But anyone at any age can learn to write and speak. It’s just practice, critique – taken in the kindest spirit – and repetition. Like any craft, mastery takes time and work, but learning these two skills are critical to changing the world; it is not enough to have the idea, you have to communicate it.
The real craft, though, is the ability to tell a good story. Humans learn by story, not facts and figures. The book Winning the Story Wars: why those who tell and live the best stories will rule the future, by Jonah Sachs should be required reading for all change agents We need to be able to tell a better story.
The Characteristics Of Success | Hire people smarter than you – they’ll make you look good. Try always to learn from everyone you are with. Our team at Natural Capitalism was built that way. Toby Russell, our CEO, is far better at dealing with people than I am, and his looking after the operations frees me to go down the road, speaking, teaching and driving change. Nick Sterling is far better at working with the companies for whom we consult than I am. And Lucia Laudisio, my wonderful Exec, navigates my travel schedule with an expertise that leaves me in awe – and with great gratitude as all the logistics fall into place and I move seamlessly about the planet.
All of us are smarter than any of us. I work best with a partner. When I find a good one I know that I can change the world.
Principles I Live By | Loyalty. I trust people. Sometimes to a fault. As per the quote above, this means that sometimes you have to endure betrayal, but that’s a small price to pay for the brilliance people can achieve if you set a common goal and trust them to do their best. Believe in the people you have empowered and expect them to create miracles. They may fail, but they’ll sure do better than if you were looking over their shoulders.
Be unreasonable. As Dave Brower said, Reasonable people have never accomplished anything. I mentor for the Unreasonable Institute.[xv] With a name like that, I’d have to work with them. We bring young entrepreneurs from around the world to work with 100-plus amazing mentors and empower them to go save the world. Whether it’s ending honor killing in Pakistan, or bringing clean water to the slums in India, trees to Africa, solar power to first nations villages in Canada or solar cooking to the Tibetan Plateau, these entrepreneurs are changing the world by being unreasonable. One of our Unreasonable Fellows, Donna Morton and I are working with a team to create truly fossil fuel free investment portfolios.[xvi] Want to implement genuine development? Take all the tax dollars that are spent on our incompetent aid bureaucracies and fund the Unreasonable Entrepreneurs. You’d buy a lot more impact at a fraction of the cost.
Integrity. Get it right. Admit it when you make a mistake, learn and get it better the next time. Footnote assertions, give credit where due. Defend your own beliefs, but stay humble, stay a learner, as Dana Meadows advised.
Critical Skills I Develop | There’s not a day I don’t bless my law training: the ability to parse a problem, identify the real issues and drive to solution.
The ability to write and talk is critical. It occurred to me a week ago, after losing my voice serving as a Peacekeeper for the People’s Climate March in New York City, that being able to speak is kinda the crown jewels of this work. No voice, no ability to give speeches. A shot of Tabasco just before the next speech gave me about an hour of voice, but I paid the price for nuking the vocal chords, and by the end of the week was fighting pneumonia. At that point I took a couple days off.
How I Use My Mind | Minds are like knives – they get dull if not honed. I ask people to challenge me, tell students to tell me if they think I’m wrong – they could well be right. There’s a lot we all know that isn’t so. Once in 7th or 8th grade, sometime after I’d left the inquiring environs of Sequoyah and was once again fighting public schools (I did a school a year til I hit college), a teacher categorically stated that the theory of plate tectonics was wrong. Years later, teaching at Dartmouth, a student walked past wearing a T-shirt saying, “Reunite Gondwanaland.” I about asked him if he knew that the old theory was wrong. But something said ‘check that.’ And of course in the ensuing years, it was the well-intentioned science teacher who’d got it wrong. Allan Savory advises always to assume that you are wrong and test for that. It’s the opposite of what most of us do – assuming that we are right and defending it. His approach enables you to find weak links a lot faster and correct them.
