Saturday, October 27, 2007

Amory Lovins: True Believer or Malevolent Deceiver?

Recently I have been having an interesting exchange with Rod Adams regarding Amory Lovins. I made an offhand comment that Harvey Wasserman's misunderstanding of the Jevons Paradox reminded me of Lovins, to which I received several incredulous responses. We had no disagreement about whether the paradox is compatible with Lovins' declared theories about the economic implications of energy efficiency- rather, we disagreed about Lovins' honesty. According to Rod Adams and Stewart Peterson, Lovins is perfectly aware of the implications of Jovens' paradox, but is mendacious about it because he knows that its true economic implications keep filthy fossil-fuel lucre rolling into Snowmass.

Now, I don't like Lovins any more than Rod Adams does, but I'm inclined to think he's not dishonest. He actually reminds me of a deluded cult leader more than a con man. One of the main reasons I think so is that Lovins has earnest acolytes who emerge from Snowmass and actually attempt to implement his theories in the real world. Take, for instance, this article in Business Week, which describes the misadventures (and partial disillusionment) of one such RMI apostle. On the other hand, Rod has far more experience with Lovins than I do, and uncovered his dishonest portrayal of his educational credentials. Perhaps I need to get to know Lovins better.

I think that Lovins has a fetish for certain things- energy efficiency, small, local generation, and so forth- and an irrational disdain for others, particularly nuclear power. The problem is that Lovins' theories make economic assumptions that are utterly heterodox- neither Karl Marx nor Milton Friedman would ever accept them. This is because Lovins assumes that individual people want to "do more with less" rather than "get the best deal they possibly can"- i.e., maximize utility. Lovins actually claims that "doing more with less" = maximizing utility, but this logic is so flimsy that I cannot understand why the man has gotten away with saying it for thirty years. Resource efficiency can be a critical aspect of maximizing utility- but as Jevons discovered back when my mustache was in style, the results of this are increased resource utilization.

Similar to the Communists of old, I think Lovins has a vision for social transformation that begins with the individual. The New Efficient Man will waste little or nothing, because this will be the New Morality. But besides this, he will embrace "soft" technologies that tread lightly on the earth, apparently because he will share Lovins' disdain for things like biotechnology. For reasons I don't really comprehend, making these "right" choices would somehow result in utopia, or at least a much-improved world. I have a hard time taking any of this seriously, to be honest. Compared to Marxism or other coherent ideologies with similar utopian goals, it's a half-baked, illogical mess.

Any thoughts? Also, does anyone know of a bonified economist who's taken the time to refute Lovins?


Stewart Peterson said...

Now, I don't exactly think Lovins is dishonest or intentionally misleads. He's saying what he believes, and when he talks about efficiency, he's either (a) correct or (b) not even wrong, depending on how you look at it.

He is making a correct statement when he says that people conserve automatically when faced with high prices; this is basic economics and we have 110 canceled nukes in the US to make that point. When he says that conservation obviates alternatives, he is likewise completely correct.
To the extent that established energy interests' purposes are served by preventing alternatives from attaining economies of scale, they realize that he is correct in making the previous statement and that this affects their business case, generally positively. In general, also, he is correct that it is easier and cheaper to cover a given shortfall with conservation than developing alternatives.

Unfortunately, and this is where it gets into "not even wrong" territory, his approach isn't sustainable. His approach rests on everybody making stupid, short-sighted business decisions inside the framework of Jevons' Paradox, which businesspeople unfortunately tend to do. As such, his approach produces valid results most of the time, except when he tries to implement alternatives in the same framework (which he of course cannot do because it is designed to prevent the development of those alternatives).

He honestly and truly believes that conservation is the best way to go because it's easy, and asks why nuclear power can't out-conserve conservation. In other words, he gives Greens a business case that works in the real world, but not for a good reason, so Greens and micro-optimization-oriented (read: too scared to innovate) businesspeople like him, and other policy people generally don't.

Sovietologist said...

I'm sorry if I misinterpreted your original comment on Rod Adams' blog. I agree with almost all of what you say here.

Do you think Lovins has abandoned the vision of a transformed, low-energy society he described in Soft Energy Paths? Does he just avoid talking about it in front of representatives of the companies that fund RMI, or has he changed or discarded it?

Stewart Peterson said...

I don't think Lovins has abandoned the goals of Soft Energy Paths. Rather, they're goals, and this is how he has chosen to accomplish them--he thinks high-energy civilization is a hole and society needs to stop digging first at least. The methods do seem effective, no?

What part are we not seeing eye-to-eye on? I'm not saying I'm necessarily right on all counts; I just want to know where you're coming from.

Sovietologist said...

Well, it seems we disagree about this less than I thought, and maybe I was misinterpreting what Rod Adams said as well. It's mainly that I still think that Lovins' rhetoric is the sign of someone who, despite being right some of the time, is basically economically illiterate. So while I wholeheartedly agree with (b), I don't really agree with (a). I really don't think he understands Jevons' paradox, or if he does he dismisses it out of hand. Take, for instance, the most recent contribution by Lovins to the BAS roundtable on nuclear power and climate change:
This was the item I was thinking of when I said that Lovins doesn't understand Jevons' paradox. (Is it less typical of his writing than I thought?) It's one thing to point out the obvious fact that the US has a lot of capacity for increased energy conservation. It's another to claim that China and India can "conserve" their way to modernity.

(The "roundtable" itself is pretty painful- it's basically stacked 2-1 against nuclear, and R. Stephen Berry just isn't aggressive enough to challenge his anti-nuclear opponents.)