Melting ice caps, starving polar bears and costal towns in eminent danger of submersion -- all of these depressing scenarios are at least in part the results of the stubborn belief that energy efficiency is inevitably and prohibitively expensive. But a recent string of unlikely developments shows that the prevailing wisdom, epitomized by our favorite Veep's dismissal of conservation as a mere "sign of personal virtue," might finally be shifting. A group of evangelical leaders is calling measures against global warming a "moral imperative"; the CEOs of 10 major corporations, including DuPont and Duke Energy, are demanding mandatory emissions caps (yes, you read that correctly); and President Bush himself finally acknowledged in his State of the Union speech that warming is an established fact.
At the forefront of the radical idea that it's not only imperative to offset and reduce oil consumption but cheaper as well is the ever-optimistic and quirkily ingenious Amory Lovins, the subject of a profile in last week's New Yorker. Lovins' consulting business, the Rocky Mountain Institute, has helped Texas Instruments and Wal-Mart profitably reduce their environmental footprint, and his unbridaled confidence in our ability to reverse our wicked environmental ways is a welcome antidote for those of us worried about, among other things, the noxious coal-burning plants TXU wants to build in our backyard.
Since a 1976 paper he wrote in Foreign Affairs warned against replacing oil use with coal-burning plants and suggested the U.S. could completely phase out fossil fuels at a profit, Lovins has cheerfully gone about his scientific business despite the idiotic recalcitrance of the guys in power.
"I don't do problems," Lovins tells The New Yorker's Elizabeth Kolbert. "I do solutions." Those range from known efficiency upgrades, such as replacing incandescent bulbs with fluorescent ones and replacing oil with biofuels and natural gas, to more creative and even zany ideas, including ultra-light cars made from carbon composites that use hybrid engines and get 70 miles to the gallon.
A few years ago, Kolbert points out, his firm designed a new Texas Instruments chip-manufacturing plant in Richardson that's expected to use 20 percent less energy and 35 percent less water than a typical factory of comparable size -- and for 30 percent less money! Wal-Mart, which has created its own electricity company in Texas and pledges to sell 100 million fluorescent light bulbs this year and install solar panels and windmills in some stores, also got help from Lovins. Under his tutelage, the company outfitted its 6,800 trucks with auxiliary power units so drivers don't have to keep the engine running in order to run the air conditioner while stopped. Efforts are also underway to double the fuel efficiency of the company's fleet within eight years.
Lovins claims we can eliminate oil use by 2050, even while reducing coal and natural gas consumption, and still enjoy unprecedented prosperity. Yeah, I know it sounds ludicrous, but this is a man who paid his way through Harvard by consulting in experimental physics for M.I.T. and lives on the edge of a mountain in a bioshelter heated entirely by the sun. So, can we nominate this guy for president? --Megan Feldman
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