Amory Lovins's academic career
Editor’s Note: This post started as a quick response to a question asked at Potential Energy: Defibrillating the corpse. The author of that post – Caspar Henderson – asked readers “Is Amory Lovins wrong when he says “even huge subsidies [to nuclear power] will be the same as defibrillating a corpse: it will jump, but it will not revive”?
However, the comment grew too long to politely leave on someone else’s blog, so it morphed into its own post.
I have been reading the works of Amory Lovins for a number of years and have often had difficulty following his math and reasoning. Part of the problem is that he makes some unsupportable assumptions. I have posted several comments on this blog about specific issues. You can find them by using the search block above to look for “Lovins”.
Mr. Lovins is, however, an influential figure who has published a number of often cited works. Here is how his qualifications are described in his biography that is posted on the Rocky Mountain Institute web site:
Amory B. Lovins, Chief Executive Officer of Rocky Mountain Institute, is a consultant experimental physicist educated at Harvard and Oxford. He has received an Oxford MA (by virtue of being a don), nine honorary doctorates, a MacArthur Fellowship, the Heinz, Lindbergh, Right Livelihood (“Alternative Nobel”), World Technology, and TIME Hero for the Planet awards, the Happold Medal, and the Nissan, Shingo, Mitchell, and Onassis Prizes.
I have had the opportunity to be a member of a couple of Navy selection boards. Based on that experience, the above list of qualifications seems to be strangely worded. For example, “educated at Harvard” is not the same as “awarded a Bachelor of Science or Bachelor of Arts from Harvard” and “received an Oxford MA (by virtue of being a don)” did not seem to be the same as “earned a Master of Arts in Physics at Oxford.”
I did a little digging and learned that Mr. Lovins had a rather short stay at Harvard. According to The Hydrogen Powered Future which was published in the January-February 2004 issue of Harvard Magazine, Mr. Lovins entered Harvard in 1964 and dropped out in early fall 1965 “due to some knee problems”. He returned to the school in the fall of 1966, only to drop out less than a year later. His explanation to Harvard Magazine in 2004 was that the reason was “largely because I ignored the normal curriculum structure.”
After leaving Harvard, he entered Oxford in 1967. In an interview posted published by Salon.com in April 2001 titled The Pro-Business Nature Boy Mr. Lovins admitted to being equally unstructured at Oxford. Here is how he described his academic career to Damien Cave.
“I slowly decided to move from academia to activism,” he says. “In 1971 I was doing graduate work in physics at Oxford, and the problems I was working on were interesting, but not nearly as important as the [environmental] ones I was reading about. So it gradually occurred to me that if I wasn’t part of the solution to those problems, I was part of the problem. So I left academic life.”
Again, that description did not sound to me like there was a graduation and a diploma involved. The phrase above “awarded an Oxford MA by virtue of being a don” still intrigued me, so I wrote to the information office at Oxford to see if they could explain it to me. Here is a quote from the reply email that I received on March 15, 2006:
Thanks for your message.
Due to the restrictions imposed by the UK Data Protection Act we can’t discuss the details of an individual’s academic or employment record without their permission. In general terms, though, members of academic staff are awarded what is known as the MA by Special Resolution to allow them to become members of Congregation, the University’s governing body, if they fulfil all the necessary criteria other than being a holder of one of the qualifying degrees (usually an Oxford doctorate or an Oxford MA). I should explain that the Oxford MA is awarded to holders of the Oxford BA (Hons) seven years after they first become members of the University, and is not awarded as a result of following a course of postgraduate study. Our Masters degrees are known by different titles eg MSt, MSc.
I hope this helps.
University of Oxford Information Office
It seems to me that Mr. Lovins, who is famous as a convincing author and energy visionary, probably does not have an academic degree that is the result of following a prescribed course of study in an accredited institution of higher learning. I am not aware of any particular restriction on calling oneself a “physicist”, but I would imagine that most people who use that designation have at least one and probably more formal academic degrees. Honorary degrees do not normally count for much.
I have been mulling this information over for a couple of months, wondering if it is important or interesting to anyone besides me. The outcry over recent revelations about inflated resumes indicates that there is general interest in qualifications and the importance of people providing accurate information about their backgrounds even after successful performance on the job. (See, for example Top School Aide Becomes the Latest to Step Down, which is unfortunately in the paid archive section of the NY Times)
The importance of the current debate about energy alternatives has convinced me that people need to understand exactly what academic qualifications enabled Mr. Lovins to build a career as an energy consultant and author of works like the October 1976 article in Foreign Affairs titled Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken? and the September 2005 article in Scientific American titled More Profit With Less Carbon.
All of us need to make energy decisions, and many of you do not have time to study the enormous volume of material yourself. Most people generally assume that the people that are summarizing these complex topics for general consumption have both done their homework and can be trusted to tell as complete a truth as possible by not slanting their findings based on hidden agendas or because the truth makes them uncomfortable.
You need to decide if you really believe that the “soft energy path” advocate really knows what he is talking about or not and whether or not you can believe him to tell you the whole story.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot to answer the original question – Amory Lovins does NOT know what he is talking about when he asserts that the nuclear industry will only jump like a shocked corpse. First of all, he should know that nuclear power produces at least 50% more energy every day than Saudi Arabia (that figure just includes commercial reactors and ignores 11 aircraft carriers, at least 100 submarines, and about a half a dozen icebreakers). Secondly, the future of nuclear power is so bright that the people in the industry need to wear shades so that the recruiters stop treating them like celebrities.