Dandelion Effect Podcast - Amory Lovins: Taoism and the Art of Creating a Sustainable Future

Amory Lovins: Taoism and the Art of Creating a Sustainable Future

Physicist Amory Lovins is Cofounder and Chairman Emeritus of Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent, non-partisan, nonprofit organization working to transform the global energy system to secure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future.

He has written more than 800 papers and 31 books, including Natural Capitalism, Reinventing Fire, and Winning the Oil Endgame. For the past 45 years, he’s advised major firms and governments in over 70 countries on clean energy—including the US Departments of Energy and Defense and a 7-year stint on the National Petroleum Council—as well as leading integrative design for superefficient buildings, factories, and vehicles. Time has named him one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People and Foreign Policy, one of the 100 Top Global Thinkers.

A Harvard and Oxford dropout, he’s taught at 10 universities, and is currently an Adjunct Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a Scholar of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University. He teaches only topics he’s never formally studied, so as to retain Beginner’s Mind—a concept we’ll get into in today’s conversation.

This is a much different side of Amory Lovins than you’ll find in other public interviews.

In this conversation, we talk about early childhood influences and illnesses, the 15 summers he spent guiding trips in the White Mountains of New Hampshire—a place that sparked his life-long interest in landscape photography and utter devotion to the natural world. I ask him what it’s been like to be a pioneer in the clean energy space, facing the almost mythical powers of the fossil fuel industries, the impending threats of climate change, and decades of scrutiny from critics and those with vested interest in the status quo.

We discuss biomimicry, natural capital, and integrative design, and the laws of nature that can help us build and live much more efficiently and harmoniously—concepts he discusses using the example of his own home office in Old Snowmass, Colorado, complete with a 900-square-foot tropical passive-solar banana farm inside. Amory quotes environmentalists, writers, spiritual leaders, sacred texts, and the Taoist outlook that keeps him centered and focused in order to carry out his work in the world.

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Episode Transcript

Amory Lovins  00:01
The reason I was able to reframe the energy problem was there was no place you could study it. And I didn’t know that much about it, so I had nothing to unlearn. Therefore, I was able to practice, and I’ve cultivated ever since, what in Eastern tradition is called Beginner’s Mind, Original Mind, Child’s Mind—where you let go of all assumptions and preconceptions, and therefore can take a completely fresh view. In those days, for example, the energy problem was thought to be, “Where do we get more energy? More of any kind from any source at any price.” I started, instead, at the other end by asking, “What do you want energy for?”

Andy Vantrease  01:05
Physicist Amory Lovins is Cofounder and Chairman Emeritus of Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent, non-partisan, nonprofit organization working to transform the global energy system to secure a clean, prosperous, zero-carbon future.

He has written more than 800 papers and 31 books, including Natural Capitalism, Reinventing Fire, and Winning the Oil Endgame. For the past 45 years, he’s advised major firms and governments in over 70 countries on clean energy—including the US Departments of Energy and Defense and a 7-year stint on the National Petroleum Council—as well as leading integrative design for superefficient buildings, factories, and vehicles. Time has named him one of the world’s 100 Most Influential People and Foreign Policy, one of the 100 Top Global Thinkers.

A Harvard and Oxford dropout, he’s taught at 10 universities, and is currently an Adjunct Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering and a Scholar of the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford University. He teaches only topics he’s never formally studied, so as to retain Beginner’s Mind—a concept we’ll get into in today’s conversation.

With all of these accolades, I wondered about the driving forces, the motivations and values behind a man like Amory. So, I asked him—and discovered a much different side of Amory Lovins than I had found in his other public interviews.

In this conversation, we talk about early childhood influences and illnesses, the 15 summers he spent guiding trips in the White Mountains of New Hampshire—a place that sparked his life-long interest in landscape photography and utter devotion to the natural world. I ask him what it’s been like to be a pioneer in the clean energy space, facing the almost mythical powers of the fossil fuel industries, the impending threats of climate change, and decades of scrutiny from critics and those with vested interest in the status quo.

We discuss biomimicry, institutional acupuncture, integrative design, the mentor who taught him, “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible,” and the laws of nature that can help us build and live much more efficiently and harmoniously—concepts he discusses using the example of his own home office in Old Snowmass, Colorado, complete with a 900-square-foot tropical passive-solar banana farm inside. Amory quotes environmentalists, writers, spiritual leaders, sacred texts, and the Taoist outlook that keeps him centered and focused in order to carry out his work in the world.

I’m Andy Vantrease, and you’re listening to The Dandelion Effect Podcast with today’s guest, and my new friend, Amory Lovins.

Andy Vantrease
The way that I’d like to start actually is different than I’ve started with anybody before. I started thinking about the ways that your career has been built upon asking different questions than other people have asked in order to find different perspectives and get different results. Typically, the last question I ask people is the first one I’m going to ask you today: The tagline for our podcast is “the magic of living a connected life.” What does that mean to you? What comes up when I say the phrase, “living a connected life?”

Amory Lovins  05:16
To me it suggests that all the parts of your way of being and doing are related, linked, mutually reinforcing. They’re not isolated bits, you’re not fragmented, you’re not siloed. You’re a whole person. I like that, and I try to be and do that.

Andy Vantrease  05:38
It seems like you’ve built a personal life and a professional life around that concept. It already makes me think of whole systems thinking.

