Auden Schendler, author of Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Movement wastes no time telling us he has something to tell us. He opens his trenchant enviro counterpoint with a dirge. “Things are SO UNBELIEVABLY bleak on climate, that it’s the perfect metaphor,” he said in a recent telephone interview. “Yet the dirge, without much effort, becomes a celebration.” In other words, he’s cautiously pessimistic about the business of saving the planet, starting with the premise–based on ten years as the sustainability director at Aspen Skiing Company–that we’re going about it all wrong. What we should be doing, he argues, is talking about big levers, blue collars, and bourbon.
FC: This looks like the environmental movement coming full circle, in the sense that you’re not afraid to scare the crap out of us.
AS: Historically, you’re right, there’s been this extreme movement away from negativity because it all started with this horror show of the population bomb and DDT. I think there was good reason to get away from that kind of apocalyptic perspective. But it has become clear that by being positive, the environmental movement has led people to fail to understand the scope and scale of this. So my approach is you have to give the bad medicine, but then you have to present some ways of thinking about the challenges that will prevent you from rocking in the closet in with a bottle of bourbon.
FC: Are you concerned that the tone will discourage people?
AS: At this point, you know, if you discourage people and they give up, fine–it won’t be worse than where we are. We’re really not making substantial progress with the other approach, which is, “Hey, we can do it!”
FC: What’s your reaction to books like the recently published, The Lazy Environmentalist on a Budget?
AS: It’s basically the antichrist to my book. It’s forwarding the delusion that individual actions matter at all, when, in fact, such actions are a damaging distraction that actually hinder the broader movement. It’s fine to do them, but you need to recognize that solving climate is a policy issue, and it’s not about you, me, or your fucking bamboo floor. It’s about huge changes in ten years. [The book] is probably fun and entertaining, and if your hobby is to do green stuff, great. But this personal rehab program doesn’t have anything to do with the modern environmental movement, which is centered around climate change. We’re going to have to take the biggest swipe at this as possible, and the biggest swipe is not materials. It’s the energy use of your building.
FC: What should we actually do?
AS: Well, I think on the ground level, we should be being brutally honest about how to get to solutions. Bill McDonough represents the old-school environmental expert: You’re a hero, you get up at a conference, you talk abut how your building is saving energy, while, actually, it is using four times the energy of a [conventional] facility nearby. My point is, Look we gotta be completely honest about this because otherwise nobody in the audience will understand how to do this. If you’re telling us how to do it and you didn’t succeed, we’ll never know.
FC: Despite years of energy-saving mods implemented at Aspen, the resort’s CO2 emissions continue creeping up every year.
AS: The point of saying we’re failing, Wal-Mart’s failing, and, Oh, actually, every country that signed Kyoto’s failing (except for about four), is that the way we’re approaching this isn’t appropriate to scale. So what does an Aspen do? It uses its name as a gigantic lever to drive policy change, to change mega corporations, to change hugely influential people–that’s the approach. We need to be always thinking scale, scale, scale.
FC: You want to sketch that out?
AS: The old enviro movement would ask us to put solar panels on the roof of the Little Nell. And we just did that. But that five kilowatt array is meaningless. It is absolutely a tiny amount of the hotel’s energy use. However, what we did was we tied those panels to one room in the hotel. And that room is where the most powerful and influential people stay, including, among others, George Soros. We put the energy generated by the array onto the home page of the computer in the room, and also show the energy use in that room.
FC: Then what?
AS: Okay. Now you’ve taken the old-school enviro measure that is sexy but doesn’t do anything and tied it to this tremendous lever that only you have access to. If you get lucky and that person decides that this is a crucial issue that they want to take action on, you’ve done more with that one connection than you’ve done with 20 years of trying change light bulbs [to compact fluorescents] and retrofit boilers at the ski resort. That’s just one attempt we’re trying to make at pulling the biggest possible lever.
FC: Another one being the infamous tussle with Kleenex
AS: We get a call one day from Forest Ethics, and they say, will you ban Kleenex because their forestry practices are lame, there’s no post-consumer waste at all in Kleenex, and they’re not engaging with the environmental community. I say I’ll check into it. We use $25,000 worth of Kleenex a year. For me to switch it out is not difficult, and we do (for a somewhat less bad product from another company).
