It’s Not Always Hard Being Green: A Soft Path to Sustainability

natural gas

Despite massive growth in the market for wind and solar power, the global share of fossil fuels versus renewables has stayed relatively constant, and carbon emissions hit an all-time high in 2018 and 2019. Perhaps the popular philosopher Kermit the Frog was right when he reportedly said, “It’s not easy being green.”

But as sources of earth-saving guidance, amphibian hand puppets can be less than reliable.  No matter Kermit’s counsel, the ‘hard path’ is not the only path to the future—and quite likely, it leads away from sustainable prosperity.

The Hard Path to the future, clean or otherwise, is hard-wired into our production and consumption machine. That’s one of the reasons the forced-march approach of fundamentalists right and left have such media appeal. Rational top-down industrial methods of production and consumption are what helped beat the Depression and win the war. The Marshall Plan assisted in rebuilding Europe and Japan. The military-industrial complex took us to the moon. So naturally, they are the go-to tools that entrenched institutions favor for dealing with climate change today. Because the left and right are divided, the only climate policies that are politically feasible are those that serve the production complex that generates products and services.

The messages that keep the public divided are those that serve the consumption complex—the corporate and other institutions that manage the media echo chambers to maximize ad sales. 

nuclear power

It doesn’t matter that the dominant media narratives demonize the entrenched institutions. The left can hate corporations and the right can hate the state all they want. What’s important is that they never join forces to challenge the production or consumption complex.

The separation of our left and right halves prevents the creative possibilities unleashed when their thinking is integrated. It’s not that every time the left and right engage they generate a breakthrough idea. In fact, most engagements lead nowhere, and most innovations fail. What’s destructive is that innovations are never given a chance to be tested. 

As former NIH director and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus explains, the system now favors those who can guarantee results delivered by entrenched groups rather than potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success.

Young innovators are discouraged from straying too far from postdoctoral work tightly linked to established developments. Seasoned inventors stick to established paths of innovation rather than exploring new fields. Some climate researchers say they are afraid to publish results that contradict climate orthodoxy because they do not want to be labeled a “denier.”

In a highly influential Foreign Affairs article in 1976, Lovins coined the term “soft energy path” to describe an alternative future where energy efficiency, smart design, and renewable energy sources would outperform the dominant “hard energy path” dominated by large centralized energy systems, facilities, and institutions.

While not all of his expectations were fully borne out, Lovins’ soft path more closely reflects the direction energy development has taken in the years since, than the linear forced-march path projected by mainstream energy analysts at the time. While not all of his expectations were fully borne out, Lovins’ soft path more closely reflects the direction energy development has taken in the years since, than the linear forced-march path projected by mainstream energy analysts at the time.

Lovins accurately foresaw the dramatically increased role that energy efficiency would play in meeting the nation’s energy needs beginning in the 1970s. During that decade, which was marked by two energy crises, the U.S. finally broke the seeming iron law of energy and GDP, which asserted based on 50 years of experience that GDP grows in direct one-to-one proportion to energy consumption. 

Lovins understood that it was cheaper to save energy than buy it; that while efficiency often required new designs and incentive structures, its underlying cost-effectiveness gave it more intrinsic potential as a major solution to energy demands than big capital intensive initiatives like fossil fuel projects and nuclear facilities, or even wind and solar farms.

As Lovins anticipated, between 1974 and the late 1980s, the largest source of energy for the U.S. economy was what he called “negawatts.” Efficiency increased the productivity of each unit of energy by more than 40 percent. By 1988, over 30 percent of the nation’s energy needs were provided, in effect, by efficiency, using 1974 as a base.

Amory Lovins

By efficiency, Lovins wasn’t just talking about tightening belts, switching to coffee mugs, or even building more efficient cars, homes, and appliances. A soft energy path, in Lovins’ view, represented a fundamental shift from an economy dominated by big centralized institutions driving mass production and consumption, toward one in which not just energy generation, but power in many of its social and political forms, is decentralized across a broader range of people and institutions.

Lovins explained that the most profound difference that distinguishes the soft and hard paths is their different socio-political impact. Both paths result in social change, “but the kinds of social change needed for a hard path are apt to be much less pleasant, less plausible, less compatible with social diversity and personal freedom of choice, and less consistent with traditional values than are the social changes that could make a soft path work.”

Hard-path proposals, while intuitively appealing in their linearity, would take us in the opposite direction. They trade away creative market institutions and instead centralize power in government agencies charged with planning, owning, running, or regulating. Theoretically, corporations would adhere tightly to the rules set forth by the government. But in practice, that’s not usually how it works. 

Big government and big business on today’s scale are both industrial-era institutions, growing off each other so that what benefits one tends to benefit the other.