Amory Lovins  05:48
Whole systems living is the result of whole systems thinking, and it works very well. My creative activities like landscape photography, or poetry, or music are very blended with my scientific and policy work, and my efforts to help make the world better in energy and a lot of other areas. Also, with where I live, in a combined house, research center, and passive solar banana farm, our commute to work is 10 meters across the jungle. It’s been suggested we install vines for going to work.

Andy Vantrease  06:32
I want to hear a lot of details about the house, but we’ll get to that in a little bit. I want you to take us down the journey of your early life. When we talked earlier, I found out that you actually grew up where I was born in Silver Springs, Maryland. You spent your first eight years there then spent some time in New York and New Jersey as well before moving to Massachusetts for high school. What can you tell me about growing up in that area on the East Coast? Who were you as a young person, as a kid?

Amory Lovins  07:08
I was a nerd, and I was very sickly. It turned out, as we discovered at age 10, I didn’t have gamma globulin. That meant that I was largely out of school and at home reading everything in the house. By seven I was through the whole Britannica. Also, my parents, an engineer and a social work administrator and editor, treated my sister and me as small adults. There wasn’t a kids table. We were there with the adults, and they had a lot of people over for meals to discuss the affairs of the day and involved us in all the conversations. We were at one end of Silver Spring, next to a trail that led probably a half mile through the woods to the elementary school with almost no crossing of streets. I think just one on our end. We would have this twice daily walk through the woods along the stream. In our own yard, under two giant maple trees, there were a lot of peonies, so I could go look at the ants and other signs of life. It was not a sterile urban environment.

And then of course, by the time we got to high school we were in South Amherst, Massachusetts. That was in the middle of cornfields, very rural, a lot of wildlife. I had actually gotten well starting at age 10. The irony being that to detect that I didn’t have gamma globulin took something called serum electrophoresis, which my dad had first commercialized long before when he was head of research at American Instrument Company. When I was growing up, he had his own little engineering company in the basement making unique scientific instruments, like the world’s biggest optical microscope. Anyway, when our doctor discovered the bands on the filter paper did not include what should be there for gamma globulin, he said, “Well, no, there’s only a few cases in the literature. We don’t know quite what to do. It doesn’t say but I’ll try injecting some and see what happens.”

Andy Vantrease  09:18
And is this something that you have had to manage throughout your life? It’s just something your body doesn’t make?

Amory Lovins  09:26
No, it’s now making it. After some months I started making it, and I’ve hardly been sick at all, ever since. So that was fine. But then in high school, I had some knee accidents and had knee trouble. I actually dropped out of Harvard in the second year to strengthen my knees so I could walk around and ended up doing about 100 days a year in the mountains and guiding a lot in New Hampshire and a little in North Wales just to strengthen my legs and knees. I was commuting back from England after I transferred to Oxford, halfway through Harvard, and I commuted back every summer to spend the summer and usually autumn in the mountains. I also then got a lot into landscape photography, which Judy and I do now together all over the world. That’s her profession. After 27 years of synovitis, a painful condition in both knees, our consultant doctor found a natural anti-inflammatory that controls that. My health has generally been very good despite new restrictions, but I’m mobile all over the world working in 70 odd countries.

Andy Vantrease  10:42
Yeah, I’d say. Have you reflected at all, at this point in your career, of the ways that growing up in the way that you did directly shaped and influenced you?

Amory Lovins  10:56
It clearly was a strong influence. My mother’s younger brother was also a great chemist who invented the cracking catalyst that made products like jet fuel possible. I think he’d be quite pleased wherever he is now. What he made possible, I’m now making unnecessary! There’s also entrepreneurship in the family. Basically, on both sides, a lot of music, linguistics, and science. My sister, who just died a few years ago, was the computer linguist. If you wanted to translate between Japanese, various click languages, and Basque, she was your person. But I ended up also doing a little linguistics, a little law, a little medicine, and a lot of mountain photography, alongside a parallel educational track, mainly in physical science.

At Harvard, I wanted to study that eclectic slate of stuff I was interested in, but they wouldn’t let me do that, because I didn’t want to pick a major and they thought I should. So, I transferred to Oxford as a grad student, did biophysics, more linguistics, and a little law and medicine. Meanwhile, I was realizing that the world was heading for an awful train wreck in energy, and its connections to everything else: energy, population, resources, environment, development, security, and economy. I gradually realized that energy was a master key that could unlock a lot of those puzzles and help us understand how to ask the right questions to deal with the others. But I wanted to do a doctorate in energy, and they said, “Energy? What’s that? It’s not an academic subject, is it? We haven’t a chair in it. Pick a real subject.”

Andy Vantrease  13:10
And that was in ’70, ’71?

Amory Lovins  13:13
’71, which was years before the Arab oil embargo broke on the world like a thunderclap. You know, the biggest energy shock, and then another in ’79 with the fall of the shock. Up until today, when we have Putin’s war, producing another energy shock of similar size, greatly speeding up the energy transition. At any rate, I said, “Well, I think in that case, I’ll just resign the fellowship a year early and move to London to pursue this because I think it’s going to be very important rather quickly.” Two years later, of course, they knew what I was talking about. Now, Oxford has hundreds of people doing great work on energy. They have many chairs, and I just happened to be a few decades too early.

