LIFE LESSONS FROM GLOBETROTTING WITH AMORY LOVINS
How RMI’s cofounder effects change and inspires energy change-makers around the world
By Ryan Laemel, Manager in Rocky Mountain Institute’s India Program.
As the wheels kiss the tarmac good-bye, Aspen, Colorado’s snow-capped mountains come into view. I can see Amory Lovins, RMI’s cofounder and chief scientist, in the front row of our tiny plane, resting his arms at his sides after the 40th f lap of his “wings.” Amory enthusiastically f laps his arms during takeoff on every flight. By my rough math, Amory’s annual flap count must be well over 10,000. While he knows that he’s inside the boundary layer, with a twinkle he says, “It always seems to work!” and considers it an interesting sociological experiment with his cabinmates. It’s 7:09 a.m. on March 21, 2018, and we’re on our way to Cancun, Mexico, to meet with energy regulators. Amory starts working on his slides for a class we’re teaching with Stanford University next week.
I’m the latest person in a long line of RMI staff to have the privilege of globetrotting with Amory. In the past year, we’ve traveled together to Mexico, India, Japan, Germany, and Finland. Alongside my teammates in the Office of the Chief Scientist, I support Amory’s research, writing, projects, and travel. While I’m still learning what makes Amory such an effective and inspirational figure in the energy industry, our journey around the world has given me a glimpse of how we can effect change in our own worlds and inspire those around us. I’d like to share a few of those life lessons, drawing on quotes from Lao Tzu, the author of one of Amory’s favorite texts, Tao Te C hing.
Somewhere over the Gulf of Mexico, on our way to Cancun, I remembered my first trip with Amory. We went to Mexico City for the C40’s Climate Leadership Group — 90 of the world’s greatest cities working to address climate change.
Amory took the stage at the C40 with Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, to discuss the role of building efficiency in city climate action. Twelve minutes later, lightbulbs were going off as people realized that if superefficient, net-zero energy buildings offer compelling economics and higher performance, what is stopping us from scaling this solution?
Many participants walked away understanding that the process of designing, building, using, and learning from demonstration projects, such as Amory’s passive-solar “banana farm” or RMI’s Innovation Center, represents a discrete action — a first step — in the journey to better buildings around the world.
That first trip to Mexico City was also the first step in Amory’s and my journey together. It ended with a whirlwind of back-to-back meetings with Mexican electricity regulators, where we learned that the country’s regulators are actually ahead of the market. Instead of merely congratulating the regulators on their achievement, Amory provoked them into doing more by asking, “Now, how do you stay ahead?” After he offered a number of pieces of advice throughout that week, which were well received by a range of government officials, we boarded a plane to California to teach a course on resource efficiency at Esalen Institute.
Two months later, we were on a plane to India for a two-week trip that culminated in a design charrette on transforming India’s passenger mobility system. Amory and our colleague Clay Stranger had set up this engagement with the Government of India before I joined RMI. As I took the stage this time, I felt my curry-filled stomach in my throat. “I’m responsible for facilitating a group of CEOs and government officials?” I thought. While walking outside in New Delhi’s hazy air to calm my nerves, I remembered what Amory told me over the phone when I signed up to work with him: “Let’s wade into the ambiguity together!”
The work that we do at RMI involves embracing ambiguity — being open to what emerges and trying not to force outcomes, even when we have a vision of how the future might or should unfold. Amory’s words of wisdom helped me listen to and work with our Indian colleagues to co-produce a number of solutions that ended up in India Leaps Ahead, an RMI report that has helped shape India’s national dialogue around electric mobility.
A day later, we landed in Tokyo after a 10-hour flight from Delhi. We checked into the conference, hosted by Renewable Energy Institute, and headed to a nearby restaurant for Kaiseki — a traditional multicourse Japanese dinner — with Tachi Kiuchi, former chairman and CEO of Mitsubishi Electric America. At 82 years old, Kiuchi-san still works a full day, keeps up with his running, and does several hundred pushups each day. As plates of cold sashimi, hot miso soup, and sweet fruits appeared and disappeared, the meandering conversation set the stage for the following two days: an expert panel on Japan’s electricity sector and a keynote presentation on RMI’s work in China.
That morning, Amory sat quietly among a room full of experts, listening carefully to different players describe a long list of formidable obstacles that Japan’s government had systematically placed in the way of efficiency and renewables. Toward the end of the session, Amory’s microphone turned from red to green, and in typical Amory fashion he laid it out straight for them without beating around the bush. “If the government’s goal were to look as if it were favoring efficiency and renewables while actually preventing them from competing fairly in the market, its policies would look very like what we’ve just been hearing about all day,” he said. As the most senior foreign guest, Amory felt that he was best able, and therefore obliged, to say what was necessary. The room fell silent. Then, one after another, heads started shaking in affirmation.
“While I’m still learning what makes Amory such an effective and inspirational figure in the energy industry, our journey around the world has given me a glimpse of how we can effect change in our own worlds and inspire those around us.”
While Japan has taken steps to diversify its electricity supply mix following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, like many countries, much progress remains to allow efficiency and renewables to compete on a level playing field. Amory’s message — built on a foundation of persistent research and practice — was powerful because of its accuracy and its conciseness.
Tao Te Ching is full of paradoxes. So are our world’s energy system and our own lives. Amory has taught me that when we are rigid, we’re unable to see others’ points of view; the full range of possibilities isn’t on our radar. At any moment in our work and lives, we face a choice: to be hard and rigid, or to be soft and flexible — open to other ideas, beliefs, people, and situations. In my short time with RMI and Amory, I’ve seen firsthand how the latter approach can drive results on which my generation depends.
Amory closes his keynote in Cancun by saying, “Focusing on outcomes, not motives, can turn gridlock and conflict into a unifying solution to our common energy challenge.” I think that this aphorism rings true in our own worlds, too. After hurrying to a cab to try and make our flight so that we can reach Aspen before a winter storm rolls in, I plop down into my seat and settle in. Amory flaps his arms and goes back to working on his slides.