Science Wednesday: Living the Sustainable Life

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By Becky Fried

Amory Lovins, winner of a MacArthur “genius” award, owner of 10 honorary doctorates, one of Time’s most influential people of 2009, and world renowned energy policy expert, kicked off Monday’s EPA 40th anniversary lecture with a self-proclaimed “stupid multiple choice question.”

“How would you rather die?” he posed to an eager audience. He then proceeded to list off possible answers:

“A: Climate disaster”

“B: Bioterrorism”

“C: Nuclear holocaust…”

There were scattered giggles in the crowd, but mostly silence filled the room.

“The real answer we want to see,” he said, “isn’t shown here. It’s D: None of the above.”

It was a dramatic way to make a solid point—sustainability isn’t about making things “less bad,” it is about designing things to be better, smarter, more efficient, and even beneficial—both environmentally and economically.

Lovins spent the next hour listing off dozens of ways that using combinations of technology and policy with smart design and strategy could not only lessen our use of unsustainable fossil fuels, but could actually make economic sense.

One case study he used was his own home. Despite being situated in Colorado, where temperatures reach well into negative digits, Lovins’ house has no traditional heating system. Instead, it is built and fitted with sustainable principles in mind— both for the environment and for his budget.

When it was constructed in 1984, Lovins’ home used just one-tenth the energy of a typical U.S. home of equal size. Now, with new photovoltaic panels installed, the house produces more energy than is needed, and even supports an indoor, banana-producing forest (really). The home is fitted with extra-wide plumbing pipes that run diagonally across the ceiling. This minimizes friction and reduces the amount of energy required to pump water through the pipes.

The virtual tour of his home captured the audience’s attention, but also showed that sustainable choices are both feasible and economically smart—Lovins saved thousands of dollars by building his home without traditional heating and plumbing systems.

The lecture was presented in the context of the “Reinventing Fire,” a campaign led by Lovins through his post at the Rocky Mountain National Institute. The campaign aims to “create a clear and practical vision of a fossil-fuel-free future for the United States,” and “to map a pathway to achieve that future, led largely by business.”

About the Author: Becky Fried is a science writer in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.