Auden Schendler


Meet Auden Schendler, Author of Getting Green Done

Sometimes sustainability isn't so easy, neat, or simple enough to be achieved in six green steps. Auden Schendler would know. His experience as trying to green Colorado's man-made, artificial ski destination, Aspen Skiing Company (he's their official Executive Director of Sustainability), proves a slippery slope of eco-challenges and stumbling blocks?and little easy answers. All addressed in his recent book, Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.

In a market that's saturated with books on simple ways to go green, eco-friendly tips and tricks, Auden's outlook is refreshing—if not controversial—taking the opinion that green is messy and that while our smaller steps count, the bigger ones matter most. That if we truly want to solve the climate change crisis, big business and legislation will need to move the needle.

But Auden's audacity didn't actualize over night. Prior to his current ski slope stint, the consultant worked for the Rocky Mountain Institute, helped research Paul Hawken's book Natural Capitalism and started off with a deep affection for the great outdoors serving as an Outward Bound instructor and Forest Service goose nest builder in addition to climbing Denali, North America's highest peak, and kayaking the Grand Canyon.

And whether or not you agree with him, he's certainly being recognized. In 2006, Auden was named Time Magazine's "global warming innovator" and since covered by Businessweek, Fast Company, Travel and Leisure and Outside.

How did you get into this line of work?

I grew up in New Jersey and didn't like it. I found it dirty, crowded, and smelly. I'm a semi-agoraphobe. I'd visit my grandparents in North Dakota in the summer and I loved it there, and had some vague sense that that was "the environment" I wanted to protect. What did that mean? It took twenty years to get it, and to land in the energy and climate field, which, in my opinion, is the only work one can do today if you care about anything at all—and your line of work doesn't matter because every job is a climate job these days.

What was your "a-ha" moment?

I didn't have one big one, but I have little ones every day. My last one was yesterday in, of all trite places, a movie theatre with my daughter Willa watching "UP." That film seems to me to be a meditation on loss and redemption—it struck me that it had to have been written by someone with a deep, deep experience in life and a sense of the value and preciousness of each individual life. And my epiphany for June 14 was that all this work I'm trying to do on climate, it's just a prerequisite for enabling what I want, and what others want, which is a dignified and honorable life. (That life, by the way, doesn't exist for anyone if a five-year-old in Africa is dying from Malaria every thirty seconds.) Just give people a shot at that dream, of living a long life with your partner, which so few people get to fulfill. Who was it that said that each human being is a separate universe, and when a person dies, it's literally the end of the world? And this might be eco-heresy but I think this isn't about the planet or the animals and species, it's about humanity. Sorry, it's about us.

Who is your green hero?

I like these guys who both have the vision and just cannot be stopped, that can't be shut down, no matter how bruised and destroyed they get in the fight. Two people who fit this mold come to mind. One is Bill Moyers who understands that reporting the truth can change the world. And he also has a profound understanding of the connection between his work and the preservation of human dignity. Another guy is Dr. Paul Farmer, who's trying to provide first world health care to people in the third world. It's an impossible task, (Farmer himself calls it "the long defeat.") but this guy just can't be stopped. I think they treat their struggles like martial arts forms, or Zen practice. The battle is the destination. I love that.

What is your ultimate green goal?

We have to solve climate change—actually, reverse it?in our lifetimes. And it's going to be a bitch. But when you solve climate, you solve all these other pressing issues like poverty, and disease, and air pollution, and clean water availability. It's really an incredible opportunity to endow our lives with core human desires like meaning, and grace.

What is your motivation?

I'm half motivated by the fact that I do love this fight. And this is an incredible time to be alive, and this is the battle of our time. It's as if someone said: "You want to go to the Olympics in your field?" Hells yes, let's kick some ass! And I'm half motivated by this crippling sense of fear, or should we say, concern, about what's going to happen to people if we play out this experiment with the global thermostat.

What is most important to you, ecologically speaking?