Andy Vantrease  14:01
What was it that catalyzed this fascination with energy? You just explained that you gradually started to understand that the world was heading in a direction that you wanted to do something about. How did you come to have such a strong interest in it? I mean, strong enough to say goodbye to Oxford.

Amory Lovins  14:23
Well, in those days, there wasn’t any place where you could study energy policy. It was simply what emerged de facto from the choices of the energy companies, engineers, lawyers, accountants, and executives. In those days, energy efficiency was a barely recognized possibility. But solar power was something done at extraordinary expense on a few military satellites. Nobody thought it might end up on your roof, beating everything else. It’s now the cheapest power source in the world. Machines were thought quaint and uneconomic, and no, you can’t possibly make electricity cost effectively out of those. In fact, when we talked in those days about solar energy, we meant solar water heaters on the roof. That was considered pretty advanced.

But it was also clear that there were two—actually I identified probably a dozen—existential threats to the human prospect. Two that I thought were particularly important and correctable: climate change, on which my first professional paper was in 1968, and nuclear proliferation, the spread of nuclear weapons, which I’m afraid we’re about to get a lot more of now. I’d had some ideas about those and had interesting discussion partners. One of my mentors at Harvard was a great inventor, Edwin Land, who started Polaroid and taught me things like, “Never undertake a project unless it is manifestly important to nearly impossible.”

Andy Vantrease  16:02
Wow, that’s a hell of a lesson to teach somebody.

Amory Lovins  16:04
“Any problem can be solved if it is correctly stated,” and he said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing to excess.” Anyway, I’ve heard a lot from him and from some special Harvard faculty members like the classicist John Finley, Ray Chemists, Letty Nash, and Bill Lipscomb. In a series of accidental connections, I got connected with David Brower, the greatest conservationist of the 20th century. Dave started the modern version of the Sierra Club. He really built that up into the powerhouse it is now then he started Friends of the Earth, and Earth Island and so on. He was also very well known for publishing a magnificent series of coffee table books on the earth’s wild places. He had me do one of those on the mountains of North Wales, providing the writing and half the photography. Part of the text was about how the world’s largest mining company wanted to do strip mining for copper and dredging a beautiful estuary for gold. I got involved in that through the book a bit, in which they tried to stop with threat of a libel suit, and that drew a lot of attention to it, thank you. They went away mad, and the copper is still there. Decades later, they’re our favorite client, we’re their favorite consultants—now called Rio Tinto—and we’ve been helping them lead the greening of the mining industry. Sometimes over dinner with the executives I’d describe some of our early history together, which was not so friendly. We all have a good chuckle over it.

Andy Vantrease  17:48
Yeah, and long, long evolving relationships during your career.

Amory Lovins  17:54

Yeah, another one with Royal Dutch Shell. My famous soft energy path graph in foreign affairs in ’76 took shape the previous year on a blackboard at Royal Dutch Shell group planning in London. Because the Nobel physicist, Dennis Gabor, who invented holography, was asked by some top people at Shell, “What on earth is going on with energy? We had this embargo in ’73. We don’t know which way is up. Do you know anybody that might help us think this through?” And Dennis said, “Well, there’s this bright young American physicist that you might want to talk to because he seems to have original ideas.” And that’s been now a 47-year relationship. They have people of very high quality. They have unusual culture, and I think it’s helped me understand their business and maybe help them learn some things about different ways to do it.

Andy Vantrease  19:00
I want to talk about the ways that you seem to operate and work, really not being afraid to ask different questions. Some of the things that Edwin Land instilled in you gave permission, or even gave some confidence to you for thinking differently. Can you just reflect a bit on your creative process when it came to the beginning of understanding the landscape of the problems that you saw in the world? And how to even take that first step in solving them?

Amory Lovins  19:39
That’s a very important point, Andy, because the reason I was able to reframe the energy problem was there was no place you could study it. I didn’t know that much about it, so I had nothing to unlearn. Therefore, I was able to practice, and I’ve cultivated ever since, what in Eastern tradition is called beginner’s mind, original mind, child mind—where you let go of all assumptions and preconceptions, and therefore can take a completely fresh view. In those days, for example, the energy problem was thought to be, “Where do we get more energy? More of any kind from any source at any price.” I started, instead, at the other end by asking, “What do you want energy for? What are you trying to do with it?” You don’t really want lumps of coal, raw kilowatt hours, barrels of sticky black goo. You’re actually trying to get hot showers and cold beer and comfort and mobility, and to bake bread, and smelted aluminum and so on. For each of those so-called end uses, which had not been previously examined, how much energy of what kind or quality, at what scale, from what source, will do the job in the cheapest way?

This was a revolutionary inversion of what problem we were trying to solve. It turned out to give far better foresight, and it’s now very widely adopted. But when I followed that logic, of course, it led to a completely different sort of energy vision, where you’d bring a lot more work out of the energy we had. That was the cheapest thing to do. And then increasingly get it from renewable sources that would be the right size and quality for the job, and socially compatible and acceptable and accessible.  Well, this happened through the influence of a great lady named Mary Bundy, Dean Acheson’s daughter. She happened to be able to influence her husband, a great editor of Foreign Affairs, Bill Bundy, to publish his first ever energy article. There it was in the bosom of the establishment. It was really revolutionary.