A soft path, by contrast, is not dependent on extensive social planning, centralized decision-making, and large-scale capital allocation that meet specifications of central authorities. In fact, a major emphasis is to avoid commitments to inflexible infrastructure and centralized institutions that lock society into particular patterns for decades. The soft path relies instead on economic signals that cultivate efficient use of energy, smart design of homes and buildings, diverse energy sources matched in scale and quality to end uses, and special reliance on “soft energy technologies,” then thought of as solar, wind, biofuels, hydroelectric, and other renewables.

By staying flexible and adaptive, Lovins contended that a soft path could gently double the efficiency of oil utilization, step-by-step, as individuals freely choose from a variety of options, from simple basic tools to advanced technologies, lightweight materials, and digital communications.

Soft energy paths focus on meeting needs, not building pipelines and power plants. Lovins reminds us that energy consumption is not an end in itself, but a means to a variety of social ends. We don’t want big power plants and high electric costs, he often says, we want hot showers and cold beer.

Delivering what people want is easier if you give them options for how to get it. Top-down decision-making often results in one-size-fits-all solutions, hard-wired because of the money spent to implement them. Decentralized decision-making allows diverse approaches at the local level that meet the preferences of specific individuals and communities.
Hard paths are paved in straight lines based on central plans and institutional controls. Soft paths meander gently from bottom to top and side-to-side, reflecting the creative decision-making of individuals and small groups in their communities. They reflect the diverse and adaptive character of small-scale free markets and complex natural ecosystems. They embody the natural characteristics of feedback and adaptation, which enable ecosystems to thrive.
The vision that Lovins set forth inspired a generation of activists, who took up the cause in the 1970s by advocating not just renewable energy, but decentralized soft innovations across the board. Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, Jerry Brown’s Office of Appropriate Technology, magazines like Mother Earth News and Mother Jones, and the early sustainability movement itself all reflected the sensibilities of people grown tired of big centralized institutions, whether corporate or government.
Today, innovators like architect William McDonough, naturalist Janine Benyus, and many others inspire environmental and mainstream followers alike with their vision of a world that uses nature not primarily as a place to extract and dump resources, but as a source of ideas.
William McDonough came to public notice in 1984 when he was commissioned by the Environmental Defense Fund to design their new headquarters to meet high standards for indoor air quality and environmental sustainability. McDonough embraced the challenge and soon became renowned for his capacity to articulate, define, and deploy on green principles.
William McDonough

He went on to design major sites for The Gap, Nike, Herman Miller, and Ford Motor Company—the latter a 20-year, $2 billion environmental re-engineerings of the company’s legendary River Rouge Plant in Dearborn, Michigan, which included the world’s largest “living roof.”

McDonough built his sustainable architecture practice in part by criticizing the concept of sustainability itself. “Who would want simply a sustainable marriage,” he says often. Is that our highest aspiration—mere survival?

McDonough tells us that environmental problems are fundamentally “design challenges.” He frames design as “a beneficial, regenerative force—one that seeks to create ecological footprints to delight in, not lament.” He often says his aspiration is to design something like a tree, something that creates good, like oxygen, rather than minimizing negative impact. His designs incorporate multiple connections with nature, “lots of daylight and natural ventilation, roof-mounted PV panels, water cisterns to harvest rainwater, and rain gardens to absorb any storm runoff.” They draw on the biophilia hypothesis—the study of the human desire and physiological need for contact with nature.

If McDonough splashed onto the sustainability scene in the 1980s, Janine Benyus seeped in during the late 1990s and has flourished ever since, inspiring followers with her lovely expressions of Biomimicry, the art and science of nature-inspired design. Benyus, a Rutgers-trained naturalist with degrees in natural resource management and English literature, teaches that human beings should consciously emulate nature’s genius in our designs.

Nature has at least a 3.8 billion year history of product R&D from which we can draw, Benyus and others point out. They cite a host of examples: leaves are advanced solar cells that self-replicate; spiders create web silk as strong as the Kevlar used in bulletproof vests; tiny hooks on the surface of burs inspired the development of Velcro. Termite’s ability to maintain constant temperature and humidity in their termite mounds, despite extreme temperatures, led to office buildings that cut energy use 90 percent. Mussels create glues as adhesive as the most advanced glues invented by humans. Beetles harvest water from fog.

But Lovins, McDonough, Benyus, and their colleagues are rediscovering insights that have occurred to humans throughout time, as they learned from the natural forces surrounding them.
One of the early examples of biomimicry was Leonardo da Vinci’s “flying machine,” which emulated the flight of birds. The Wright Brothers derived inspiration for their first heavier-than-air aircraft from observations of pigeons in flight.
Ancient philosophers of the Arabic world noticed that when certain common substances were brought together, they would form uncommon substances with emergent qualities or “spirits.”
Alchemists are infamous for trying to discover the formula to turn lead into gold. They never succeeded at that transformation, but along the way, they discovered many combinations that yielded qualities, in many ways, as good as gold.

Modern science itself, in fact, turns the art of alchemy into a more exacting set of disciplines, describing how common substances can be combined to create uncommon ones with emergent qualities. Physics describes how subatomic particles—protons, neutrons, and electrons— when brought together in various combinations, form 118 distinct atomic elements, each with its own unexpected characteristics. 

