Prominent scientist encourages new ideas to solve world problems

According to Dr. Amory Lovins, much-needed sustainable development will never be achieved if we continue with our traditional outlook. “Think outside the box,” he said.

Dr. Lovins, an environmental engineer, physicist, advisor to heads of state and co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Institute (a thinking and doing tank), spoke to staff and students at Midlands Rec Hall on April 15. Any potential solutions to the world’s gravest problems will come from radical innovation, which would not necessarily require new technologies, he said.

Dr. Lovins said he believes in an “integrated design” approach, illustrated by the idea of designing a building such that “each structure performs multiple roles.” He gave the example of his own house (which he designed), where one column “performed twelve different functions,” and had no combustion or heating facilities. Instead, he relied on “passive solar for 99% of heating”, by which he means designing the house so that its materials and window placement facilitated intake and storage of solar heat.

He used similar changes in design so that the Rocky Mountain Institute’s first main building was renovated to “save 38% of energy output, and returned the investment within three months.” They outdid this with their second building, which saved “70% of energy,” and the energy that was generated through solar panels was more than it required, which Dr. Lovins called a “net positive building”.

This forms a compelling counterstatement to the general reason given for not taking up sustainable practices in construction — the initial expenses involved.

Some of the design changes are startlingly simple, such as “multilayered windows to keep in solar heat and reduce the need for heaters,” and having “short and fat pipes rather than long and narrow ones, which reduce friction and thereby save energy.” And he has helped many businesses and nations take up such new ideas.

These innovations have wide-ranging implications. For example, Dr. Lovins said that a study his institute did in China, in collaboration with officials, showed that China implementing wide scale design changes on energy and other facilities could “save China 21 trillion dollars, multiply their economic growth by a factor of 5.8, as well as generating 42% less carbon emissions.”

He also said that all the technology they had required had “been invented a decade earlier,” negating the argument that technology needed to catch up before sustainable societies could really be implemented.

However, Dr. Lovins did not only speak of innovative design. He also talked about education, where he again is dismissive of traditional outlooks.

Having dropped out of Harvard and Oxford because they “didn’t let him diversify enough,” he said he believes “college is not necessary,” and that a “wide based education” is more important to success.

“Knowledge itself has no boundaries,” he told his multicultural audience, “but it has been split into disciplines by tribalist boundaries.”

He then went further, “If someone looks at your resume and college application and says “philosophy, woodworking, physics and violin? I don’t see how these things are connected!” Then you are probably on the right track.” Speaking privately after his talk, Dr. Lovins said “universities can work for you if you insist on your needs and have teachers that can help you escape the confines of the curricula,” but “it’s hard (for this to happen) as they try to keep you in boxes.”

This message resonated with multiple students. Khushi Agarwal, Class of 2019, said, “What he said about the complexity of design thinking and the value of interdisciplinary studies helped reassure my own reluctance to specialize in one particular field of study. Also, considering his achievements, he was a very humble guy.”

Another member of the audience, Rigpea Wangchuk, Class of 2020, said that Dr. Lovins helped him process his ideas, saying, “I had similar ideas as him but they were fragmented. He helped me put them all together.”

Staff too seemed to gain value from his message.

Meanwhile, Mr. Tobias Tillemans, science teacher, said, “He was inspiring. He looks at problems of environment and architecture and sees that intelligent design can solve them cheaply and elegantly. And he’s right.”

Ms. Amy Seefeldt, Director of the Center For Imagination, had similar views, saying, “ I loved that Dr. Lovins stuck around and talked to students afterward. For me, that says a lot about somebody.”

While Dr. Lovins may not have stayed for long, his unorthodox outlook against traditional ways of approaching sustainability problems as well as education provided a refreshing new perspective, which helped provide a new life approach for everyone to consider.His words seem to stay in the minds of all those present.

If such people continue to be brought to woodstock, and perhaps stay for a few days, then the value to staff and students alike would be that much greater.

“For students, and for adults, it expands the vision of what’s possible to listen and talk to people like (Dr. Lovins). They can inspire people with concrete stories of what they’ve done and achieved, which we can learn from,” said Ms. Seefeldt, speaking on the value of bringing such people to Woodstock. “Taking the example of Dr. Lovins, when things look grim in the world today, to learn that one man could help change China’s approach to sustainability is a message of hope, which can perhaps help you find what you’re supposed to do with your life.”

Dr. Lovins.jpeg

Photo courtesy of Karl Oskar Lange

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