Wednesday, April 1, 2009

ArtsPaper Books: 'Getting Green Done' offers plenty of angst, scant strategy

By Bill Williams

Auden Schendler believes that climate change is the “defining problem of our time” – one that demands another American Revolution.

This is hardly a new message. Many others, including former Vice President Al Gore, have said much the same thing. Getting Green Done does offer useful tips and strategies, but in the end it is not clear if Schendler is optimistic or pessimistic about whether the planet can be saved.

The raw numbers are sobering. The 2007 increase in carbon emissions worldwide exceeded the worst predictions of scientists. Depending on how fast nations respond to the crisis, sea levels are expected to rise 20 to 80 feet by the end of the century as polar ice melts. Many coastal communities will be flooded.

To head off a catastrophe, scientists say that carbon emissions must be slashed up to 90 percent in coming decades. Getting Green Done does not pretend it will be easy. Schendler says people are deluded if they think that buying a Prius and using canvas grocery bags is going to solve global warming.

Schendler heads the environmental department at Aspen Skiing Co. in Aspen, Colo., a tourist destination known for high living and profligate energy consumption. If the United States as a whole is an energy hog, “then Aspen is Hogzilla.”

In public talks the author would flash a picture of his young daughter, Willa, on the screen, telling audiences that climate change ultimately would be her problem. He eventually realized his message was terribly mistaken. “By the time she’s grown up enough to start to solve it, it will be too late. … This is not Willa’s problem. It is ours.”

Schendler’s experience at Aspen Skiing Co. demonstrates how hard it can be to make even minor changes. After the lightbulbs in one of the restaurants were replaced with new energy-efficient bulbs, the manager objected to their appearance and removed them. Despite setbacks, Schendler believes that Aspen can serve as a role model and incubator for bold strategies to slash energy use.

Environmentalists have sought to persuade business that going green saves money in the long run, but that argument can be misleading because moving away from a carbon-based economy will be difficult -- and costly.

“The bottom line is this: Corporate sustainability won’t occur without a company mandate that springs from ethics rather than from economics.”

Schendler proposes creation of a public-private climate trust with $100 million in annual grant money to spur companies to make radical changes in energy consumption and efficiency.

Although corporate innovation is critical, it is not enough. “Only government action – on a global scale – can drive the level of change at the speed we require.”

Getting Green Done effectively combines personal anecdotes, humor and clear writing. However, Schendler may lose some readers with his detailed descriptions of Aspen Skiing Co.’s culture and management. At one point he reproduces five pages of internal memos to make a point.

Schendler’s passion is evident when he calls global warming “the equivalent of a five-alarm fire” and encourages citizens to “storm the barricades,” as they did in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War protests.

Readers impressed with Schendler’s passion likely will be disappointed by his ambiguous, tepid conclusion. He clearly describes the problem, but fails to offer a realistic strategy to deal with it.

Despite all the media attention to global warming, it still is not clear if the message is getting through. Schendler says one study concluded that only 2 percent of North Americans are “deep green” – that is, willing to seek and pay for environmentally superior products, although he also cites evidence that interest in green products “is growing exponentially.”

Schendler apparently completed the book before the November election. He surely would agree that we have a much better chance of confronting global warming with Barack Obama in the White House, following eight years of procrastination and denial under President George W. Bush.

Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution, by Auden Schendler; Public Affairs, 292 pp., $26.95

Bill Williams is a freelance writer in West Hartford, Conn., and a former editorial writer for The Hartford Courant. He is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

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