Systems thinking. Everything is the way it is because of the system of which it is a part. Failing to see the larger system makes it real hard to fashion an effective alternative. Dana Meadows’ great book, Thinking in Systems,[xviii] is a brilliant primer on how to begin seeing, understanding, and shifting systems.
Lessons I Have Learnt | I used to ride dirt bikes in the desert. There’s a rule: don’t look at the rock in the trail, you’ll hit it. Look where it is that you want to go and you’ll intuitively steer round the rock.
If you have a dog, don’t bark. Hire good people and let them do their jobs.
“Life is hard,” John Wayne said, “It’s harder if you’re stupid.” Try not to be stupid, catch yourself when you’re being stupid and quietly make the necessary alterations.
Don’t push ropes. There are times when what you are trying to do can’t be done. Try something else. But watch. What was impossible one moment suddenly becomes the thing to do. There are, as Gandhi said, teachable moments. Seize them. Or make them: Nelson Mandela said “It always seems impossible until it is done.”
There’s a fine balance between the Silicon Valley wisdom of fail fast: know when something is the wrong thing to do and get out as quickly as you can, learn from it and begin again smarter, and the flip side that entrepreneurs know that perseverance is the key to success.
Dealing With Doubt | Courage is to some extent a learned skill. Eleanor Roosevelt advised us to do one thing each day that scares you. She also said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
Having been blessed with a young life spent outdoors, I’ve encountered many things that scared me, only to learn that courage, try, and do can overcome most any obstacle. I’ve ridden horses others said could not be ridden. And I’ve bucked off supposedly gentle kids horses. The cowboy wisdom of get back up and go again is useful throughout life. Part of this is just the indomitable refusal to give up.
There are dark times. A while back a partner with whom I work particularly well pulled out. It crushed me. Took the heart right out of me.
If I’d thought about it much, I’d have quit. So I called Bob Costanza in Australia. He agreed immediately to take lead on the project. I called Donna Morton in Canada, who, with Toby, spent the next day with me recrafting our whole framing. The result became our next article in the Guardian. Unasked, a mutual friend, the Executive Editor at a major news platform, diverted his flight, spent the weekend and put the two of us back together. He agreed that the world needed us working together. Now if we can just get this bloody project funded….:-)
When times are bad, we can’t do it alone. I’m blessed with a world of friends to turn to. Knowing how important that is, I’m mindful when a friend reaches out that there is, at that moment, no more important work than to be there for them.
A great song, The Mary Ellen Carter, by the heroic Canadian folk singer Stan Rogers has kept many people alive. It’s worth listening to the whole story and song, but here’s the key bit:
And you, to whom adversity has dealt the final blow
With smiling bastards lying to you everywhere you go
Turn to, and put out all your strength of arm and heart and brain
And like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Rise again, rise again – though your heart it be broken
And life about to end
No matter what you’ve lost, be it a home, a love, a friend.
Like the Mary Ellen Carter, rise again.
Performing At My Peak | Beef and whisky. Good grass beef, locally raised and bought, and Talisker 57 North, if I have my choice. But I’ve also eaten plenty of burgers and drunk a lot of Jack from the bottle at rodeos, going down the road.
Resources I Use To Stay Inspired | Guardian Sustainable Business. Capital Institute’s Transforming Finance blog. Anything written by Jo Confino, or John Fullerton.The Solutions Journal. Alan Furst and John LeCarre novels and Dana Meadows’ old writings.
Kate Wolf music. And Bren Hill. Ian Tyson Corb Lund and Dave Stamey. Jeff Nourse’s songs, preferably sung round a campfire with his wife 2D’s great New Mexico chile on the boil.
My Future Dreams And Ambitions | To transform the global economy away from its current road of destruction to a regenerative economy. An international team is seeking to do just this, to create a new narrative to turn the world from the currently dominant Mont Pelerin ideology of individual primacy, the belief in unfettered markets to solve all problems, and the assertion that government is the great evil to an economy in service to life, based on the principles laid out by John Fullerton’s Regenerative Capitalism.
