A Conversation With Auden Schendler, Aspen's Green Guy

Schendler-Post.jpg Now the vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Company, Auden Schendler learned about corporate environmentalism from Amory Lovins, whom he worked with at the Rocky Mountain Institute as a junior researcher in the '90s. Lovins, credited with pushing the idea that it was smart business to "go green," clearly influenced the young Schendler, who had previously worked as a freelancer writer, trailer insulator, ambulance medic, and goose nest island builder with the forest service. He's gone on to transform the skiing industry, convincing the biggest players that they, too, needed to follow Lovins' lead -- earning himself the title of Aspen's Green Guy in the process. Schendler has been named a global warming innovator by Time magazine and profiled in lengthy cover stories for Businessweek and the Aspen Times Weekly. Here, Schendler discusses how he can keep his business going forever; the answer to the climate crisis; and why he doesn't really care about compostable cups, recycling, and improving wildlife habitats.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

My job is to keep us in business forever. So that means solving climate change, for example, but also strengthening our community, our workforce, and, frankly, our brand.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

The concept of the "epic fail," the idea that we're not just going to miss the climate fix by a bit, but actually we're going to blow it by a large and catastrophic margin. It's causing people in my field to rethink what our work means, both how to approach it and what the reality of the future looks like.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

Achieving sustainability means solving climate change, period. But as far as I can tell, the public overwhelmingly thinks my peers and I are some relics from the '70s, working on recycling and compostable cups, improving wildlife habitats, stuff like that. But I don't know anything about those things, for the most part I don't even care about them, other than tangentially. I work on climate change mitigation, through policy, emissions reduction, and clean power generation.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

The answer to this wants to be something like: "thin film solar," or "feed-in tariffs," some technological or innovation fix. But the reality is that the shake up idea will be the realization that solving climate change isn't going to be techy and sexy and innovative, it's going to use off the shelf technology and be basic, simple, blue collar hard work of the kind my Grandpa Joe in North Dakota talked about all the time. It's stuff we already know how to do and which we are very good at. It's going to mean fixing old buildings, for example. Redoing the electric grid. This is going to be a return to who we are as Americans: it won't be exciting but once we get going we'll do it well and enjoy it, like building a shed, and in the end it will be incredibly gratifying. And the timing is perfect: The small construction industry has always led out of recessions, and we have this idle workforce ready to go.

What's a sustainability trend that you wish would go away?

Plastic bag bans.

What's an idea you became fascinated with but that ended up taking you off track?

Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs), the idea that you can treat the green component of renewable power as a commodity, and that trafficking in that commodity can drive change. There's some merit to the idea but it ended up being a distraction.

Who are three people or organizations that you would put in a Hall of Fame for your field?

NASA climatologist James Hansen, Yvon Chouinard, and Bill McKibben. All three very thoughtful, brilliant, moral leaders. I'd add Amory Lovins as a fourth. Chouinard in particular I have a soft spot for. His is a reluctant and cranky warrior, and he'd rather be climbing mountains.

What other field or occupation did you consider going into?

Emergency medicine. I was a volunteer EMT for a number of years and started assembling first aid kits when I was probably eight. I loved the adrenaline but I also thought it made me more human, helping people in severe crisis. You could argue that's what I'm doing today.

What website or app most helps you do your job on a daily basis?


What song's been stuck in your head lately?

Amos Lee's song "El Camino" from the Mission Bell album:

Gonna wash my soul
Gonna get it clean
On that old highway
Called the El Camin