Though this year’s Earth Week activities successfully promoted “sustainable sex,” trayless dining, and dimmer lights, experts are worried that the University’s effects were little more than symbolic, and event organizers are already planning how to improve the low turnout at events.
Some of the most publicized changes took place in the dining halls this week, where trays were noticeably absent and the lights were slightly lower. Other events, including lectures, study breaks, and information sessions were organized by the University Sustainability Council, the Green Campus Initiative, and other student and faculty environmental groups.
Ecology professor Justin Borevitz, however, is skeptical of some of the short-term initiatives. Referring to the impact of trayless dining and the use of plastic utensils in dining halls, Borevitz said, “Personally I don’t think it’s huge, aside from more indirect effects. And when you think about the lifespan of a metal fork, you’re going to get a lot more uses out of it than plastic. It’s just waste.”
Second-year Rebecca Maurer, co-chair of the Green Campus Initiative, conceded that such weeklong measures aren’t enough. But she emphasized that Earth Week has broader implications. “I think Earth Week overall has the goal of promoting a culture of environmental awareness on this campus. The idea isn’t just to put in an effort for one week and then call it quits,” she said.
College Director of Sustainability Ilsa Flanagan agreed. “We’re really trying to create an awareness about our personal relationship with the environment and how we can make it all add up collectively rather than individually,” she said.
“I think Earth Week serves kind of two purposes. It’s a nice celebration for those who spend their whole year taking care of the planet and it can serve as a reminder to everybody else that we actually live on a planet.”
While Flanagan saw Earth Week as a success, she was disappointed by attendance at the widely promoted keynote lectures. She said in spite of widespread fliers and announcements, only 25 or 30 people showed up to each keynote speech. “I’m wondering about that and want to do some follow-up and see why people didn’t attend it or didn’t connect it to their studies or their own lives,” she said.
Borevitz said this poor attendance was symptomatic of a larger problem. He said there is “a low activation energy” to take the kinds of steps needed to learn about and to “make the kinds of behavioral changes today that can make a big difference tomorrow.”
While Borevitz was skeptical about the benefits of trayless dining, he does see Earth Week as a way to promote environmental consciousness on campus, particularly as a way to give sustainability a larger role in academics. “I’d like to see more administrative support for getting the environment into the curriculum so that everybody’s talking about it not just for a week but for a major. That would be one of the biggest things that all universities could do.”
Instead of focusing on piecemeal initiatives, Borovitz emphasized the importance of accounting for energy usage with events like the Battle of the Bulbs. “We could be a model kind of city school for environmentalism if there was a little more commitment at the top level and a little more demand at the bottom from students. As it is we’re losing students to Stanford and Duke and other places that have better environmental programs.”
For future Earth Weeks, Flanagan would like to emphasize what she sees as Earth Week’s greatest strength: “The wonderful thing about sustainability is that it’s holistic. Ideally what you’d like to do is create interdisciplinary linkages among departments: economics, energy, public policy. It just makes us more aware of what’s going on around us, so we don’t get caught up in our own little boxes.”