Saturday, 2 January 2010

Does anyone remember Factor Four?

Does anyone remember Factor Four? Its now a dozen years or so since this visionary book was published promising a revolution in the way we produce things. Subtitled - 'doubling wealth, halving resource use' - Factor Four offered a practical, profitable route to preserving the planet whilst improving our standard of living. It contains a wealth of examples of how we can do this by massively increasing resource efficiency, making more with less, and using massively less energy in the process. Factor Four isn't about some sort of wishful thinking. It showed that we had the technology and ideas then to make changes which would, if implemented, enable us to deal with the problems presented by climate change and peak oil.

One of key players behind the book is a guy called Amory Lovins who founded the Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI). Lovins is an environmentalist who advocates 'soft energy paths' which result in the much more efficient use of energy. He has been involved in the development of the 'hypercar' which is much more efficient than conventional models and runs on hydrogen. He followed up Factor Four with another revolutionary book called Natural Capitalism written with L Hunter Lovins and Paul Hawken. if the ideas put forward by Lovins and his co-authors were followed it would amount to a change as significant as the industrial revolution.

Lovins and his co-authors may be revolutionaries in resource efficiency but they aren't revolutionaries in a political sense. They are using the profit motive to try and get capitalists to work in a way that is not environmentally destructive. There is no doubt that companies who follow the ideas in Factor Four will be more efficient and therefore more competitive than their rivals.

So what happened? Well the ideas in Factor Four and Natural Capitalism are just as valid and valuable as they ever were and the work of RMI continues. So why haven't capitalists adopted these ideas and why isn't the industrial revolution that could save the planet already well underway? Well, some companies have used these ideas but far too few and on too small a scale. The real reason why Factor Four hasn't happened is industrial conservatism, vested interests and the perverse incentives of our capitalist economic system. Its just still too easy for companies to continue to make profits by using the old wasteful ways. Billions of dollars have been, and are still being, invested in inefficient plants and technologies which are 'proven'. Companies are unwilling to make the changes when the present system suits them well. Why bother to make new investment when 'obsolete' technologies still enable you to compete anyway? General Motors in the USA is a prime example of this. Up until very recently they have continued to produce 'obsolete' cars because the system allowed them to and they could still make a profit. Governments have been slow to act and have done little to penalise inefficient ways.

Is anything going to change? Are we going to adopt the ideas of people like Amory Lovins? Its seems so obvious that we should. But it also seemed so obvious that Brown and Cameron should have promised real democratic reform after the expenses scandal - to revive our moribund political system. They haven't done it. The sad truth is that things will have to get worse before people like Lovins are listened to. Have you seen The Age of Stupid? Well now you know that we already have the solution to climate change in our hands. The question is will we choose to use it?


Anonymous said...

I drive an obsolete car, as described here, as the village where I live has a bus that runs three times a day but I can't afford a new car.... I work in a job where I get 10p an hour over the minimum wage. It's not a joke... I feel that people with more money then me try to tell me what I "should" do, but don't seem to do it themselves...
I'm not familiar with factor four - where can I find out more?


Howard Thorp said...

Lizzie you can read a review of the book if you follow the link on the post. You can also look at some of the pages if you do a search for it on Google 'books'.

We are all used to people with more money telling us what to do. Its tough but we need to try to do things for ourselves - the people with money aren't going to do anything for us.

One way to do this is setting up a co-op. At the moment I'm working with some others to set up a community land trust so that people in Cheshire can have access to land to grow their own food and keep livestock.

If you live in a village you might want to try and set up a food co-op. better and cheaper than a supermarket - try this link - - happy to help further if I can.