Pushing the Limits Interview with Amory Lovins (Part I).
Amory Lovins may be the most important individual on the face of the planet when it comes to energy and sustainability. He believes we can revolutionize our economy and sidestep the many limits that are threatening to squeeze the life out of our future.
Do you feel capitalism in its current form will be sustainable over the long term?
Capitalism is the productive use of reinvestment in capital. Yet so far, industrial capitalism has dealt seriously with only two forms of capital—money and goods—while liquidating and not valuing two even more important sources of capital: nature and people. This “unnatural capitalism” defies its own logic. If instead we play with a full deck, productively using and reinvesting in all four forms of capital, we will make more money and have more fun. But we mustn’t ask the marketplace to do things it is not meant to do and not capable of doing. Markets are very good at the short-term allocation of scarce resources, but markets are meant to be efficient, not sufficient, and greedy, not fair. They don’t tell us how much is enough. They don’t tell us the whole purpose of a human being. And they certainly cannot substitute for politics, ethics, or faith. We must always remember that markets make a splendid servant, a bad master, and a worse religion. I am therefore not an economic fundamentalist: I take markets seriously, not literally.
Is it possible to decouple increased physical inputs into the economy from continued economic growth, so that economic growth is sustainable in the long term using less stuff?
This is not only possible; it’s routine. The US in 2006 used 52 per cent less oil, 57 per cent less natural gas, and about two-thirds less water per dollar of GDP than in 1975, and has radically improved many other kinds of resource productivity. We can do that many times more with no end in sight. Attentive companies have lately cut their energy intensity six to eight percent a year with handsome returns, typically two or three-year paybacks. There are some ultimate limits to this process but I think they are extremely far off. And that does not even count the further promise of things like nanotechnology for molecular assembly.
What does a sustainable energy future look like and how do we go about creating it?
It will use energy several times more productively than now. It will shift supply to more diverse, dispersed, and renewable sources. The policy framework that would most surely get us there is one that allows all ways to save or produce energy to compete fairly at honest prices, regardless of which kind they are, what technology they use, where they are, how big they are, or who owns them. Most governments that pay lip service to market liberalization are far from that framework and instead are busy juggling subsidies to favour some technologies over others, supply over efficient use, and big over the right size for the job.
Our study Winning the Oil Endgame (www.oilendgame.com) describes how to eliminate US oil use over the next few decades, led by business for profit. Our roadmap shows how to redouble the efficiency using oil: we’ve already doubled it since 1975, but we can double it again at an average cost of $12 US per barrel, largely by tripling the efficiency of cars, trucks and planes with existing technology and uncompromised comfort, safety, and performance. The paybacks on that are about two years for cars, one for heavy trucks, and four to five for planes. The other half of the oil could then be displaced by a combination of saved natural gas and advanced biofuels at an average cost of $18 US per barrel. So the average cost of getting off oil completely would be about $15 US per barrel, which is about four times less than what we are now paying — conservatively assuming its externalities are worth zero.