Meet the Flipsters

Conversations on the Bridge

A Conversation with L. Hunter Lovins
(The complete Flip interview, with only minor edits, not found in the book)

L. Hunter Lovins, Esq. (, is the president and founder of Natural Capitalism, Inc. and co-creator of the NC (Natural Capitalism) concept. In 1982, she co-founded Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) and led that organization as its CEO for Strategy until 2002. Under her leadership, RMI grew into an internationally-recognized research center, widely celebrated for its innovative thinking in energy and resource issues.

Lovins has coauthored nine books and dozens of papers, and was featured in the award-winning film Lovins on the Soft Path. Her latest book, Natural Capitalism, coauthored with Amory Lovins and business author Paul Hawken, has been translated into a dozen languages. In 2000, she was named a “Hero for the Planet” by Time Magazine, and received the Loyola University Award for Outstanding Community Service. In 2001, she received the Leadership in Business Award and shared the Shingo Prize for Manufacturing Research.

Hunter told us that environmental activism seemed to be in her genes: “Growing up in my family, it was simply assumed around the house that one would spend one’s life making things better. It was what you did. My father helped mentor Caesar Chavez, my mother worked for the coal miners. So I’m not sure I had a whole lot of choice. After college, I helped start Tree People in California. I took up with Amory Lovins and became the policy advisor for Friends of the Earth for Dave Brower and did that until we created Rocky Mountain Institute in 1982.”

Does Hunter envision a day when every home and business becomes a self-contained energy producing unit? “It depends who and where you are,” she responded, “and what your desires are. It’s entirely technically feasible with today’s technology. Actually, a stand-alone – but grid-interconnected – system offers the best of all worlds. On a normal day when the grid is functioning, you can sell surplus power to it or purchase supplemental power from it. And anytime the grid goes down, you can continue to run from your own sources.

“Remember all of the concerns about the nation’s power grid on the eve of Y2K? The RMI building was designated as the sheriff’s emergency command post because it was super insulated, semi underground, and equipped with both passive and active solar. It could stand alone if it had to, and they could recharge their radios, keep their guys warm, etc.

“America has already built a national grid. It works well as a battery, particularly if coupled with the old, large hydro plants. Individuals can connect their personal wind, solar, hydro, etc. sources to the grid, buying additional power as they need and selling back as they are able. The whole system will be much more reliable than a conventional base load system, so I don’t think we want every household standing alone. The ideal is a resilient system in which we are able to shuffle power back and forth as need be, which can be coupled into big wind farms, micro-hydro, and bio-fuel production. It doesn’t require America to be 60+ percent dependent – as we are today – on oil that comes from rather fragile parts of the geopolitical system or on costly, dangerous technologies like coal and nuclear.”

What about countries without an existing power grid? “By all means, start stand-alone and build up the grids later. A single solar panel, for example, can supply refrigeration for vaccinations or power a computer uplink so that a doctor can provide diagnostic assistance. The amount of development potential from a little bit of renewable energy spread around a developing country is phenomenal.”

We asked Hunter how quickly she thought America could kick its oil habit. Without committing to a specific minimum, she responded, “If we decide – or it gets decided for us – to get off oil in a hurry, there is a great deal that we can do to transition away from oil to a more renewable energy supply. Whereas if we leave that process to the free market, which we don’t even have, it would probably take 50 years. By dabbling, we can get anything in between.”

We’re not the only ones trying to kick the habit. “Currently Europeans are focusing on super efficient biodiesels, while the Japanese seem more interested in the hybrid electric, possibly going to hydrogen. Of course the hybrid electric can be run on all sorts of things. You can run a hybrid electric on bio-fuels as well.”

In alternative energy development, Hunter feels that bio-fuels offer more potential than hydrogen at present. “There remain some real technical challenges around hydrogen, including the question of where we get it. Right now, most hydrogen comes from natural gas. And I think it’s a good thing to be pursuing. The folks at Shell Hydrogen are not stupid, neither are the people at BP. China is looking at hydrogen in a very big way because they have serious concerns about giving land competitively for bio-fuels instead of food. China is going to have a very hard time feeding itself. I think the much bigger question about energy sources per se is how do we put forth a whole systems / sustainable strategy for the world that makes sense?

“For example, if China continues to grow economically at the rate that it has been, and uses resources as inefficiently as the West now does, then by 2030 China will be demanding something like ninety billion barrels of oil a day. The world now lifts something like eighty billion, and probably can never lift more. You start to damage the fields if you pull oil out of it faster.

“Just scan down any list of resources and pick one – China is going to want more of it by 2030 than the world now produces. And India is right behind them. The rest of the developing world aspires to the standard of living that they see on television.”

So how do we meet the needs of the world, particularly the developing world, in ways that don’t crash the planet for everyone? “One strategy is to have the developing nations grow oil crops, that is, feedstock for biodiesels, and then the developed West can buy biodiesel from these nations. This is a strategy that seems to make eminently good sense. So one of the things that I did when I went over to Afghanistan was to carry a how-to biodiesel manual describing how to make small-scale homemade biodiesel production units. Kabul has open sewers. A John Todd-style eco machine that takes advantage of local energy sources and works with the dynamics of the local ecosystem would make much better there sense than trying to put in a less-efficient, conventional-quarrying break-point sewage treatment facility. That’s last century’s technology, and we have this century’s technologies that do a better job, are appropriately scaled to the task, and are sustainable.

