Mountain man is not bananas

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The Independent Online
Amory Lovins grows bananas. At more than 7,000 feet up in the Rocky Mountains, where the temperature can fall to minus 47 degrees Fahrenheit. Without any heating system...

In fact, a jungle is increasingly taking over his Rocky Mountain Institute, high on the slopes of the aptly named Mt Snowmass, Colorado. Iguanas roam among among the bougainvillaea, catfish frolic beneath waterfalls, and papaya and passionfruit ripen while the snow lies thick in an area where there are said to be just two seasons - "winter and July".

At this point you might conclude that Lovins is bananas. But I've known him for more than 20 years and I'm persuaded he isn't, except perhaps in the sense, as Dryden had it, that "great wits are sure to madness near allied". For my dictionary defines genius as "an extraordinary capacity for imaginative creation".

I went along to the Institution of Civil Engineers, an ornate monument to the likes of George Watt, on Wednesday to hear him outline what could turn out to be a new industrial revolution. For the point of harvesting tropical fruit in what he admits to be "not exactly good banana-growing country" is to show what can be done with the minimum of energy and other resources.

His institute and its jungle are 99 per cent heated by the sun - by orientating it to the south, designing it to catch the rays, and insulating it heavily. (The rest of the heat comes from two small wood stoves, lit occasionally, mainly for aesthetic reasons.) It cost less than an ordinary building: the energy savings will eventually recoup all construction costs.

Lovins was in London to launch a new report to the Club of Rome, Factor Four (Earthscan pounds 15.99), written with his wife, Hunter, and Ernst von Weizsacher, the father of green taxation. It draws on his banana farm - and 49 other examples of conserving technologies - to show that the world could live at least twice as well, using half as many resources.

o HOW MUCH of the energy in petrol in your tank actually drives the car forward? Just 1 per cent, says Lovins, who has invented the "hypercar" which is designed to do several hundred miles to a gallon, crossing the United States on a single tankful.

In the place of present designs - which he describes as "the highest expression of the Iron Age" - his car would be made of ultra light but extremely tough plastic, moulded aerodynamically, and driven by "hybrid propulsion systems, such as flywheels and regenerative braking" (at this point it gets beyond me, so I'll stop).

The hypercar burns so little fuel that it would virtually eliminate the main cause of urban air pollution and the fastest growing contributor to global warming. Instead of patenting it, Lovins published details in the open literature, with the result - the book records - that 25 manufacturers have shown an interest so far, investing a total of $2bn.

There is, of course, no free lunch. The cheapness of hypercars would surely increase congestion. And with pollution virtually eliminated, there might not be much push behind promoting public transport.

Nevertheless - and despite its slightly irritating tone - the report is being taken seriously by such figures as John Baker, the chairman of National Power, and Sir Robert May, the Government's chief scientist, who spoke at the launch. But no minister came - because, apparently, they had nothing to say. Why not turn up once in a while just to listen?

o MINISTERS will, however, break their silence this week, with their first outline of international environmental policies.

The Environment minister, Michael Meacher, will speak on global warming on Tuesday. Next day, John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, will make his debut at a conference at the Royal Geographical Society organised by UNED- UK and sponsored by the Independent on Sunday.

This should provide the first indication of whether the new government will take its chance to revive the moribund international follow-up to the Earth Summit. I'll keep you posted.

o MEANWHILE, across the chamber, John Redwood last week made the environment a theme of his leadership campaign. Tories, he said, had to be "both green and blue" at the same time. No cheap cracks about chameleons, please. Vulcans presumably achieve this, perfectly consistently, all the time.

But it's puzzling. I knew a John Redwood who, as Welsh Secretary, set about dismantling wildlife and countryside protection, and bracketed environmentalists with "European neo-Nazis" and "totalitarians in China" as enemies of democracy. Surely they can't, by any chance, be related?