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Book Review: "Getting Green Done" by Auden Schendler

Hard truths from the front lines of the sustainability revolution: My two-sentence review of Auden Schendler's forthcoming "Getting Green Done" plus an examination of the author's opinions.

I'd like to meet Auden Schendler, sustainability director for Aspen Skiing Company and author of Getting Green Done. We see eye to eye on many issues, and debating the others would be a rare pleasure.

In a Nutshell:

I highly recommend Getting Green Done for anyone who is a sustainability director or thinking of championing green initiatives in the workplace because it remedies today's green euphoria with a double dose of reality -- illustrating the barriers, frustrations and failures of sustainability with stories from the author's experience. Barriers or not, much must be done to avert climate change, and Schendler (who researched Natural Capitalism) places responsibility squarely on the shoulders of business, saying it has a level of influence and impact second only to large governments.


"More than individuals, businesses can influence policy because they carry huge weight with government. And businesses can get things done while waiting for policy change to take place."
--Auden Schendler,
"Getting Green Done"

Schendler devotes a chapter each to green energy and green buildings, because he feels (as do most Energy Priorities readers) that these are at the core of the solution to climate change. He promotes energy efficiency and renewable energy as the solutions, and sees energy as the thing that matters most when designing green buildings.

He blasts sustainability consultants and green gurus; dismisses individual conservation; disparages the media and books like Green to Gold and unabashedly criticizes LEED. Overall a very enjoyable read with many excellent stories from the trenches of sustainability warfare.

Front lines of sustainability

Auden Schendler's resume is an unbroken sequence of jobs in sustainability. His early experiences left him with an admiration for the "trench fighters" whose dirty hands drive the sustainability movement. Conversely, he has little respect for sustainability consultants and green gurus.

On an intellectual level, sustainability looks like brain surgery -- reports, Powerpoints and benchmarks. In reality, Schendler says, it's war. And few are willing to admit that achieving sustainability is difficult (if not impossible) without major changes in the way the world operates.

"Realism is important because our problems are more urgent than ever. We don't have time to fool around or to be fooled by the delusion that we're making progress if we're not. We don't have time for theories that aren't grounded in the real world. The reason for the rush is climate change."

Schendler recommends that green conferences replace the parade of project-touting stakeholders with speakers who will admit their mistakes. Books and magazines should follow suit.

Business has the ball

Individual conservation is admirable, Schendler posits, but it won't do the job. Only businesses and governments wield the power to make sweeping changes fast and deep enough.

Individuals do play an important role, but it's not in their household electricity use. He quotes Bill McKibben: "By all means, screw in that efficient light bulb, but then go screw in a new senator." Individuals must use their votes, their e-mails, their hands and feet to "literally storm the barricades" and bring about social transformations.

Business pronouncements of green initiatives and commitments to reduce carbon footprints are progressive, and that fact is in itself a tragic admission of a business-as-usual direction.

"Corporations have a critical role to play: Of the 100 largest economies in the world, 51 are corporations. More than individuals, businesses can influence policy because they carry huge weight with government."
Aspen Skiing Company should know -- they've run the show in Aspen County for decades, notoriously violating the environment in the name of building a celebrity-class resort. Even when I lived there in the 1970s, restaurants permanently reserved favorite tables for the likes of Elton John. It was not unusual to see faces from the big screen on the small streets of Aspen, and the faces of surrounding peaks were targeted for "landscaping" and ski-lift construction. Environmentalism was a hippie thing, and Aspen was all about business and celebrity.

Three decades later, government policy wasn't what shifted Aspen Skiing Company's attitude. That took a new CEO and the hard work of a handful of champions like Schendler. Businesses, he says, can get things done while waiting for policy change to happen.

Almost any business can find a lever with which to magnify its influence. Aspen Skiing Company is not among the country's gorilla companies. "Aspen," however, is a household word. Schendler says Aspen Skiing Company, with its money and the strength of its brand, can become a laboratory and a model for the rest of the world.

The time to act is limited, so the learning process must accelerate. Businesses need to separate the fluff from what makes a difference, and prioritize.

First, admit failures

Grand plans should translate into actions, but if the outcome of those actions are greenwashed then scores of subsequent projects are doomed to fail. Schendler lambasts books like Green to Gold -- touting case studies of profitable environmental programs -- along with most major media and their "It's Easy Being Green" feature articles.

The "cream-skimming" projects can be quite profitable, but they can't bring about the depth of change we need. To complement our roadmap to sustainability, Schendler advises, we need a book of wrong turns. His own book is volume one.

Stakeholders perpetuate the myth that being environmentally responsible is simple, obvious, ethically correct -- and profitable. Once a project is held up as a model and the owners are getting publicity, it's impossible to point out that it uses more energy, not less.

Schendler's first project -- retrofitting lights in the Little Nell Hotel -- was a case in point, and one of the book's many excellent stories.