“What we’re trying to roll out is a green Afghanistan strategy. Mostly, I’m working with Afghans and meeting with the various ministers and with the business leadership and with people at the university. There are, of course, the conventional Western proposals to dam every major river and build coal plants all across the North of Afghanistan, and I’m trying to argue that it’s a lousy idea to build a grid in country where there are lots of Stinger missiles around and people who are annoyed at the government. You ought to be helping villages to have, if you will, mini-grids, or small regional grids. But you ought not to be looking at trying to grid the whole country with conventional, 20th century technologies. You ought to be leap-frogging to world best-practice, sustainable technologies that meet basic human needs for energy, water, housing, healthcare, food, sanitation, transportation, etc.

“We clearly live in a carbon constrained world; the idea of building coal plants anywhere is just daft. So is the idea of continuing to burn fossil fuels in ever growing numbers of automobiles, or heating houses with fossil fuels. What we have are the old incumbent industries, the coal and the nuclear boys are trying to get our tax dollars to subsidize them for the rest of their careers. But they are clearly not the dominant technology now.”

Hunter thinks there’s no guarantee that humanity will survive its own poor housekeeping habits, given some recent cultural trends. “There is a very serious threat from the fundamentalist Christians who believe we are witnessing the beginning of the end of time. If you listen to some of the people in Congress, some of the people advising the President and the other senior officials, they flat out say, ‘Environmental destruction? We really don’t care.’ And they see being rich as a sign that you are blessed by the lord. Getting yours is a sign that you’re somehow favored.

“I think we want to believe there is this emerging global consciousness. I think we’re in a horse race with a very different kind of consciousness, that is, Me first. I really don’t care about you, and as long as I’m taken care of and my folk are taken care of, that’s fine. The rest of you can, frankly, drown in a toxic soup.

“This battle has been raging for thousands of years. It’s not a right or left issue. We need to get serious about what works and about what kind of future we want to create. We need to get a great deal better at reaching out and finding ways to work together on things that we agree about. We have that choice. We can create a future that works for everyone – as the South Africans say, ‘enough for everyone forever’ – or we can continue the kinds of societies that we’ve had in the past that are nasty, brutish and relatively short.

“We probably will not survive if we don’t make the flip. There’s nothing that says that human kind has to survive. Nature runs a very rigorous testing laboratory in which products that don’t work get recalled by the manufacturer. And that’s a cautionary tale for a young species like ours. We will figure out what is appropriate for our environment or we will cease to exist. Nature really won’t shed a tear; she’ll try something different.”

Is there any hope for us? “Right now, we have all of the technologies that we need to create the kind of society that works for everyone. Many of the technologies that are under research will be even cooler. I’m working with a guy in California now who has a new way of manufacturing solar cells, which he reckons to prove out in two to four years. He’s just gotten his financing, and if he’s right, he will be able to produce solar electricity for three cents per kilowatt hour. Right now, you’ll pay seven to eight cents per kilowatt hour from conventional sources. This is a very big ‘WOW!’”

What’s next? What are the technologies that will underpin a prosperous economy? “I think it’s what we’ve been taking about: energy efficiency, resource productivity, green chemistry, bio-mimicry, the whole range of sustainable technologies. The companies that can put this together will deliver the future. These are the billionaires of tomorrow.”

We asked Hunter how Natural Capitalism comes into play. “We come at all of this work from the standpoint of Natural Capitalism’s three principles: First, use resources in dramatically more productive ways – in part because it buys time to put in place more fundamental, sustainable solutions; it’s a first step, but it’s only the first step. The second step is to redesign every product and process in society by asking, ‘How does nature do business?’ That leads to cradle-to-cradle sustainable approaches. The final step is to manage all social institutions in a way that is restorative to human and natural capital.

“These principles apply anywhere. The issues involved in rebuilding New Orleans are exactly the same as I’m dealing with in Afghanistan: How do you meet basic human needs? How do you deliver best-practice, sustainable technologies in ways that leverage and strengthen the local economy? Unfortunately, with the current administration’s approaches to hurricane and tsunami rebuilding – both at home and abroad – all of the money will just turn right around and go back into Western pockets. But there are better ways.

“For example, Engineers Without Borders is an organization that takes engineering students into a village, where they sit with the residents and discuss, ‘What is it that you need? What do you think should happen here?’ Together, they co-create an appropriate solution. The engineering students work out the technical design details and accumulate the materials that are needed. Then they go back and – together with the village – they implement it. EWB has teams on the ground in 40-60 countries at any point in time. I think this is the way to go: Empower local communities. Enable the members to choose for themselves, to access the best technologies, and to implement in ways that utilize and grow the local economy. It’s a great model. Everybody wins.”


The Flip, by Jared Rosen and David Rippe, illuminates a clear path to a vibrant enlightened world where millions of people already live and thrive. It describes in vivid detail and real examples evidence of an upside down world in decay and a Right Side Up world of authentic beings bright with possibility.
The Flip is an owner’s manual for the twenty-first century full of insights, conversations with recognized experts, thought leaders, and visionaries, and actionable exercises and tips you can use to begin your own personal flip.

To read more about The Flip and additional interviews from other luminaries, experts and bestselling authors, please visit

The Flip is available at your local bookstore or online at, Barnes & Noble, Joseph-Beth, and Borders.


Home | Excerpts | The Authors | Meet the Flipsters | Contest | Press

Copyright © 2006 The Flip. All Rights Reserved.

Web site by Celestia International

To view corrections, click here.