Friedman, Lovins wow crowd at Aspen AREDay
August 21, 2010
ASPEN – Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman is “bummed out” over America’s lack of progress taking on climate change.
A friend of his labeled him and his peers as “the grasshopper generation” because of all the conspicuous consumption. “We ate through it all like hungry locusts,” he said Friday during an American Renewable Energy conference in Aspen.
Friedman was a featured speaker along with Rocky Mountain Institute founder Amory Lovins in what was billed as an “armchair chat.”
It’s no coincidence that the global economy and the world environment hit crisis mode at about the same time, in Friedman’s view.
“I believe when we look back at the years 2008 and 2009, what historians will ultimately say was it was a moment when both the market and Mother Nature hit the wall,” he said. “It was a moment when both the market and Mother Nature said, ‘Stop, hold on, this is your warning heart attack. You are growing in a way that is unsustainable. Turn back now.'”
Americans have gotten into the habit, by-and-large, of consuming things without making things. We lived off our inflated real estate values – refinancing our mortgages or taking out home-equity loans to live large, unconcerned about racking up debt.
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Friedman summarized the American economy of the young 21st century as this: “We were basically building more and more stores, to sell more and more stuff, to be made in more and more Chinese factories, powered by more and more coal, to earn China more and more dollars to buy more [Treasury] bills, to be circulated back to America, to build more and more stores.”
It was an endless cycle, and it was unsustainable, Friedman said.
In a similar way, humankind is burning through resources in a way that’s not sustainable, cooking the planet in the process and creating a problem for future generations to pay.
Now it’s the age of a “Re-generation,” Friedman said. The next generation will be charged with applying sustainable values to both the economy and Mother Nature. If they don’t, the market and environment will create unprecedented constraints for Americans to live under.
So, given that weighty assignment and the results so far, Friedman is bummed. “Cheer me up,” he implored Lovins.
The energy efficiency guru produced several kernels of optimism. Earlier in the 2000s, Ford Motor Co. adopted principles promoted by the Rocky Mountain Institute that geared Ford toward energy-efficient vehicles and business practices. The company survived the heat of the recession without requiring a government bail-out and it actually managed to improve its standing in the market, Lovins noted.
On the other side of the world, China is developing wind power and electric plug-in cars at a much quicker pace than anticipated after realizing that reliance on coal-fired power plants was fouling its water and air.
When Friedman asked if it is good or bad that China is “outgreening” global competition, Lovins said it’s a bit of both. The United States cannot afford to fall far behind the emerging giant, which recently overtook Japan as the second largest economy in the world. A “green” China poses a greater threat than Red China ever did, Lovins said.
On the other hand, stiff competition in renewable energy and energy efficiency might be what the United States needs to end debating and start acting, according to Lovins. He is among a growing number of scientists and activists urging a redefinition of the climate-change debate. Instead of promoting energy efficiency and renewable energy to save the planet, they should be promoted to improve national security as well as the bottom line of businesses, Lovins said. The results are the same – reduced emissions.
Too many people believe climate change is a hoax, he acknowledged. But no one argues against making or saving money – which energy efficiency is all about.
Moving toward a green economy is a matter of when, not if, in his mind. U.S. oil consumption peaked in 2007, and Lovins doesn’t see demand spiking past that point again. The amount of power produced by coal-burning plants is also dropping in the United States.
“Oil is becoming uncompetitive even at low prices before it becomes unavailable at high prices,” Lovins said. “So it will be the story of whale oil all over again.”
Lovins has little hope of Congress leading on the issue. He made a handful of references to members of Congress being bought and paid for by big-money interests. Rocky Mountain Institute has a bold plan to advance the green cause. Around the second quarter of next year it will unveil a “detailed road map” for getting the United States completely off oil and coal. The plan will show how businesses, rather than the politicians, can lead.
“It’s an end run around Washington gridlock,” he said.