The Meaning Of Life | To serve. To leave the world better than you found it. To rise with the challenge of your time, and know that you have made a difference. To be known as a good hand and a good friend.
The Best Advice I’ve Received | My friend the folk singer Kate Wolf said, “Find what you care about and live a life that shows it.”
Advice On Building Wealth | Don’t do it.
I’ve always worked for poor little non-profits. There’s never quite enough to pay salaries and have a bit left over for the luxuries I might like – a new saddle, a silver-set bridle. So I scrimp, save, and value the glisten off my silver spurs all the more.
Was once going to lunch with a friend whose husband had more money than god. As we drove along she said, “Hunter, you need to be rich.”
I thought about it a bit, then turned to her and said, “Best I know I am rich. I live in the most beautiful place on earth (true – in someone else’s building, and when I got fired I lost that and had to begin again – but I’d still say that – with what I made settling that mess, I was able to buy the ranch, and once again live in a truly beautiful place) I have enough to eat, I’m doing the work I love, have the respect of my community (I was on the local fire department), friends I treasure…. best I know, I am rich.”
“You should live in a fancy house,” she admonished.
“If I did that, I’d just have to hire someone to keep it clean,” I answered.
We went along to lunch, I went back to work. Next morning her husband called me: “She’s gone. She took a backpack said she was going to walk for 40 days. Said she wasn’t happy.”
“Oh dear,” I answered. “I may have had something to do with that.”
I knew the trail she’d taken, and given when she left she’d still be on it, likely camped, by then cold and hoping someone’d come after her, so I told him to saddle a couple horses and ride hard. He did and best I know they’re still together.
But it struck me. She had it all: summers with the glitterati, winters somewhere warm, not a care in the world…. Yet she wasn’t happy.
Me, I struggle each month to make payroll, carry the weight of knowing that we’re losing the fight against climate change, knowing we’re losing biodiversity at a rate now greater than when the dinosaurs went extinct, the knowledge that we could meet the basic development needs of all people on earth, but yet allow 85 people to have as much wealth as the bottom 3.5 billion poorest – I carry all this on my shoulders, and yet I’d not trade lives with anyone.
Rich ain’t all it’s cracked up to be.
On Inspiring Others | I don’t. They come to me. And I don’t try to motivate them to attain my goals: I help them reach their own goals. Hesse said that you never reach home, but where paths that have affinity for each other cross, the whole world feels like home for a time. The great people with whom I am privileged to work are meeting their goals. We just happen to share them for a time.
I Am Inspired By | It’s a cliché, but my parents were my first role models. My mother, Farley Sheldon, worked with John L. Lewis, organizing in the coal-fields of West Virginia, before becoming one of the first female lawyers graduated from Duke Law School. She had 14 careers, never retiring, always searching. My father helped mentor Martin King and Cesar Chavez; they were round the house when I was growing up. So in some ways I’m not sure I ever had a choice in who I became.
Then there were many more: my friend, Dana Meadows, the gentle lead author of Limits to Growth, who coined the term “Sustainability,” and so much more. David Brower, our generation’s John Muir, who founded the modern environmental movement, with whom I was privileged to work. Buckminster Fuller, and E.F Schumacher, both of whom I was blessed to know.
But more, ordinary heroism inspires me every day. A.J, who shines shoes in the airport, who’s put his kids through college that way, who one day told me that when things get tough, get tougher. He always has a smile and a hug for me. A family in the central highlands of Afghanistan who took us in one snowy night when we were lost, who had nothing – no things – but wanted only conversation with strangers whom it was their honor to rescue.
The Legacy I Would Like To Leave | To be known as a one of those who helped birth the regenerative economy will give human kind a sustainable place on a verdant and healing planet.
What I do, call that 1x. If I can convince a few people to change, call that 10x, but my greatest legacy will be my students, the people I’ve been honored to mentor, and those with whom I’ve worked. If I have empowered them to devote their lives to service, to making a difference I will have leveraged any legacy that might be ascribed to me a thousand-fold.