In those days, photocopying machines were scarce and expensive. There was no internet, of course, in ’76. But gradually, people started to read this article, partly because there had been an article by some Israeli politician or diplomat in the same issue. And there was an error in drawing a map that was thought to be a political statement about batteries. So, everybody dove into the issue to look at the map. They ran across my article and started to read it then started to send zillions of photocopies all over the place. At that time, it was already clear that what I call the hard energy path, a lot more coal, nuclear oil, gas, etc., wouldn’t work. It was too costly, too slow, too difficult, too disagreeable. But nobody had formulated a coherent alternative vision. And being in the right place at the right moment through great, good fortune and Mary Bundy, and Bill’s good judgment. Well, this was greatly assisted by the energy supply industry incumbents, because they reacted with absolute fury. Just the other day I was looking at some of the extraordinary things they said in those days.

Andy Vantrease  23:18
What were some of those things?

Amory Lovins  23:21
That the logic was flaccid and flatulent, and they feared the onset of a new Dark Age, where we’d be back to caves and candles if we tried to decouple energy growth from economic growth. Edison Electric Institute made a whole special issue of its magazine of critiques of my paper. This, of course, drew a great deal of attention to it. After about a year of this, the dust was starting to settle a little. It was obvious the critics had not done very well, because I’d done my homework. Dave Sterlite, then the Chief Economist of Atlantic Richfield, kind of closed that stage of the debate by saying, “Well, I for one, don’t care if Lovins is only half right. That would be a better performance than I’ve seen from the rest of them!” Now, look back on 45 years of my 50-year illustration of how energy could evolve, and it’s right within a few percent in 2000, and not far off now. The renewable part got delayed by decades of hostile federal policy, but it’s now just going gangbusters, catching up quickly.

Andy Vantrease  24:34
What’s it been like for you to be such a pioneer your whole life? You had said that some of your ideas were 40 years too early at Harvard and Oxford.

Amory Lovins  24:46
It’s sort of a pattern. I’m just a few decades out of phase with reality.

Andy Vantrease  24:53
But what’s that been like? What are the challenges of knowing that you have these convictions and you know what you’re saying is true, but you’re kind of up against incredibly powerful forces?

Amory Lovins  25:08
Yeah, but I’m not easily intimidated. And there are ways to persuade people to do what is in their self interest and happen to fit my mission. That requires most of all, empathy and compassion. I don’t feel any compulsion to inflict my truth on people. I like Saul Alinsky’s advice to talk to folks where they’re at, not where you’re at. By empathetic listening, I can understand better what they’re trying to do, which is often very capable and honorable and well meant, and suggest or better still, help them think of better ways to achieve their goals. But to do that, I have to focus on outcomes, not motives.

Andy Vantrease  25:57
You’ve worked in 70 countries, you founded and started RMI, formerly known as Rocky Mountain Institute in ’82. Throughout your career, when you’ve consulted with a lot of these companies that sit on different sides of the equation of the energy problem, how are you using those listening skills, that empathy, that compassion, to go in and meet them where they are? What does that process look like?

Amory Lovins  26:25
Well, it’s important that they think it’s their idea, so they own it. I help them discover different ways of doing business, often with the principles of natural capitalism, advanced resource efficiency. That gives them elegant frugality, it’s very profitable, it also creates abundance by design for everybody. Some of them get quite excited about it, some get mad, but I tend to work with the early adopters, and not spend so much time on the laggards. I let them discover in the market what they need to do, and either catch up or fail.

I was just looking at verse 36, of the wisest book I know, the Tao Te Jing by Lao Tzu. It says, “If you want to shrink something, you must first allow it to expand. If you want to get rid of something, you must first allow it to flourish. If you want to take something, you must first allow it to be given. This is called the subtle perception of the way things are. The soft overcomes the hard. The slow overcomes the fast. Let your workings remain a mystery, just show people the results.” And in my experience that really works.

Or verse 63, “Act without doing. Work without effort. Think of the small as large and the few as many. Confront the difficult while it is still easy. Accomplish the great task by a series of small acts.” Number 78 adds to that: “Nothing in the world is as soft and yielding as water. Yet for dissolving the hard and inflexible, nothing can surpass it. The soft overcomes the hard; the gentle overcomes the rigid. Everyone knows this is true, but few can put it into practice.” I know that mastery can be gained by letting things go their own way, the way they want to go. Go with the flow. It can’t be gained by forcing and interfering. The Taoist ideal of “wu wei”—not doing—it doesn’t mean inaction or passivity or torpor, it means being utterly engaged, but just doing little trim tabs to help things flow the way they naturally want to. That’s extremely effective.

I ended up doing a lot of what you might call institutional acupuncture, where you insert sharp little ideas at the right place in complex organizations or relationships to relieve the congestion of the qi, the vital force. Or you might call it the entrepreneurial juice, to get it flowing properly in the channels or direction it’s naturally wanting to follow. But this all goes back to beginner’s mind. There’s a wonderful story. It’s actually from China. Before Zen there was Chan, and a master of it, now named Nōnin in Japanese, was visited one day by—well, accounts differ—either an imperious official, or a rather full of himself professor, who said, “Teach me Zen.” And kept on talking about how much they knew about Zen. Nōnin smiled politely and poured tea and kept on pouring until it overflowed the cup, went onto the table and onto the visitor’s robes. The visitor became quite upset. He said, “Stop! No more will go in, it’s already full.” Nōnin stopped pouring and said, “You come here wanting to learn Zen, but you’re already full of your own assumptions and preconceptions. How can you learn Zen unless you have first emptied your cup?” A lot of my job is to keep re-emptying my cup.

