A decade ago, environmentalist Hunter Lovins published Natural Capitalism, coauthored with her ex-husband, Amory Lovins. The book influenced some business leaders to embrace what was a counterintuitive notion: that going green could be a way to save or make lots of money. Since then, she has gone on to establish Natural Capitalism Solutions, a Colorado-based firm that helps businesses and governments become more energy-efficient and better prepared for the global threats of climate change. She recently wrote Climate Capitalism, a book due out this spring that presents the climate crisis as a giant business opportunity.
TR: If you look back at the thesis of Natural Capitalism, what has changed and what has been surprising since then?
HL: Ten years ago, we were observing what the few best companies were doing to implement sustainability profitably. And we derived a set of four principles of natural capitalism, the first of which is to use energy resources dramatically more productively. In the intervening years, this is what most businesses that manage themselves as green or sustainable or responsible have been doing, and with massive savings. One surprise is how many savings still remain.
What are some examples of those kinds of savings?
My team walked into a company last year that had 6,300 computers and monitors that they left on 24/7 because of some urban myths: that it shortens the life of the computer to turn it off and turn it on. Well, no, that’s not true. Or IT needs them left on [to do maintenance]. No, that’s not true either. One night a week would do fine. In that company, just publishing a policy to turn the darned thing off when you’re not sitting in front of it could save them $700,000 in the first year. This is free money.
What company is that?
I can’t tell you, but it is endemic throughout society. In the United States alone, we waste something like $2.8 billion each year leaving computers on that have nobody in front of them. So a surprise is that even though we and a lot of other people have been saying this for 10 years, the opportunities still exist, and if anything, they are getting better.
So principle number one remains valid.
Yes, although a change in Climate Capitalism is that we’ve redefined the first principle to be: Buy time by using resources dramatically more productively.
What do you mean by “buy time”?
What the world is shortest in is the time to deal with the challenges facing us. Things like the climate crisis. Some scientists are saying it’s too late.
Do you believe it’s too late?
The short answer is we don’t know. Maybe I’m just being an optimist, but in looking around, I believe that if the world’s businesses did what is manifestly in their own economic interest, implemented all the available, cost-effective efficiency improvements, we could solve the climate crisis—and at a profit.
That is the thesis of Climate Capitalism. Suppose the climate crisis is a hoax. Frankly, don’t go to Vegas on the odds of this being true. But if all you are is a profit-maximizing capitalist, you would do exactly the same thing as you would do if you were scared to death about climate change.