How Hunter Lovins is Designing a Ladder to Help Humanity Climb Out of the Giant “Pool of Muck”


In 2002, sustainability advocate Hunter Lovins co-founded Natural Capitalism Solutions, a nonprofit dedicated to educating senior decision-makers in business, government and society about the principles of sustainability. She’s an author and professor at the Bainbridge Graduate Institute and Bard College and the chief insurgent of the sustainability education initiative, the Madrone Project. See her speak at GAIN Design and Business Conference, October 23–24. Register before July 15 to get the early rate.

Here, Lovins tells us the single most important skill a designer should have, why we should all get familiar with the Edge Economy, and the reason her friend Bucky (Fuller) considers her a “Design Outlaw.”

You don’t call yourself a “designer” and yet you frequently design solutions for policy, governance and the economy. How do you use design in your work?

I’ve never considered myself a designer, but it appears that others do. Turns out I was profiled in the 1997 book Design Outlaws, focusing on those of us practicing what Buckminster Fuller called “anticipatory, comprehensive design.” Bucky (a friend) called those who innovate beyond the frontier “design outlaws: pioneers living on the edge of the future.” Seeking to solve the gnarly problems facing humanity without creating new, perhaps worse problems, using systems thinking to see wholes and crafting elegant, holistic solutions—these are all design principles, and I use them every day.

I work with designers from science, business, policy, economics, academia and activism on framing a strategy of change for the Edge Economy. The Edge is the world in which humanity now finds itself. Edges are scary places. But they’re also the places in nature offering the greatest diversity and abundance. Entrepreneurs launch from an edge, thereby finding that the earth is not a flat place of climate denialism. They find that we live on a round world, one in which we can craft a circular economy that blends the efficient use of resources with design tools like biomimicry.

If a designer came up to you and said, “I’m really excited about making change,” what skills would they need?

The greatest quality a designer needs is courage. Next would be a vision across boundaries. Study nature, study systems and read in every discipline. If it’s written in a textbook: beware. It’s likely obsolete. The skill that I’ve inadvertently practiced appears to be what the book calls, “the art of conceiving magnificently… a lost art in this civilization.” But the real skill is life design. My friend, the folk singer Kate Wolf, once said, “find what you really care about and live a life that shows it."

What is the future of design’s role in business, government and in creating change?

My old boss David Brower called for “an ecological U-turn away from the precipice toward a sustainable, peaceful and just society.” When we navigate away from the crumbling cliff, we see all that has been left behind: intact nature, human community and indigenous wisdom. From these we can roll back in the edges, pulling the outlaws, the heretics into a conversation about designing a new world.

To use another analogy, humanity is in a pool of muck, out of which we’re designing a ladder. The foundational rungs include the work of stopping the worst of what exists. (Like the Human Rights Watch working to keep people alive or Bill McKibben stopping the XL Keystone Pipeline.) Other rungs include the work of green building, the alphabet soup of metrics: GRI, SASB, IIRC and all the efforts to invest in more sustainable options. Or the United Nation’s work to design the Sustainable Development Goals for the world. It is all crucial—take any of it away and the whole ladder slides deeper in the muck. But as a design concept, sustainability is only getting our nose above the muck. Where are we going? What is, in Kate’s words, "a vision all living things can share?”

I believe that the answer lies in the work of John Fullerton, and his concept of a regenerative economy. Designing this is the challenge of our time, and my life’s work. But as the great oceanographer Sylvia Earle says, “What we do in the next ten years matters more than what humanity does in the next 10,000.” So while achieving a truly regenerative society will take a while, I focus on actions that can be taken today.