Environmentalism and industry do not often go hand in hand in political discussions. President and Founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions and Professor of Sustainable Management at Bard College Hunter Lovins, who gave a lecture on campus on Nov. 14, proposes that sustainability and business can, and should, work in concert to create a financially and environmentally secure future for the world.
Lovins focused on the interaction of politics, economy and the environmental movement, with an emphasis on the way the election of Donald Trump will shape policy, industry and sustainability in the coming years. The lecture had been planned since before election night, so Lovins had anticipated working topical politics into her talk. Her overlapping interests and expertise as an environmental business consultant lent her a clarity about the election, and she offered some wry observations. “Now perhaps this was meant to be. In 1920 H.L. Mencken said, ‘As democracy is perfected, the office of the President represents, more and more closely, the soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be occupied by a downright moron.’”
She acknowledged that the mistakes of the Democratic Party discouraged voter turnout, prompting the election to play out as it did. After all, she said, “We ran the two least-liked candidates in anybody’s recollection…The Democratic Party allowed itself to be portrayed as the party of the elite, of the bankers, of the neoliberals. The Democrats once stood for ordinary people. [Trump’s election] is being celebrated of a victory of the little guy over the elite.”
However, she expressed that the only path forward is acceptance of what happened and deliberate, progressive action moving forward. “I think we are called upon now, as Buckminster Fuller said, to be the architects of the future, not its victims,” she urged. Looking out at the audience, she encouraged everyone to move past the feelings of despair and anger that may have arisen in the past week and instead embrace the vast potential of the future. “See this as an opportunity for transformation,” she advised. “The system that we have built doesn’t represent us, and it doesn’t enable our own personal empowerment,” she explained. “We need disruption [to change]. This may be one of those climactic events that change everything.”
As the world works right now, she explained, the world serves the economy, which serves finance. However, the proper balance should be that finance serves the economy, which in turns serves life. This was the foundation of the argument for what she terms “natural capitalism,” or “regenerative capitalism,” incorporating principles of sustainability, such as balance, adaptability, community engagement and holistic wealth of the system, into business designs and decisions.
Part of making industry sustainable is shifting ideologies to a more holistic and all-inclusive concept of wealth, one not limited to money, but including consideration of the needs and resources of the world. Pointing to a somber graphic, she gave examples of the backwardness of capitalist consumerism, saying, “What [Americans] spend on makeup would pay for reproductive health care around the world. Bottled water could provide clean drinking water three times over for the whole world.”
Many businesses shy away from sustainability because they do not believe it is profitable, and are wary of regulations that would stunt their financial growth. On the contrary, Lovins asserted that companies that do measure their carbon footprint and take measures to reduce it see positive returns on that investment. “Sustainability is the touchstone of innovation,” she remarked. “This is business. And in the environment in which we now find ourselves, I think this is the way to go forward, to work on the issues that we care about.”
Additionally, companies who want to attract a young workforce would do well to make sustainability a component of their operations, she suggested. “Almost all young people want to be involved in something bigger than themselves, want to be working for a green company,” she said. Fiona Harbert ’18, who attended the lecture, wrote in an email, “I feel like I’ve learned to antagonize big businesses, but Lovins demonstrated how much change those companies can catalyze, because they create standards.” She continued, “Although I don’t think that these huge companies can necessarily exist as they are in a perfectly sustainable future because of the immense growth that they are constantly seeking, it is interesting to think about them as a means towards wider change.”
One of the most contentious issues of the 2016 election cycle, and one of Trump’s most robust platforms, was the creation and maintenance of jobs in this country. While Trump promises a restoration of old industry and manufacturing jobs, Lovins argued that the future of employment and a healthy economy lies in sustainability. “You want jobs? It turns out the green economy is the fastest-growing sector of the economy,” she noted. Chair of Earth Science and Geography and Associate Professor of Geography Mary Ann Cunningham agreed that the way forward does not lie in the businesses of the past, saying, “It’s not like industry as we know it is saving us; it’s telling us it’s saving us and we’re believing it. Industry tells us a lot of things we believe.”
Lovins stressed that the current fossil-fuel-based economy can not last much longer, and that businesses would do well to explore a profitable future outside of the coal and gas industries. “You might want to start thinking about divesting. Because once this goes down, it will go down very fast.”
Many people are concerned about the employment of vast swathes of Americans in the coming years, and thus are wary of moving away from the established system. Lovins, and others of her mindset, believe that the future may lie in renewable energy instead. “[W]e tell ourselves that more manufacturing jobs and going back to steel production in steel towns is going to save jobs, and that’s not true. And everybody knows it. I think [in] Appalachia, they know they’re not going to go back to a lot of well-paying union coal mine jobs. That’s not going to happen. No matter how much they dislike Hillary, Trump’s not going to be able to give it to them,” Cunningham insisted. “So we all need to work together and find something else, because they have very legitimate concerns about employment and their futures.”