Environmental Politics, Think
Creating an economy in service to life
A shift to 100% renewable energy as we transition to a regenerative agricultural system can avert climate disaster, says global thought leader and Intermountain Sustainability Summit keynote speaker Hunter Lovins.
This past January was the hottest January ever recorded in human history. The magnitude of Earth’s climate catastrophe is growing ever more serious as we approach a future with natural disasters, animal extinctions and other environmental destructions becoming commonplace. Already humans are fleeing their homes by the hundreds of thousands to avoid climate-induced instability and our planet-warming practices are depleting the soil and driving water scarcity.
To avoid this future, the United Nations says that it is essential for the world to decarbonize by 2050, and most scientists argue much sooner (think, in the next 10 years). Of the greenhouse gases released which are causing the unusually rapid increase in Earth’s average surface temperature, carbon dioxide is the most significant; CO2 comes primarily from the burning of fossil fuels.
With such a short timeframe, many of us are thinking the same thing: Is it possible? Or are we doomed to a seemingly apocalyptic future like the one described above?
Envisioning “a finer future”
The keynote speaker of next month’s Intermountain Sustainability Summit, the annual benchmark event at Weber State University, envisions a finer future and believes with a conviction grounded in actual developments that we not only know how to solve this looming catastrophe, but we are already on our way to doing so.
Hunter Lovins is the co-founder of Rocky Mountain Institute and President and Founder of Natural Capitalism Solutions, a nonprofit that helps businesses, communities and countries implement more regenerative practices profitably. The author of 16 books and countless journal articles has taught at universities across the globe on business and sustainability.
In her March 19 keynote presentation, Lovins will draw from her 2019 Nautilus Award-winning book, A Finer Future: Creating an Economy in Service to Life, to give us a playbook of solutions and inspire the hope and action necessary for a prosperous future for our planet.
The book covers multiple challenges facing humanity, including rising inequality and our unsustainable system of agriculture, but makes the assertion that if we do not deal with our climate crisis, we are indeed facing civilizational collapse.
The way out? A shift to 100% renewable energy as we transition to a regenerative agricultural system. Lovins is here to report that we in fact already know how to do this, and, in a very real way, it is already happening.
“For fundamental economic reasons, solar plus storage will provide at least half of electric power generation globally by 2030,” Lovins explained in a recent phone interview with CATALYST. “We’re already seeing this play out. Exon is borrowing to pay dividends and the coal industry is collapsing all around us. Peabody coal is about to go bankrupt. Again. The financial industry in the form of Goldman Sachs, Blackrock and Bank of International Settlements all say it’s time to get out of coal and decarbonize.”
For Lovins, the evidence could not be clearer. “India recently cancelled 14 new proposed plants because they can’t compete with solar. This summer, General Electric walked away from a perfectly good natural gas plant in California that had a projected 20 years life on it because it can’t compete with solar.”
According to Lovins, Portugal recently achieved 1.6 cents a kilowatt hour for utility scale solar affordable payouts, a price incomparable to coal.
“When the Kentucky Coal Museum has just put solar on its roof because it’s cheaper than hooking up to the coal-fired electric grid at its doorstep, the fossil era is over.”
This is the good news. The flip side of the coin, though, says that if not handled well, communities, countries and economies will face an incredible threat during this transition. Within the next 10 to 15 years, Lovins estimates we will see the dissolution in value of the oil, gas, coal, uranium, nuclear, utility and auto industries, the banks that hold paper in them, the insurance companies and the pension funds that are invested in them. According to Lovins, this could be “the mother of all economic dislocations.”
What we can’t do, Lovins says, is ignore that this is happening. “If we all recognize that fossil fuel is no longer a viable economic proposition but agree that we owe it to the coal miners who have spent their lives in this dirty and dangerous profession to ensure that they have a decent retirement or have alternative jobs— if we ensure decent notice and support programs to enable companies that are involved in the second tier or third tier of these industries to find other activities that they can productively be engaged in— then the transition will be one of creating wealth and prosperity in our communities. If, instead, we say, ‘Well that’s the free market, your loss: deal with it!’ then we’re going to have a lot of angry people, a lot of people out of work; we’re going to have a mess.”
At this point, it is clear that politics are involved. Lovins says that proposals like the Green New Deal, legislation introduced by House and Senate Democrats and endorsed by all eight of the remaining Democratic presidential candidates, offer a ramp of transition. Other politicians, including the current president, continue to support fossil fuel industry subsidies that Lovins says are costly and detrimental. Current fossil subsidies top $5.2 trillion every year.
The second part of Lovins’ plan focuses on how to transform agriculture from a degenerative to a regenerative system. This approach not only minimizes the use of fossil fuels, but effectively takes carbon from the air and returns it to the soil. “Regenerative agriculture means profitably rolling climate change backwards to the level it was before the Industrial Revolution and we can do it in about a 30-year period. Many farmers and ranchers are doing this today, increasing profits and the carbon in their soil.”
In her Ogden presentation, Lovins will dive deeper into the practice and relay stories of various farmers and ranchers who are practicing regenerative agriculture.
While the solar transition is certainly well underway, Lovins says that we need to put much more urgency on regenerative agriculture. A lot of this will come in the form of helping farmers and ranchers transition, but there are also things that each one of us can do.
Call to action
“We all eat every day. As Wendell Berry says, ‘Eating is an agricultural act.’ Are we eating locally produced grass-fed beef or are we eating industrial meat that’s produced in massive feedlots and confined feeding operations? Are we supporting farmers markets or are we buying raspberries flown in from Chile?”
The call to action in Lovins’ overall message is firm and straightforward. The market context will help drive these changes but as individuals, community members and businesses alike, we have a responsibility to work together to ensure that we take these technologies and use them in a way that benefits us all, building and creating a finer future.
“When rabbits are threatened, they freeze. When humans are threatened, they entrepreneur. As we solve these problems, this transition is going to unleash the greatest prosperity we’ve ever known. It will create millions and millions of good paying jobs in our communities, clean our air and our water and enable us to live lives of greater belonging in communities that work well for everyone. You can call that hope. Or you can call it just better business.”
Emily Spacek is a staff writer at CATALYST Magazine.
Update from the Intermountain Sustainability Summit Team:
The Intermountain Sustainability Summit has canceled the in-person events on both March 19 and 20, 2020. Summit planners are providing an online, scaled-down version of the Summit for our community through the Zoom links listed below. Anyone may attend free of charge.