(First published by 3BL Media Media/Justmeans)

What do Big Oil and whale oil have in common? According to Amory B. Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the sustainability-focused Rocky Mountain Institute, Big Oil is soon to follow whale oil’s downward trajectory toward extinction. At the Ceres Conference 2015 for sustainable business, Lovins challenged big businesses to rethink the outdated belief that investing in fossil fuels remains the safest way to get rich (dolphins, seabirds and humanity be damned).

At first look, Lovins appears to be a nerdy, middle-aged scientist in a suit, but once he starts talking, it becomes clear that he’s actually a brilliant revolutionary. Lovins’ message hasn’t changed much in the four decades he’s been doggedly trying to get the world to embrace renewable energy, but he’s accumulated more data to prove his point to a host of unlikely converts, from communist China to Arab sheiks and presidents of companies like Texaco.

Even if you don’t care much about the environment, Lovins makes the case that you’d be economically foolish not to invest in renewable energy, because green technology today is akin to the discovery of petroleum and its effect on the whaling industry of the 19th century.

In 1850, oil from the whaling industry lit most homes. Yet only nine years later, Edwin Drake, an ex-railroad conductor, drilled what is widely considered to have been the first oil well in the U.S., ushering in the oil rush and the effective end of whaling for oil. Even before Drake, coal and kerosene had begun to replace whale sperm oil, because those natural resources were more affordable and efficient—just as today, hybrids, electric vehicles and biodiesel are beginning to replace gas-guzzling cars and trucks.

Amory Lovins / Rocky Mountain Institute

Lovins teaches us history in order to wake us up to the notion that renewable energy isn’t just a matter of what’s good for the planet. What’s more, it’s foolish, bad for our collective pocketbooks and naïve to ignore the obvious: Alternative energy and advanced technology vehicles (and renewable energy sources in all sectors) are becoming more affordable and better for national energy security, and they’re creating a huge influx of new jobs.

Lovins understands that big money, big companies and the governments of big countries don’t respond to abstract arguments about values or future doom—they respond to cost and consumer demand, hard facts.

These are points that even Republicans can get behind. While our government remains too paralyzed to collaborate across party lines, Lovins is a bridge-builder between unlikely coalitions. In 2005, Robert C. McFarlane, President Reagan’s National Security advisor, writing in The Wall Street Journal, described the Rocky Mountain Institute as “a respected center of hard-headed, market-based research.”

The institute’s research suggests that lack of consumer demand may bring the oil industry to its knees. Though this seems impossible to believe now, while gas-guzzling minivans are still the norm in many parts of North America (and elsewhere around the world), Lovins sheds light on where the tide is turning. From Zipcar and the explosion of similar shared car services now available in cities like San Francisco, to electronic bicycles in China, to Uber and Google’s self-driving cars, he shows us the emerging trend that’s pointing away from single-family cars and toward a different kind of ownership model: a rental model, a bus-bicycle-walking model. In San Francisco today, bike rentals are all the rage; parents are biking kids to school on all kinds of fancy two-wheel contraptions that weren’t seen 20 or 30 years ago, when clunky old Chevys and Fords were more often the people-movers of choice.

Big auto companies are following Europe’s lead in producing smaller cars and lighter-weight electric vehicles, as governments from across Europe to the U.S. are offering financial incentives for residents who buy environmentally friendly vehicles. They’re recognizing that some members of the millennial generation are more interested in new tech, car-sharing apps and living a simpler, more eco-friendly lifestyle.Lovins and the Rocky Mountain Institute are dedicated to bringing the U.S. and China into leadership roles by driving down world carbon dioxide emissions 34 percent by 2050. Unless the two biggest polluters on our planet take the helm in this fight, Lovins knows we cannot win.

With the RMI collaborating with environmental thinkers and Chinese leaders, China is speeding ahead in its embrace of new sustainable technologies.

In China, entire cities are now being planned around bike lanes, electric scooters, walking paths and human interaction rather than highways. China has already solved some of its traffic and pollution problems with public transit and bike-sharing programs, forging a new model for overcrowded cities. What’s more, did you know you can rent an electric vehicle from a vending machine in China?

In his essay “Winning the Oil Endgame,” Lovins quotes Sheikh Zaki Yamani, who served as Saudi Arabia’s oil minister from 1962 to 1986, speaking in 2000:

“The Stone Age came to an end, but not because we had a lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not because we have a lack of oil. … [Fuel cell technology] is coming before the end of the decade and will cut gasoline consumption by almost 100 percent.”

For those who weep over the barrage of bad environmental news that batters us daily, Lovins’ message is enough to make even the worst pessimists hopeful. He dares to envision a world free of fossil fuels by 2050. Think this sounds impossible? Amory Lovins will find a way to prove you wrong.

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