The Roots of Change
To make a better world, we have to be able to imagine it.
Thursday, February 1, 2007
I came across this quote the other day: “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide the work, and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”
The quote, which is attributed to Antoine de Saint-Exupery, appeared in a New Yorker profile of Amory Lovins, the renowned physicist and environmentalist visionary (who, as it happens, visited Monterey in December). Saint-Exupery was quoted to illustrate an idea that has driven Lovins’ work for decades: When confronting a big problem that requires collective action, inspiration is a better motivator than force.
Lovins isn’t so much trying to build a ship as he is trying to turn one around. One of the first environmental scientists to recognize the threat of global warming, he has spent the past 20 years writing and lecturing on the topic. Meanwhile, he has helped develop technologies that reduce energy use and pollution, a project that has often found him working with, rather than against, some of the world’s biggest energy users and worst polluters.
Big changes can boil up when regular people decide they want to try something new..
Lovins’ most recent book, Winning the Oil Endgame, presents a strategy to rapidly abandon fossil fuels. In his view, this radical shift will not be driven by government regulation, but by the profit motive.
His book describes lots of cool alternative technologies that could immediately replace the inefficient stuff currently in use, which damages our quality of life and endangers our future. Given the opportunity, he insists, consumers will demand clean technology simply because it’s better. The companies that provide us with power and products will find that it is in their economic interest to supply that demand.
Lovins believes that can be enough to stop the headlong rush toward environmental destruction. He has faith in the free market; he has faith that people will ultimately do the right thing. While he hates practically everything about the world we have built, and fears that we are rocketing toward doom, Amory Lovins has faith that goodness will triumph.
The New Yorker profile of Lovins was headlined “The Green Optimist.” It included several interviews with environmental activists who believe he is somewhat deluded. It is a hard time to be an optimist.
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It wasn’t until I came across the Saint-Exupery quote that I started to see a connection between Amory Lovins’ ideas and a piece in these pages. But it seems to me that Earthbound Farm’s story demonstrates the fact that big changes can in fact boil up when regular people decide they want to try something new (see story, pg. 20).
Thirty years ago, organic agriculture was a radical idea, and I was a student at Cabrillo College in Aptos, one of the only schools in the country offering a program in the subject. I took the class along with a bunch of my friends. We were all amazed to learn about the dangers of industrial food production, with its reliance on pesticides and chemical fertilizers. We were excited by the idea that food could be grown organically. Only one of my friends stuck with it—the rest of us chose more practical careers.
My friend Steve was idealistic—he got into the organic farming business because he believed it would help make a better world. He banked his future on the fact that people would buy organic vegetables because they were better than the commercially-farmed stuff. Today, he lives on a 40-acre farm, in a beautiful house that he and his wife Lucy built. Steve didn’t get into organic agriculture to get rich, but if he wanted to, he could probably retire next week.
Myra and Drew Goodman, the owners of Earthbound Farm, got involved in organic ag just a few years after my friend Steve did, and probably for similar reasons. Today they sell organic vegetables in 48 states.
Organic farming has become a global movement. Simply because people want clean food, big ag companies are learning to produce crops without relying on chemicals. Even better, many consumers are seeking out locally-grown produce, and so family farmers—like my friends Steve and Lucy, or the dozens of growers who sell at our local farmers markets—can make a living.
When it comes to the food we eat, we are living in a different and better world. Amory Lovins may be right after all.
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Regulation, however, may still have its place. For instance, preventing the continued spread of E. coli may require that feedlot operators change their practices; some, like dairy man (and County Supervisor) Lou Calcagno, may choose to do so on their own accord (see story, news section). Others might need prodding.