Feel the Lovins

After more than 30 years of preaching energy efficiency and environmental responsibility, Amory Lovins, founder of the Old Snowmass-based Rocky Mountain Institute, is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

November 2007

Step through Amory Lovins' front door and 36 stuffed orangutans stare down at you from the walls. They're here for the food.

"We've harvested 26 banana crops in this space," Lovins tells me, waving at the indoor garden adjacent to his 4,000-square-foot, passive-solar home and office in Old Snowmass, which doubles as the headquarters for the Rocky Mountain Institute.

As chief scientist and chairman emeritus of RMI's board of trustees, the 60-year-old Lovins helms one of the nation's preeminent environmental consulting firms, with clients that range from Wal-Mart to the Pentagon to the state of Hawaii. Lovins himself has published 29 books on environmental- and energy-related topics and regularly provides advice to both captains of industry and international political leaders. Nineteen heads of state have lined up to shake his hand and get an earful. Bill Clinton is an old friend. Bill Joy, the cofounder of Sun Microsystems, is a client.

But today, the painfully smart Lovins has orangutans on the mind. "Yes, they are stuffing-impaired. In fact, they are taxidermically challenged," he quips, drinking from a giant ceramic beer stein (water) and flaunting what he calls "full frontal nerdity" (pocket protector with pens and calculators). "There continue to be mysterious banana depredations, of which the interns deny all knowledge, so suspicion naturally falls on the forehanded orange folks."

Lovins, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Professor Calculus from Hergé's Tintin books, can be witheringly precise and didactic in public. Even one-on-one, his brains are constantly on display, as he drops casual references as diverse as NASA, Moore's Law, and Confucius. So it's a welcome surprise to see his playful side when we meet in late July, two weeks before RMI's 25th anniversary celebrations. Even his two-seat Honda Insight hybrid, which, he says, gets 65 miles to the gallon, shows signs of fun: A faded bumper sticker proclaims, "Eat More Lamb! 50,000 Coyotes Can't Be Wrong," next to the personalized license plate that reads, "IGO-ECO."

If anyone's needed a sense of humor over the years, it's Lovins, who's been preaching energy efficiency since the mid '70s to a skeptical audience. Through it all, however, he's remained steadfast in his convictions, and his visionary smarts and business savvy have nurtured an ever-expanding coterie of the political and business elite. Now, with high gas prices, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and increasing awareness of the causes of global warming, the importance of thinking green has become self-evident and Lovins' message is reaching a larger, more receptive audience. If Al Gore is environmentalism's current rock star, think of Amory Lovins as the producer who's made it all possible. As Thomas Friedman, the three-time Pulitzer Prize-winning New York Times columnist who moderated the anniversary celebrations, puts it, Lovins has "been so far ahead of his time, for so long, that he's lapped us."