We get eviscerated in the papers. One: Who are you to criticize another company, you use tons of energy and move people up and down the hill for no reason–it’s totally wasteful. Two: This is flagrant greenwashing. It was so bad that I went to my boss and said I screwed up. Two weeks later we got a phone call from the CEO of [Kleenex parent] Kimberly-Clark, a $32 billion company. They’re bigger than most countries. If you can change them, then you can change entire industries, the whole way forests are managed—that’s a big lever. They sent a team down to meet with us and we started exerting disproportionate influence on a big corporation.
FC: What was the upshot?
AS: We sat down and expressed our interests, and we said, “You guys have to get in the room with the non-profits, including the Natural Resources Defense Council.” We brokered a meeting and got Greenpeace and NRDC in the room with Kimberly-Clark.
FC: How’d it go?
AS: The meeting was a disaster. Apparently it blew up. But the point of the story stands, that we were able to begin this process of engagement.
FC: Not every company has such leverage.
AS: Yes, but a medium-sized business in the U.S. is like a religious talisman, you know? In Colorado, the public utilities commission is trying to regulate a big utility called Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which has only been investing in coal. The climate science community says you can’t solve climate and build another coal plant in the U.S. because coal produces so much CO2. But the commission needs cover from businesses. When a small business owner writes a letter to the utilities commission or The Denver Post supporting regulation of Tri-State, there’s a big lever. If you had just been switching your one van over to hybrid because that’s what you thought was the right thing to do, you would’ve missed that opportunity. Bill McKibben has a great line. He says, “By all means, screw in that efficient light bulb; but then go screw in a new senator.”
FC: How are we going to get around the basic math you underscore, that growth equals more emissions? Growth is the whole point of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
AS: Let’s look at two ways we could use the stimulus to create growth. One is bail out GM and let them take all that money to continue to make crappy cars. And the reason to do that is that there are three million jobs tied to the auto industry–it’s crucial. The other option would be to let GM go out of business and invest in other job. We could get 30% of total U.S. energy and 70% of electricity from solar if we invested a certain chunk of money by 2050. That chunk of money is $400 billion. We flushed $700 billion down the toilet. For $400 billion invested in growth and jobs and infrastructure, transmission lines, the installation itself, the operators, the solar panel makers–you could have growth and you’d be working towards a solution.
FC: You’ve taken to task a number of media outlets, including this one, for publishing articles headlined “It’s Easy Going Green.”
AS: The problem has been this notion that if it saves the environment, is good for the bottom line, and creates good PR, this has gotta be a slam dunk. Then you get a business person who’s totally new to it, and has bought the argument hook line and sinker from the environmental community, tries to do it, gets machine gunned coming over the top of the trench, and is now your worst enemy because you lied. Admitting it’s going to be hard but there are some really good reasons to do it, that’s just a more sustainable case to be made to the business community.
FC: Your brand of honesty has its critics.
AS: I wrote an article about a year and a half ago where I basically said, “Look we’re failing to solve this problem.” There was huge backlash. I was getting hate mail from the environmental community saying, “Now the deniers are saying, ‘See! All you guys are full of shit–even your defector is saying it doesn’t work.'” The idea was you can’t admit any cracks in this movement because we’re so nascent and so weak that we’ll fall apart. And I just don’t agree with that. I think we’re at a point where we need this brutal honesty. I completely reject that I have torpedoed the environmental movement.
FC: It seems like you’re trying to redefine what it means to “make a difference.”
AS: Definitely. And it’s very offensive to people. I’ve had grandmothers come up to me at the end of talks and say, “Don’t you tell me what I’m doing doesn’t matter.”
FC: Do you subscribe to the notion that if technology created this mess, it can be used to fix it?
AS: No, that’s an extremely dangerous notion. We don’t have time to invent new technology to solve this. We’ve got ten years, according to the scientific community. There’s a guy named Joe Romm, he calls these guys climate delayers, and they’re just as bad as climate deniers. This is what [George W.] Bush did. They funded hydrogen because they knew it was 20 years out and it excused them from doing anything, but made it look like they cared! The techno-optimism is just as bad as outright denial.
FC: In terms of the urgency, do you think your book could’ve had more impact if it’d come out a few years ago.
AS: Yeah. I mean, now it’s a little too late. The reality is we’re not going to solve this thing. We’re going to live in a changed world with higher sea levels and severe impacts to costal populations, and we’ll endure, but it’s going to be messy and ugly.
FC: There’s more than one reference to you drinking bourbon in the book. Should we worry about you?
AS: I think I’m a functional alcoholic. No, some people did comment, Man, there’s a lot about drinking. The reality is that’s about conversation, and it’s also about blue collar. That’s part of the message. We need to be serious, but we need to talk about this, have a cocktail.