Chemistry describes how, when these elements are combined in thousands of ways, they form air, water, and myriad of other compounds, with an even greater array of emergent qualities. 

Biology explains how these compounds, brought together to form cells, create emergent forms of life. Sociology and history and all the social sciences describe how these living beings join together to create complex communities of people and other living things.

In each combination, something is spent, but something different is earned. Each atomic, chemical, biological, and social combination takes energy and resources. But each generates entirely new qualities that are absent in the parts, yet present in the wholes.

This capacity of nature—to “upcycle” a simple set of resources into a more complex whole—is fundamental to sustainability. Life itself is one of these emergent qualities.

Systems Science, biased by industrial thinking, has grown dependent on reductionism. The essence of reductionism is that as we break complex wholes into their parts, and as we move from living systems to their non-living programmed parts, we notice that reality is reduced. Our higher qualities disappear one at a time. Like HAL the computer at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey, we lose everything that makes life not just worthwhile, but life.

This is what pits science and religion against each other, and contributes to the segregation of religious Americans into the Republican Party, and college-educated voters into the Democratic Party. Scientists have somehow decided that the qualities that emerge when parts come together as wholes don’t actually exist. Lacking material form, these qualities, we are told, are imaginary. We aren’t conscious. We have no freedom. We don’t actually love. We just think we do. Life is an illusion created by chemicals. We are accidental outcomes of random freak inter-plays of lifeless soulless matter.

Systems science suggests an alternative to the dismal implications of reductionist thinking. In What We Learned in the Rainforest—Business Lessons from Nature, I along with my co-author Tachi Kiuchi described the three Laws of System Dynamics that help living systems escape the fate suggested by scientific reductionism. They positioned these three as parallel to the Laws of Thermodynamics, which describe what happens as systems are taken apart.

Today, sustainability is the art and science of smart design—creating structural arrangements that harness system dynamics to yield precise qualities, while minimizing negative side effects. The qualities released through design can be applied in ways that are beneficial or harmful. As we discover ways to unleash new capacities, people and companies gain new power and assume new responsibilities.
Lovins, McDonough, Benyus, and their contemporaries have their critics. Some believe they oversell the potential of efficiency, design, biomimicry, and renewables, exaggerating their economic benefits and underplaying technical barriers. Some criticize them for adopting hard-path components to their agendas, seeking to ban or mandate certain technologies, processes, or chemicals, rather than adopting responsibility-based approaches that might achieve better results. Some point out that efficiency alone won’t stop overconsumption—unless external costs are internalized, as economists would say, it could simply lead to cheaper products and raise overall depletion.
Nonetheless, updated to reflect today’s political and economic environment, these gaps can be closed, and the soft path vision holds a number of key advantages over the hard path model that all of us too often advocate.

1. It is friendlier to things Americans care about—freedom, choice, variety, democracy, community values, and personal responsibility.

2. It is more aligned with digital technologies, which tend to disrupt big institutions, favor creativity and innovation, and potentially empower people. A soft path wouldn’t set the environment against technology—it would favor technologies that put power and choice in the hands of people. And of significant political importance, it would dramatically expand the potential of the digital sector.

3. It has broader political appeal, attracting free-market libertarians, technology entrepreneurs, fiscal conservatives, traditionalist do-it-your-selfers, and small-is-beautiful progressives who think globally but act locally.

4. It is compatible with the principles of sustainability in nature, the processes of feedback and adaptation that enable a rainforest to grow diverse, integrated, resilient, and sustainable.

5. It is much more likely to actually get the job done. In fact, while it’s hard to conceive of exactly what governments could mandate to assure a 350 ppm world with a maximum 2-degree temperature increase (despite their seeming firmness, hard path proposals do not guarantee that outcome), it’s far more likely that a soft path open to human creativity and innovation could approach that goal, or even surpass it in time.

declaration of interdependence
Even today, the barriers to a soft energy path are not primarily technical nor economic. They are mainly institutional and include an array of entrenched federal subsidies, innovation-resistant industrial practices, market-limiting regulatory structures, obsolete building codes, poorly-designed utility rates, inappropriate tax incentives, imperfect access to capital markets, and fragmentation of government and corporate responsibilities.
Those industrial-era standards reflect the linear planning world that Lovins sought to overturn in the 1970s. If those institutional barriers could be removed, Lovins wrote in 1977 that a soft energy economy “can be constructed in the United States with straightforward soft technologies that are now demonstrated and now economic or nearly economic.”
That hasn’t happened yet, but thanks to the disruptive power of digital technologies, innovators and entrepreneurs are beginning to undermine the hard rules of the industrial era, challenging every industrial age monopoly and oligopoly to either establish its dominance through its political influence or adapt and redefine itself for a new era.

Yet many of the institutional barriers that Lovins alluded to are still intact. Perhaps it is time for a coalition from the political left to the right to begin to dismantle them.

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