Andy Vantrease  30:19
I’m so glad that you brought that up and that you read those excerpts. When it comes to our community at the Feathered Pipe Ranch and the Feathered Pipe Foundation, there’s a lot of Eastern wisdom and Eastern practices that people consult for their lives. I appreciate you bringing that into it. I’m curious of what other things do you do to keep emptying that cup and keep beginner’s mind on a daily basis, on a weekly basis? What are those perhaps more spiritual, more grounding practices for you?

Amory Lovins  30:53
I no longer have a formal meditation practice. Of course, when I was in the mountains 100 days a year, that’s kind of a walking meditation. I do some of it in photography, and I would probably be better if I did more of it. But I do reflect on and try to experience the Taoist way of being. By the way, there are 200 odd translations of the Tao Te Jing. Many of them are deeply scholarly and utterly unreadable. The one I like best is a version by Stephen Mitchell, and it comes in a nice little shirt pocket format. It’s 81 verses, you can read it in an hour, and work on it for the next few lifetimes. Because it’s a rendering not a detailed translation, it’s highly readable, and perfectly captures the spirit of the Tao. I also find that being in the Tao, so to speak, being in the natural flow of things, makes good things happen to help, that wouldn’t have happened otherwise. I’ll give you a couple of examples of how that works. We were halfway through building this building, which of course was costing twice what it was expected to, and I was doing it on a construction loan and supporting that nicely with lots of lecturing, writing, consulting. But one day the committee at the bank decided not to renew the construction loan because I didn’t have a regular paycheck from one employer. Even though it was steady income, it was highly diversified, always shifting, and they didn’t for some reason like that idea. They would have been left with a half built utterly useless masonry shell, which was a really stupid decision.

At any rate, I learned on a Friday morning that suddenly about a quarter million dollars had just vanished from my cash flow. I knew I’d have to shut everything down on Monday and send everybody home. Okay, cut to a few months before, one of our crew walking up the road had been picked up hitchhiking by a scruffy looking guy in a little Volkswagen Beetle, who ended up in our improvised hot tub. We got acquainted and it turned out to be the champion sparkplug heir Michael Stranahan, a wonderful local philanthropist who ended up being our first vice chairman for 10 years. But we talked about what we’re up to. So, a few hours after I get the bad news from the bank, the phone rings. “Howdy. This is Michael Stranahan, thinking about what you’re doing down there, and I’d kind of like to help somehow. Wondering if something like a $240,000 letter of credit will do you any good?” Exactly the amount of the construction loans! He swears to this day he had no information that this was going on. It’s just how things work. So, it got built, he and the bank both got paid off, and so on.

Another time down at the library on the other side of the jungle, where we founded RMI, it has a lot of wonderful built in bookshelves and a great curving counter that goes all the way around where you can sit and work and look into the jungle. Well, with all that stuff, the finished carpentry cost $14,000. We got to the decision point where I had to decide whether I’d commit to that, because otherwise I’d lose the carpenters at the height of building season. I’d never see them again, and they were terrific. They really liked doing curves, not boxes. I don’t normally spend money I don’t have, but I slept on it and my intuition said, “Yeah, go ahead. That’s about three speeches. You can probably find three speeches in time to pay them.” A few hours after I make that decision, the phone rings; it’s the Right Livelihood foundation in Stockholm. We just won a $14,000 prize.

Andy Vantrease  34:45
Amazing.

Amory Lovins  34:46
If you’re in the flow, good things tend to help you along.

Andy Vantrease  34:50
Yeah, I think about our mutual friend Chris Cappy. He calls that helping hands, from Joseph Campbell.

Amory Lovins  34:57
Yeah, exactly. I’d never built a house before, so I didn’t know what we were trying to do was impossible. That’s what made it possible. “Don’t undertake a project unless it is manifestly important and nearly impossible.” It wasn’t quite impossible, because here we are ripening our 80th passive solar banana crop with no heating system. And in 1983, it was cheaper to build it that way because we saved more construction costs not needing a heating system, then you pay extra for the stuff that got rid of it.

Andy Vantrease  35:26
This is a good segue into learning more about your house. Number one, it’s just fascinating to me. I think I’m of a generation of young people who are trying to figure out alternative ways of living. I have plenty of friends that live in vans, live in converted buses, and a lot of people spending time in intentional communities. So, you are in Snowmass, Colorado at 7,100 feet, and you’ve built this house and office that has a 900-square-foot jungle smack dab in the middle of it, where you grow bananas and mangoes and coffee and all these other various amazing foods.

Amory Lovins  36:10
Loquats, passion fruit, grapes, citrus, you name it. There’s a bunch of Bornean plants here to keep the orangutans happy.

Andy Vantrease  36:19
I think a good way to go about it would maybe just be talking about some of the main features that you talk about when you’re giving house tours to people, and kind of coming at it from the sense of people being interested in that integrative design, that whole system design, and how each feature has four to six functions.