I think you can tell from my answers that while my work is on climate change, I don't see this as an environmental issue any more than it's an issue of politics, of psychology, of marketing, of religion, of, business, of equity. It's the everything issue. So what's important to me is solving this problem for the whole range of solutions it offers. The Talmud maybe calls this concept "Tikkun Olam." It's the obligation to improve the world. That's a profound thought?secular people can IMPROVE on nature? Religious people can IMPROVE on God's creation? Are you kidding me? That means human beings are divine, god-like, on a pedestal with Mother Nature or your concept of the sacred.

What is the most challenging part of your job?

I'm fighting, every day, against outright denial of the problem, which is absurd because there isn't a single peer reviewed scientific paper that says anything but that climate change is happening and it's human caused. I'm also fighting people who don't get the scale of the problem and so come to me with ideas to recycle cups or old clothes. To a man these are wonderfully well intentioned people but the lack of understanding of the scale and scope of climate change makes me tear out my hair. Missing the scale of the problem, it's not just a distraction; it's actively bad for the cause.

What is the most rewarding?

I do a lot of speaking and I run into this crazy gamut of people, really warriors, just hammering on this problem and really getting it, and making progress, and that's incredibly gratifying. I also take inordinate pleasure from very small victories like successful lighting retrofits. These are meaningless in the big scale of things (we need to change policy so that everyone does the retrofits, not just us) but I get outrageous amounts pleasure from pulling projects off successfully and then looking at them and thinking about them.

Of the people you have worked with, who impresses you most?

Lincoln said something to the effect of "God must have love the common man?he made so many of them." And really I am blown away every day but these men and women in our company and elsewhere who are fully in the trenches and they understand what we're doing and they're totally into it. And they are winning. Recently Obama honored vets on Omaha beach and he made the point that these people storming the beach and just getting annihilated, they thought of themselves as normal people, as average Joes. They did not see themselves as special. And yet they did an absolutely astounding thing against terrible odds and literally saved the world. I think that's a highly useful concept for our battle with climate change: we don't need to be extraordinary to solve this thing. We need to be dogged and workmanlike. And when I encounter this in my day it blows me away.

What green thing do you do everyday?

Every day I disabuse people of the notion that this is about me, or you, or your car, or your bamboo floor. By all means, do all that good stuff. But then understand climate change and respond to scale as best you know how. That looks a lot more like a letter to congress or a street protest than it does a compost bin.

What do you wish you could do?

Honestly, I wish I had some time to pause and think more deeply about the interaction between climate, religion, philosophy, human dignity, government?and flesh out some ideas on solutions and ways of thinking about the problem. My life is one of extreme time poverty?I have two kids, job, a book out, I like to get exercise?so I am less and less able to read, think and write. I want to read Reinhold Neibuhr, get really into Jeff Sachs' writing and work on poverty alleviation; get a better sense of core principles of the great religions; there are about thirty articles a day I don't have time to read, I skim everything?there's a long list. But I think there's something hugely unifying in this struggle to solve climate change—it unlocks basic human desires and dreams, and I think if we can explain that and understand it we can really get a revolution going.

What is your biggest eco-sin?

I don't believe there are eco sinners and eco heroes, I think there are smug people who don't get the full picture and think they own higher moral ground by being cluelessly green in their personal lives but are missing the scope and scale of the problem, and then there are realists who understand we're all in this together, and we human beings all want a common future filled with dignity and hope and free of poverty and disease and inequity.

If you could change one thing in the world, what would it be?

Account for externalities. Meaning: we need to incorporate the real cost of things into their price. Without this, there's no such thing as a free market. So, for example, if I burn a pound of coal to make my dishwasher run for one cycle, I am paying eight cents for that power. But that doesn't include the cost of the pollution associated with burning that coal?with the global warming impact on the economy, or the cost of the increased mercury in my two-year-old son's body from burning that coal. Those are real costs. Similarly, when you burn a gallon of gas to go to the supermarket, you are not paying for our military expenses in the gulf, for the climate impacts of that gas burning on the GDP, and so forth. This is the one change that could save the world, and it's a fundamentally conservative, radically conservative idea?it's what a free market actually means.

What is your best green advice?

Understand climate change and respond to scale, as best you can, with joy and relish. You have no choice, so you need to come after this thing like a drunken Viking running into battle?every single day.

Change Makers is series of interviews, with people famous and obscure, who are creating a more sustainable world through their work. Meet more Change Makers here.