Are sustainability folks in businesses complicit with evil fossil fuel?

The chapter Auden Schendler wishes he would have written in ‘Getting Green Done’

by Allen Best

Big Pivots

Auden Schendler claims that his new essay, ”The Complicity of Corporate Sustainability,” was the result of a recent epiphany, one coincidental while riding a bicycle. And perhaps the damning extent of it was. But in a sense, it’s the logical conclusion of the journey he began in the 1990s when he was crawling under trailers to install insulation and doing the other menial grunt work of saving the environment.

Schendler, the senior vice president of sustainability at the Aspen Skiing Co., has gone from the bottom-up to top-down approaches during his career. In recent years, he has become very clear that the work that matters is less the self-transformation of an individual or company and more the way that power is leveraged to produce systematic change.

That means political power, in filings of the Colorado Public Utilities Commission (where the Aspen Skiing Co. is a frequent intervenor) to the halls of Congress, where Mike Kaplan, the chief executive of the Aspen Skiing Co., has sometimes appeared. It’s not enough to change out the light bulbs in the parking garage, as important as that is.

Auden Schendler

Schendler is a student of social change and has examined the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s.

In the essay published by the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Schendler turns to religion for the grounding of his argument.

“Many awkward stances are difficult because they are also moral stances. As a theologian once explained to me: ‘Jesus wasn’t killed because he preached loving kindness. He was crucified because he preached justice.’ In a sense, changing lightbulbs and cutting carbon footprints is loving kindness—there is nothing not to like. Tackling the systemic climate problem head-on, that’s ultimately about justice. And that will get you in trouble.”

Schendler’s newest argument might annoy some people because he wants to move the onus of responsibility from the individual or company and to the supplier of products that cause the greenhouse gas emissions. He wants to put the scope directly on fossil fuels.

This is from the April 18, 2021, issue of Big Pivots. For a free subscription, go to BigPivots.com

An imperfect comparison here is that of Big Tobacco and consumers —like me, for roughly 24 years of my life. Whose fault was my smoking habit? The gas station that sold me the cigarettes, one pack at a time (yes, for almost all of those years). Was it RJ Reynolds and its subsidiaries (Camels, Lucky Strike and a dozen others)? Or was it me?

Global warming is different, because the fossil fuels being burned inordinately benefit the few at the expense of many—including future generations.

Schendler argues that businesses with their sustainability programs and universities with their supporting roles have been complicit in the continuing burning of fossil fuels. It’s more than a distraction, and a dodge of the hard, controversial work.

It is evil, he says, “because it represents complicity. Complicity with the fossil fuel industry and the structure it created – its capture of government, its ownership of the economy, its buried but enduring subsidies, its support, by political proxy, for anti-democratic practices that would restrict regulation, the construction of a world in which citizens exist in a fossil economy, not of their creation but nonetheless blame themselves for it.”

Schendler wrote a 2009 book, “Getting Green Done,” about the hard work and many failures of business sustainability. This is the chapter, he says that should have ended the book. BP

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Allen Best