Amory Lovins  36:41
Or more. The arch that’s holding up the middle of the building has 12 functions, but only one cost. It’s designed the way nature does. Everything does many different jobs. The house is about 4,000 square feet of slipform masonry with a foam core in the walls. Roughly R40 walls, R80 roof, very airtight, ventilation heat recovery, so you get plenty of fresh air but get most of the heat back. It gently steps down the hill, it’s all kind of curvy. If God had meant us to live in boxes, she would have given us corners. Curves are very restful to the spirit. Instead of just putting in as much insulation as would save enough energy to pay for itself from saved heating fuel, we also took account of the avoidable cost of the heating system and heating equipment.

So, we put in about three times the normal insulation, and especially twice the normal area of windows, and made them insulate like 16 to 22 sheets of glass that look like two and cost less than three, using special coatings that let light through but not heat, and insulate really well with heavy gas inside. When you put all those pieces together, you have a daylit, 99% passive solar heated building, with lower construction costs. I think in ’83, we saved about $1,100 compared to building to code, so I reinvested that plus more in saving also 99% of the water and heating energy, 90% of the electricity, and half the water. All of those savings paid back in 10 months with 1983 technology.

Today’s is a lot better and cheaper. It’s just a wonderful place to live and also, by the way, to hang out during the pandemic, which is one of the contingencies we had in mind when designing it. We have this 10-meter commute across the jungle between home and office. Judy has her master printmaker photographic studio down there. I do my writing up in the loft and we can talk to each other whenever we want. We swing back up here to the living area. By the way, the orangutans I mentioned are taxidermically challenged.

Andy Vantrease  39:05
I was going to ask about that.

Amory Lovins  39:08
Fifty of them that meditate in the front hall, but they’re there because sometimes—it’s happened once—we have a banana emergency. That’s what happens if all six banana root balls decide to fruit at the same time. That’s a quarter ton of ripe bananas. And when that happens, you really need to call them out after midnight and resolve the situation.

Andy Vantrease  39:31
I don’t think I had pressed record when we were talking about the different foods that you eat out of this jungle and the garden…

Amory Lovins  39:39
Yeah, we have a lot of bananas and at various times, we’ve had pineapple, guavas, some cinnamon, mangoes, papayas, babacos, oranges, lemons, limes, grapes, figs—including Bornean sugar palms, Bornean mahogany. Ginger, coffee, over 100 kinds of higher plants, 11 kinds of beneficial insects to eat the others. And running through the middle of it, there’s a waterfall feeding through to fish ponds with fish, clams, worms, crayfish, occasionally a singing frog. And then it’s back up. This is another interesting example of how things happened to help. The day we’re building the waterfall, this Japanese guy shows up. In his bad English and my worse Japanese, we figure out that he’s actually a professional waterfall tuner, there to tune our waterfall so the splashing will be in the soothing alpha wave frequency range instead of the annoying beta wave range. So, he moves stuff around, gets it splashing the way he likes and goes away.

Andy Vantrease  40:53
Wow. I’m really curious, and I’ve done some natural building myself with cob and bamboo and things like that. Not necessarily part of the design side at all, more of the worker bee that’s being told how to do things. But I find it really interesting—the build of your house and some of the integrative design that you work on is such a mirror of nature. Even one of those excerpts from the Tao Te Jing said water is the most gentle but powerful force. Would you say that what you call integrative design, is using the wisdom of God or nature’s built-in genius?

Amory Lovins  41:39
Janine Benyus said in her wonderful book, Biomimicry, there are 3.8 billion years of design experience outside, or in this case also inside. It can teach you a lot about how things are made, how they work, and how they fit. The 99% of designs that didn’t work, and weren’t resilient or didn’t learn enough, all got recalled by the manufacturer. The 1% maybe that did work, are wonderful teachers. She invented this whole art and science of Biomimicry: innovation inspired by nature. And then we had the privilege to help her a little in the early days to reorganize the biological literature by function, not by organism. Now if you go to AskNature.org, you can enter your design problem: I want to glue stuff underwater; I want to walk upside down on glass; I want to show color; I want to dissipate heat. Whatever my design problem is, I write it in and up pop the 17 organisms that have figured out how to do that, the science on how they do it, and the industrial partners who are emulating how they do it. They’re gaining this competitive advantage, so any smart company now has a biologist or more at the design table.

Andy Vantrease  43:05
Interesting, because I was going to ask if somebody listening wanted to build a house like yours or get started looking at some of these ideas, where would you send them?

Amory Lovins  43:15
Well, Biomimicry is a good book to read. In fact, there are some interesting biomimetic buildings, lots of them. As a small example, the biggest commercial building in Harare in Zimbabwe, is designed around what his architect, from Arup, learned crawling around in termite mounds, which are these big things you see sticking up in that part of the world. They turn out to be extremely sophisticated in their tunnels and air oscillations that go on inside because the termites are fungus farmers, and the fungi are very particular and having to be kept in a very narrow range of temperature and humidity while you have these severe temperatures outside. So, they figured out how to do that, and he just designed the building to do the same thing. It uses something like 90% less energy to keep you comfortable, and that meant it was much cheaper to build. You didn’t need all that equipment, and you don’t need so much energy to run it. Therefore, it’s a delightful space with something like 20% lower rents. And you could do that in about any climate.

Andy Vantrease  44:22
Any climate and would you say all of these ideas are also scalable? What you’ve done to your house, is this what you bring to commercial buildings, and land and sea vehicles, and just every industry that you’re working in?

