University should incentivize & publicize sustainibility efforts

If you missed the article in the Record and signs next to bike racks around campus, you probably missed the fact that April is Car-Free Month and that the University is holding its Car-Free Challenge for 11 days of this month (from April 16-27). While the effort may be well-intended, it is difficult to see that these efforts will have a substantive long-term effect on the habits of Wash. U. students and faculty—especially considering that few people even know about it. Without consistent and sustained efforts, the lofty goal of changing the community’s attitude toward sustainability will be unattainable.

The Office of Sustainability should publicize its events more to attract more people. The fact that most Car-Free participants must be off-campus residents significantly limits the pool of who can participate in this month’s effort. While there are incentives for participants, including prizes for those who do the most to achieve sustainable commutes, the short-lived nature of the challenge will likely engender only brief reflection, rather than sustained change in most people’s habits.

Other such initiatives, though theoretically sound in terms of message, are questionably effective. The annual Green Cup, good intentions aside, incentivizes sustainability for a short time, to be followed by a sudden return to typical energy use; while statistics from this year’s competition may point to continued green practices, this is likely due to unusually pleasant weather in the month after the Cup. Students are no longer compulsively turning off their lights or holding sleepovers to conserve energy. And while it is difficult to change people’s long-term habits, there are certainly ways to do so. Providing semester- and yearlong incentives is one possible approach.

The campus ban on plastic water bottles, for instance, is one example of a long-term initiative that has generally worked—for the simple reason that it depends on policy enforcement rather than student initiative. But even with this policy, there’s room for improvement; at WUStock, for example, Gym Class Heroes received bottled water; and instead of drinking the water, they threw the bottles out to the crowd after the performance. Whether bottled water was part of the band’s contract, or simply part of “good business,” making exceptions to this policy provides yet another example of the problem with many green initiatives on campus: inconsistency.

While there are numerous special events throughout the year to promote students going green, it would be empowering to students and to the campus to move past short-term, “themed” efforts. Providing sustained incentives and plans for sustainable behavior will not only improve Wash. U.’s image and environmental health but also, ideally, instill students with positive lifelong habits. For now, we should look into having more consistent efforts and rewards to promote students participating in those efforts. Ultimately, we can reach the point of being green for its own sake—which is the whole idea in the first place.

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