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Green meets reality in Aspen

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Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution

By Auden Schendler

PublicAffairs

320 pages

In 1999, Auden Schendler went to work for the Aspen Skiing Co. with the mandate to improve the environmental performance of the company's four ski areas and ancillary properties, including lodges and restaurants. He thought he already knew a lot, especially about saving energy. He had crawled amid the mice droppings under trailers to install insulation, then worked for energy guru Amory Lovins at the Rocky Mountain Institute.

From Lovins and others, he had heard that saving energy should be easy, because it saved money - and who didn't want to save money? But what Schendler learned in green-leaning, well-heeled Aspen was that the real world only occasionally squared with the PowerPoint presentations. If that's the case in Aspen, imagine the difficulties in the other real world, he suggests in his book, Getting Green Done: Hard Truths from the Front Lines of the Sustainability Revolution.

Instead of technological barriers, Schendler found "human barriers." Some people heard the word "environmental," which is part of his title, and blanked out all his economic arguments. Another rift that had to be bridged was a cultural one. He was viewed with suspicion by the blue-collar front-line mechanics whose aid was crucial to implementation of his changes. As well, hotel and other managers at times had very good reasons to resist, he decided. But even corporate officers distrusted his claims of saving money.

"The sustainability gurus say that all obstacles can be overcome. But they generally are talking to people like me who consider it an honor to plunge a low-flush toilet," Schendler says. "They haven't had lunch with a restaurant manager whose career depends on his perception of an uncompromised product."

Schendler had that lunch, and it was at the gilded Little Nell, the Aspen Skiing Co.'s five-star hotel. Aspen uses two to four times as much energy as the U.S. average, and the Little Nell is even more energy intensive. Schendler figured that trimming energy use would be akin to shooting fish in a barrel. But in his first shot - installing compact-fluorescent bulbs - he missed. The manager had the expensive bulbs thrown in the trash, fearful of losing the coveted five-star rating when an auditor discovered lighting that was too dim.

What Schendler saw as a money-saving opportunity, the hotel manager saw as a money-losing opportunity. The PowerPoints never mention this.

Not until he got to the Little Nell's parking garage did Schendler notch a win, and only then because of a grant from a non-profit and the intercession of Aspen Skiing's then chief executive, Pat O'Donnell.

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