Amory Lovins  44:36
Yes, we’re co-leading the design of a great ape house in Iowa. By the way, that means you have to design for volume, not plan area because the apes fill the entire volume if there’s anything to swing on. These are talking bonobos and interspecies design, which is quite a trip because they’re quite good designers. You can ask them what they want, and they tell you through a lexigram keyboard.

Andy Vantrease  45:01
What? Really?

Amory Lovins  45:02
They understand a few thousand words of English… but that’s a whole other conversation. 1% of my work is on great ape language. Maybe it’s the most important percent because it tells us not just who they are, but who we are: aspiring medium primates trying to become higher primates.

Yes, these ideas are very widely applicable. In fact, this building I’m in is really an adaptation of 6000-year-old North Chinese passive solar architecture. We just updated the technologies. It’s amazing how all these aspects of my work and life flow together. I’ll give you a little example—we wrote with Paul Hawken, in ’99, a book called Natural Capitalism. It’s still widely used in business schools and gradually realizing its potential in the world. It’s about how to do business as if nature and people were properly valued, but without needing to know or signal their value. A few weeks after it was published in England, some unknown hero at the Chinese Embassy in London sent it by a diplomatic pouch to Beijing, to the number two ideologist of the Chinese Communist Party—not somebody I would ordinarily expect to run into. Li Baoheng, a deeply cultured, most remarkable man. He wrote the slogans that shaped the nation’s mind. Think of him as the top creative ad exec for 1.4 billion people.

So, he called me up. I was in London, and he said who he was, that he had just read this book, and it was the greatest thing since wild rice and just what China needed at this stage of development. And would I be okay with the party publishing it in translation? I said, of course, how can we help? Well, he got it translated by a crack team and published by his daughter’s house, Shanghai Popular Science Press, and launched by the mayor of Shanghai who had done the Pudong modernization of the city. He wrote a preface in the name of the party saying, “This is politically fine, you won’t get in trouble reading this. In fact, go do it.” And most importantly, he got the most marvelous title for it, [Natural Capitalism; Chinese title], which literally means, ideology of, or treatise on natural capital, but in those five characters, it bows to Marx, Lao Tzu, Confucius, environmentalism, business management, culture, entrepreneurship, about eight directions, and I’m not even counting the homophones. You can only do this stuff in Chinese. Best title we’ve ever had for any book in any language.

Well, during the course of working together on the book, we started getting acquainted. One day Mr. D and I are floating down the river through Shanghai, and I see him looking kind of wistfully over at the docks. I say, “Did you know that part of town?” He said, “Oh, yes, I was a manual laborer there for 10 years in the Cultural Revolution.” Not an uncommon story. As I listened to him some more, I realize, this guy might be a Taoist. He kind of sounds like one. I pull out this little stone I keep in my pocket engraved with the character Tao (path or way), which I keep to remind me, in case I ever need reminding, what not to do. Where I shouldn’t interfere. Let things take their course. And he lit up. He didn’t know there were western Taoists, or that I might be one.

We were then really bonded and did some great stuff together. Except he didn’t tell me one thing—he had leukemia, and he died six months after the book came out. Whereupon his former boss, the top economist in China, was the chief ideologist for a while, Tong Dalin—in memory of his friend and for the sake of China—took this translation and put it personally in the hands of the then and the later paramount leaders of China, every state councilor, every provincial governors, saying, “You must read this.” And because he’s so revered, many of them did read it. I’m told this had a lot to do with China’s making energy and resource efficiency the top strategic priority for national development in the 11th Five Year Plan. That worked out really well, and we were able to reinforce it in the 13th Five Year Plan, and now it’s carried on more in the 14th.

It really has made China the world’s leader in renewables. They make most of the solar and wind power stuff and buy about half of it. They’re saving energy faster than anybody. It doesn’t mean we agree about everything; we don’t have to. But RMI now has a very vibrant Beijing office working for the National Energy Administration, and working closely with the top strategy agency that writes and enforces the Five Year Plans with their top energy think tank, with which we then arranged a collaboration to figure out what Reinventing Fire would look like for China. That went right into the 13th Five Year Plan, whose authors happened to be on our steering committee. That opened similar doors in India, where we have an affiliate working with the Prime Minister’s strategy agency to help make Indian mobility of people in goods shared, connected, and electric. That’s just taking off like a rocket. Now we’re able to spread those kinds of insights into other parts of Asia, other parts of the world. Who would have thought that that might come from a random Taoist connection?

Andy Vantrease  50:42
Right. On a river, floating down a river. Looking back on things now, how has your life and your career turned out differently than you might have imagined, say, in your twenties and thirties?

Amory Lovins  50:58
Well, before that, I’d already decided not to pursue piano and maybe composition for a career. It would have to have been the only thing in the world, and it wasn’t. Then it seemed I might become an academic, and I had this nice Harvard / Oxford career and a don at Oxford, and so on. But then partly under Dave Brower’s influence realized that that wasn’t the most important thing I could be doing. And it wouldn’t really matter if we figured out the tertiary structure of proteins if we weren’t here. I realized that we are the first self-endangered species, and I hope we won’t be the last one. We better get out of that business and learn how to live in harmony with the Earth and each other. So that became a calling, and energy seemed the obvious thing to work on to solve a lot of problems without making new ones.

