Hunter Lovins
“Climate-Safe California is the bold pathway that leads toward shared prosperity on a healthy planet – exactly what California and the world need now.” –L. Hunter Lovins, President of Natural Capitalism Solutions, Rocky Mountain Institute Co-Founder and author

Turning crisis into shared prosperity on a healthy planet: Hunter Lovins’s prescription for these crazy times

by Hunter Lovins


At the beginning of April, Hunter Lovins described her theory of change for us. We found it so inspiring, we asked her for her OK to share with you.

Hunter is an author, President of Natural Capitalism Solutions, co-founder of Rocky Mountain Institute, advisor to The Climate Center, and a pioneer endorser of Climate-Safe California, which you can endorse here.

“We need a better story, and we need to tie it all together. We need to counter the neo-liberal narrative of greedy bastards and perfect markets with shared prosperity on a healthy planet, and that by doing this you will make more money.”

People act from their values. These are often unexamined but derive from their internal narrative of what will enable them to survive/ prosper. People resonate with what reinforces their value system and tend to reject anything that seems couched in a different set of values.

People rarely change because they are given a new set of facts. This is especially true if the facts presented seem to conflict with their values. Talking more forcefully at them will only harden their values/ position. So climate deniers often know the climate facts better than climate activists. But they realize that if they accede to them, their valued way of life will be threatened, and it is more important to them to preserve what they value than to act on new facts. They may well be living in a state of cognitive dissonance, so greater pressure on them may be met with violent resistance, as it just makes this dissonance louder.

Facts only work with someone who values science and is unusually open to changing their mind – which, in fact, few “scientists” are. Thomas Kuhn and the Structure of Scientific Revolutions pointed out that old paradigms rarely fail because they are attacked. They fail because a new one that better fits known facts displaces the old one. And, he points out, this process is resisted.

Per the above, most of us form our values from stories. We are told stories by our parents, by the others in our social group, and these harden into values.

The prevailing economic story today is that of neo-liberalism. It is based on a set of principles that are, as H.L. Mencken, put it, are clear, simple and wrong:

  • Humans are greedy bastards. Individuals are the only legitimate actor, and his liberty must be preserved above all else.
  • But that’s OK because markets are perfect, and in a perfect market, you against me will aggregate to the greater good for all.
  • Therefore no government interference should be allowed in markets, except to maintain a military. If the economy is down, tough. The market will solve it.

No, the market won’t solve it. It never has. And the “science” behind these assertions is wrong.

Humans, according to Dr. Paul Lawrence of Harvard, and Dr. Michael Pirson of Fordham, have four drives:

  1. to acquire, and
  2. to defend what they acquire (So far, the neo-liberals agree.)

But then we have two more that are equally core to who we are as humans:

  1. the drive to bond, and
  2. the drive to comprehend – to make meaning, to tell stories.

It turns out that in the time of pre-humans, there were many tribes of pre-humans. Most went extinct. The tribe that survived (though fewer in number than the now endangered mountain gorillas) were those who cared for others. We know this from the archeology, the biology, the anthropologists, and the evolutionary biologists. These people cared for old toothless men and cripples. We know this from skulls found in the caves of this tribe. If you care only for yourself, you do not bring along old people or cripples. They slow you down.

You only care for useless members of the tribe if you care more for the good of all than you do for yourself. Their DNA is in you. It is in all of us. These are our ancestors. Their drive to bond is in you. The fact that you care for other people is NOT a bug; it is what it means to be human. The social Darwinism behind neo-liberalism is scientifically wrong.

So is the economics. Neo-liberal austerity has led to the greatest inequality since the Great Depression, and as Thomas Piketty has shown, this is causative of collapse. More, markets are FAR from perfect. Market forces are very powerful, but they are a terrible religion. Markets, at best, allocate scarce resources in the short term. Efficiently. They were never intended to be fair. They do nothing to care for grandchildren, or to craft a future worth living in. That is the job of a free people coming together in a democracy and saying what outcome we want. Policy, thus, has a critical role to play in delivering the sort of world in which we want to live.

But to get there we need a new narrative. The one that many of us have been offering is this: shared prosperity on a healthy planet. We hew to the science that tells us that people are caring, social beings, that we want to be part of something bigger than ourselves, to have meaning in our lives and to contribute. The healthy planet part is also based on the best science. The economy is a small subset of society, which itself is a part of the biosphere. A healthy biosphere is essential to a healthy society and therefore to a healthy economy.

Many of us have spent our careers trying to drive change in policy around climate. My first papers on this were in 1975. My first climate book was in 1981. Along comes a 16-year old girl with a story and 8 million people get into the streets. Because of that, Larry Fink, CEO of Blackrock, said, “Climate Change has become a defining factor in companies long term prospects….When millions of people took to the streets….” He committed Blackrock to exit certain investments that present a “high sustainability-related risk.” “Awareness is rapidly changing, and I believe we are on the edge of a fundamental reshaping of finance,” he said.

Some activists were annoyed that a kid has had more impact than they did after years of trying.

But Greta had a story. And it captivated people.

Which brings me to the second driver of change: money. For those in thrall to the neo-liberal perspective, if I can show you that behaving in ways that are better for people and the planet will make you more money, we don’t have to argue about climate science: we just get on with it. It is just better business to save the climate. This is the real reason that Larry Fink and the others are getting into the act. One, it’s the right things to do, and they know that. Two, the millions of people in the streets is a real wake-up call. Three, their own numbers bear out that it’s better business.

So my theory of change is that we need a better story, and we need to tie it all together. We need to counter the neo-liberal narrative of greedy bastards and perfect markets with shared prosperity on a healthy planet, and that by doing this you will make more money.

A final bit of my theory of change is that windows of opportunity appear suddenly. When they do you can achieve things that otherwise would have been impossible, but windows are narrow. They close. When they appear you have to go hard, demand big changes, and ensure that your narrative is more attractive than the one that just failed.

We’re in one. Everything just changed. Our neo-liberal loving Republicans just approved a universal basic income (more or less.) They have shown the willingness to print money to throw at this problem – granted, their definition of the problem is that their beloved economy is in shambles. But this is a time to go hard with the story that COVID is just a symptom, climate is similarly a symptom, and a much worse threat, of the same failure to live within planetary boundaries.

Second, the best way to recover economically is to invest in precisely what will help forestall the next crisis: renewable energy and regenerative agriculture. We need to build local resilience: energy preparedness, local healthy food, and for greater community. Everything you are calling for in your Climate-Safe California framework is what can enhance resilience and community prosperity.

Read about The Climate Center’s theory of change (strategy) here.

Endorse The Climate Center’s Climate-Safe California platform here.