The [Regenerative] Future of Society
Featured Events | Mar 17, 2020 | Gabelli School of Business
By Claire Curry
The future of work will be what we decide to make it and in large part, what we do in the next decade, said L. Hunter Lovins, an author and consultant who spoke at the Gabelli School’s centennial conference, Work 2040: Future of Work in a Sustainable World, on March 5.
“We face real challenges,” Lovins said, citing the global climate crisis, volatile energy sector, economic inequality, the Coronavirus pandemic, water-food security, and the impact of artificial intelligence. “We are the first generation to have dominion over the earth and likely the last to be able to save it.”
The cost of climate change
The effects of these challenges could be seen in plunges in the stock market and companies going bankrupt—PG&E was the first climate-change bankruptcy after the California wildfires, and likely not the last.
“Climate change is already causing billions of dollars of costs to local economies and this is only going to get worse,” said Lovins, who was voted “Millennium Hero for the Planet” by Time Magazine, and is president and founder of Natural Capital Solutions.
There is, however, good news. Stanford Professor and Silicon Valley entrepreneur Tony Seba predicts that the world will be 100 percent solar by 2030. “This is entirely possible,” Lovins said. “Tony says this will be driven by four things: following the cost of solar, energy storage, electric cars, and driverless cars.”
Still, if Tony Seba is right, Lovins said that we could be facing the “mother of all economic dislocations” within the next 10 years, and we have no “earthly idea what to do.”
Electric cars and driverless cars would affect the transportation industry as we know it and put cab drivers and truck drivers on the unemployment line.
“There are eight million drivers in this country who will be out of work,” she said. “The oil industry would be gone, along with the auto industry.” There would be no need for auto mechanics either, since electric cars require little, if any, maintenance.
“If you look industry by industry, it is not just blue-collar workers who will be out of work. It’s doctors, lawyers, accountants…white-collar workers as well.”
“If you look at the future of artificial intelligence, it can also get quite scary,” Lovins mused, adding that Luke Muehlhauser, former executive director of the Machine Intelligence Research Institute, predicts that in this century, machines will surpass human levels of intelligence and ability. “Will they treat us kindly? He’s saying we should start programming machines right now: though shalt never harm a human.”
Where capital goes in the next 15 years will determine what kind of future we will have, Lovins believes, and things are beginning to change. In the past, fossil fuel companies led the stock market. In the 1980s, for example, seven of the top 10 companies in the S&P 500 were oil companies. But over the past six years, Exxon’s market valuation has plummeted by nearly $200 billion. At the same time, Apple has spiked to more than $1.3 trillion.
Divestment of fossil fuels is in the trillions and Bevis Longstreth, former commissioner of the SEC, has said it is “plausible that continuing to hold equities in fossil fuel companies will be ruled negligence.”
Climate change became a defining factor in companies’ long-term prospects in 2018 when millions took to the streets in protest, fueled by then 15-year-old Greta Thunberg, Lovins said. “When Walmart goes green, there’s a business case. They are not doing this out of the goodness of their hearts.”
Financial houses and major corporations are taking it seriously. Microsoft, for example, has pledged to capture and take out of the atmosphere as much carbon as it has historically emitted. “They’re saying, ‘we’re not only going to be carbon neutral, we’re going to be carbon negative by 2030,’” Lovins said. “They’ve committed $1 billion to figuring out how to be carbon negative.” Not to be outdone, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos committed $10 billion.
How is it possible to become carbon negative?
According to Lovins, the answer is regenerative agriculture. Raise animals on grasslands holistically, it takes carbon out of the air and puts it back in the soil.
“A commitment to behaving responsibly to people and to planet enhances every aspect of shareholder value,” she said. “It’s true, and it’s insufficient. Sustainability is the ability to go on indefinitely. We need to go beyond sustainability to create a regenerative future.”
Lovins pointed out that the economy is a linear process inside of society and the biosphere, and in order to achieve the health of all, we need to get the relationship right. “If the economy is killing society, the economy will not be healthy,” she said. “If the economy is killing the biosphere, none of us will be healthy. You can’t do business on a dead planet.”
A vibrant economy can be achieved with diversity, balance, and harmony, by respecting place and community, and by ensuring the integrity of local economies in a global world.
Can we get out of this mess? Lovins believes we can. “In this world we are now coming into, in which we have no earthly idea what’s going to happen next, how do we deal? The first thing I think we do is shift the narrative,” she says. “We need to move from the belief that we’re all greedy bastards and all that matters is ‘getting mine,’ to one of shared prosperity on a healthy planet.”