Do you know our guiding parable at RMI about parachuting cats? That in the 50’s, the Dayak people in Borneo—funny how Borneo keeps coming up… I’m a born-again Bornean—but anyway, they had a malaria problem. And the World Health Organization had a solution: They’d spray DDT all over. They did, it killed the mosquitoes, malaria declines. So far, so good. But then the roofs of people’s houses started to fall down on their heads because the DDT poisoned tiny little parasitic wasps that previously had controlled the thatch-eating caterpillars, which then munched up the roof hatching. So, the colonial government gave people cheap metal roofs, and then folks couldn’t sleep because of the noise of the tropical rain on the tin roofs at night. Meanwhile, the DDT-poisoned bugs were getting eaten by geckos, which were eaten by cats, and the DDT built up in the food chain and killed the cats, or maybe the cats just licked it off their fur. Anyway, the cats died. Without the cats, the rats flourished and multiplied, and soon the World Health Organization, which has started this chain of events, was threatened with potential outbreaks of typhus and plague of its own making, and was thereby obliged to call in the Royal Air Force from Singapore, round up lots of stray cats in Kuala Lumpur, and conduct operation cat drop, parachuting large numbers of cats into Borneo. You can’t make this stuff up.

Andy Vantrease  53:22
No, you can’t!

Amory Lovins  53:23
A friend of mine, who speaks about 15 Indonesian languages, has just confirmed with the elders in that part of the country that yes, indeed, one day cats fell from the sky. What this story tells you is that if you don’t understand how things are connected, quite often the cause of problems is solutions. Our job is to understand and harness those hidden connections, so the cause of solutions become solutions. And you can solve or better still, avoid a problem in a way that solves or avoids a lot of other problems at the same time without making new ones—before somebody has to go parachuting more cats.

Andy Vantrease  54:04
That really is such an example of the ways that many corporations and a lot of organizations try to solve problems.

Amory Lovins  54:12
No, if you chop it into smaller pieces and try to do just one thing then the cause of problems is solutions. General Eisenhower had wonderful advice about this: If you can’t solve the problem, make it bigger. Don’t chop it into smaller pieces and lose all the connective tissue. Move the boundary out until it encompasses everything the solution requires. Very powerful idea.

Andy Vantrease  54:37
I want to end with asking you… I heard in another interview that you did, this idea of applied hope. Is that something that is at the forefront of how you keep going amidst what we face today?

Amory Lovins  54:53
Absolutely. The term goes back to a time when Bill McClarney was stirring some bad algae in his Costa Rican lab, and some brassy North American lady strolls in and says, “What are you doing stirring this bad green goo? What really matters in the world is love.” So, Bill stirred some more and thought about it and said, “Well, there’s theoretical love. And then there’s applied love.”

A lot of us stir and strive in a spirit I call applied hope, which is not some airy theoretical hope. It’s not glandular optimism, which is another kind of fatalism where you treat the future as fate not choice and don’t take responsibility for creating the world you want. Applied hope is a very deliberate choice of heart and head to do each day the things, make the choices that will create a world worth being hopeful about. Frances Moore (Frankie) Lappé said that, “Hope is a stance, not an assessment.” And Raymond Williams said, “To be truly radical is to make hope possible, not spare convincing.” And then that great activist Saint Francis of Assisi said, “Preach the gospel at all times, if necessary, use words.”

So, sometimes when I’m giving a talk, I’ll get a question saying, “How dare I propose solutions? Isn’t resistance futile? Look at all the suffering in the universe and all the bad things happening in the world!” The only way I found to deal with that is to ask as politely as I can: “Yeah, I can see how you feel that way. Does it make you more effective?”

I had a student once who said she was so down about all the bad things happening in the world, she’d lost hope and couldn’t imagine bringing a child into such a world. We talked about it, and it quickly became obvious to both of us that she hadn’t lost hope at all. She knew exactly where she’d left it.

I’m devoted to the remark of Goto Roshi, who said, “Infinite gratitude for all things past; infinite service, to all things present; infinite responsibility to all things future.”

Andy Vantrease  57:27
Amory Lovins. A brilliant man who has undoubtedly changed the world in various ways through his efforts with RMI, his books and his consulting work all over the globe. I’m so happy with where this conversation flowed today, giving us an inside look at the foundation of Amory’s creativity, his spiritual practices and philosophical beliefs, and the circumstances and choices that led to him becoming one of the most highly regarded geniuses of our time.

Perhaps what landed with me most was the excerpt from the Tao te Ching about water… and thinking about how the features of this element really mirror Amory’s approach to life. Not forcing his ideas upon anyone, but gently and powerfully streaming these ideas into spaces where they could enact change. Using empathetic and active listening to meet people where they are and help them come up with their own decisions. It’s more subtle than some would think, but it’s effective. It’s sustainable. It’s natural.

To learn more about Amory’s work, visit RMI.org and JudyHill.com to check out his landscape photography.

A special thank you to Matthew Marsolek and the Drum Brothers, whose music you hear at the beginning and end of this podcast, as well as Dr. Jean Shinoda Bolen, who first turned us on to the phenomenon of the Dandelion Effect and how ideas move through the world.

This podcast is a production of the Feathered Pipe Foundation, a 501c3 dedicated to healing, education, community and empowerment. If you’d like to help support this project, please visit FeatheredPipe.com/gratitude or leave a review on Apple podcasts and share with your friends. Be sure to tune in to our next episode in two weeks. We cannot wait to share another amazing conversation with you. Until then, have a beautiful day!