"I came over the top of the trench and got machine-gunned because my ideas weren't grounded in reality -- they were fueled by idealism and hope. Those are good traits, but they carry only so much weight in corporate boardrooms."
The project, despite a 50 percent return on investment, was canned because the lights would hurt the ambience -- and jeopardize the hotel's five-star rating.

Dump the tree hugger image to create lasting change

Business as usual is the main barrier to green programs, but it's not insurmountable. Schendler spells out a five-step strategy for launching sustainability programs. Then, true to form, he describes where and why that strategy has failed, so we can learn from his mistakes.

The best way to start turning a new corporation green, he says, is to set the hook with a sexy project. Once you have management's attention, make the pure economic pitch for going green. Build support and prove the worth of your projects, then transition from pure economics to ethical drivers for further change. Without ROI, you'll need partners with money, such as grants from government and expert advice from non-profits. Then hype your success with positive press.

This squares with three of my long-held beliefs: First is the "gateway drug" effect of the first project, no matter how small, to enlist an army of energy-efficiency champions. Second is that business is business, and the only programs that currently can survive economic ups and downs are those that at least break even. Third, no surprise coming from the founder of a magazine on sustainability, is the role of the media to tell the truth.

I'm an energy technology geek; Schendler is the opposite. He quotes Joe Romm's theory of the technology trap (the climate policy expert said waiting for new technologies is widely used to delay solving the problem). The technology is here today, Schendler says, but we must overcome the "1970s hangover."

He found that when managers hear the words "energy" and "payback" they instead hear "green" and think "tree hugger." Projects get pigeonholed by the tie-dyed roots of the environmental movement, regardless of how very different today's projects are from saving the whale.

Schendler spells out how to preempt that image while not compromising the role ethics must ultimately play in achieving 80 to 90 percent CO2 reductions. Nonetheless, he says, if you can't kill the opposition, sometimes you just have to wait for it to die -- or leave the company.

Green energy and buildings

Schendler devotes a chapter each to green energy and green buildings, because he feels that these are at the core of the solution to climate change.

Energy generation -- for everything from heat and lights to cars and diesel-powered snow groomers -- produces a lot of carbon dioxide. Schendler promotes energy efficiency and renewable energy as the solutions. Energy demand is growing. We can't get away from adding new energy supplies, so we must de-carbonize our power plants.

So we will turn to renewable energy, which means putting concrete and steel in the ground. Meanwhile, energy efficiency and demand-side management will buy us time to build clean energy sources. Despite the early-stage bruises to the reputation of renewable energy credits, that is how most businesses will shift to renewable power.

Buildings are responsible for almost half of global greenhouse gas emissions and, Schendler, represent the second key to solving the climate challenge.

Change takes time, but we don't have time to waste. We need to accelerate the adoption of green building and break down the barriers hampering the green construction industry. Up-front costs and city planners are among those barriers, but some of the most formidable obstacles are in the industry itself. He perfectly described my own experience -- hiring contractors who smile and nod at carefully researched efficiency measures, then proceed to knock them down one by one, returning to their familiar methods.

"The reality here is that the idea that it shouldn't -- or doesn't -- cost more to build green is hogwash. Green construction is still relatively new...you are spending time figuring out the new process with meetings, consultants, and suppliers... plus, you're building something better. That costs more, too. Always. But it's worth it, and eventually we'll figure that out."
LEED is a good idea, Schendler says, but it can't solve the problem. LEED is a certification process, not a construction handbook. Just as students can master test-taking and not learn anything, architects can master point-mongering and build LEED-certified energy hogs with bamboo floors.

Although energy is everything in green buildings, Schendler acknowledges that the USGBC has a long way to go before the energy efficiency requirements in LEED, though updated, will be strong enough to make a difference. LEED certification should mean something, just as building codes must change to reflect what matters -- and the one thing that matters is energy efficiency.

"Horrifyingly, I am in the process of LEED-certifying another ASC building with minimal energy efficiency measures, something I swore I'd never do... The fault is mine, and the barriers were communication, money, and human factors. But the fact of my failure only underlines the extreme difficulty with successful green construction and the truly staggering nature of the challenge..."

The battle rages on.

Got religion?

Fighting the war for sustainability isn't a religious war, but it's similar, Schendler says.
"...no such holistically encompassing opportunity as solving climate change, nothing with so great a promise to achieve some universal human goals, on so large a scale, has been offered up since the establishment of large organized religions between 2,000 and 4,000 years ago."
Sustainability shares its source with religion: the ancient human wellspring of community, understanding and mission. Solving climate change is in our bones, and a sustainable world is as close as our forefathers.

Available March 2009

Getting Green Done by Auden Schendler will be released in March 2009 (on 100% recycled FSC-certified paper, of course) by Public Affairs Books, New York. ISBN 978-1-58648-637-2.

More reviews are linked at the publisher's book web site. Auden Schendler has been profiled in BusinessWeek (Oct. 29, 2007) and Time (Apr. 3, 2006).

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