A Glimpse of Culture Change at Princeton

Ashley Thorne

Yesterday I popped over to the university to check out Princeton’s Sustainability Open House. I figured it’s always good to keep an eye on happenings in your backyard. Princeton had just released this video describing its sustainable ity initiatives as an effort to “induce a culture change” and “incorporate those principles into our daily decisions.” How successful is Operation Culture Change at this point?

When I arrived at Chancellor Green on the Princeton campus, a woman in a tent greeted me cheerfully with a map (printed on both sides) of the open house layout with its 43 exhibits, and two orange discs for voting on the trash sculptures. I also got a scavenger hunt questionnaire with questions such as “Where does the BEE Team (table #34) keep its hives?”

The first person I met was Shana Weber, the university’s Sustainability Manager. I recognized her from her somewhat stilted part in the video and introduced myself. I told her I worked for a local non-profit that focuses on higher education.

Inside the building were the trash sculptures. Most of them had some maxim to preach, like the crude ziggurat papered in lollipop wrappers that read, with exactly six exclamation points, “Lead a flavorful life, don’t be a dum-dum, and recycle!!!!!!” I was impressed, however, by the geometric sculpture constructed out of baseball and Uno cards without the help of adhesives.

Campus dining service was giving out pastries, and I approached one of the men in toques.

“I hear you’ve gone trayless in the cafeterias. How is that going?” I asked.

“It’s going well. All but one dining hall have gone trayless and it has saved energy, but unfortunately not as much as we thought it would. There’s definitely less excess food waste and less water usage since we’re not washing the trays. One of our biggest challenges is just figuring out ways to get utensils into the kitchen without the trays,” he replied.

“How have students reacted to the change? Do they complain that it’s hard to carry their food?” I asked.

He began to answer but an administrator, Executive Vice President Mark Burstein, began speaking and the room hushed to hear him. Burstein introduced a curly-headed student in a pink button-down shirt, Danny Growald. Growald, a senior, was articulate in his address. Clearly he is part of the growing generation of young sustainability activists groomed in college who go on to train others. In this way sustainability raises its own enthusiasts and is actually self-sustaining.

Growald said that when he first came to Princeton as a freshman, there wasn’t much of an environmentalist community. At the 2007 Power Shift conference, a youth summit on climate change policy, Growald was one of two students from Princeton in attendance. Two years later there were 50 Princeton students at the conference. Growald saw this as an indicator of increased student engagement. He said that in the future, Princeton needs to show academic leadership and leadership in action, and “rise to the front of the pack.” It should “use the endowment to make some real change.”

He noted with discomfort that Yale is more ambitious than Princeton, whose meager goal is to lower its carbon dioxide emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 (um, is this like back to the future?). Yale, on the other hand, is seeking to get to 10% below 1990 levels by then.

I talked to a young woman at an exhibit on personalized beer cups to be used in university clubs on designated nights. As I understand it from her description, students are given beer cups with their names on them so that they won’t use multiple cups and add to plastic waste generated from boozy parties. “But,” I countered, “don’t you think that if people get drunk and lose their cups in the confusion of the party, that that kind of defeats the point?” She said she didn’t really know but that it would be embarrassing for someone to have to ask for another cup.

I passed other booths on solar loan programs, the university’s printing and mail services (which use soy ink), and came to the one for eco-reps. These are the student ambassadors who encourage their peers to recycle. I talked to Bing Chiu, who is seen in the video explaining that the eco-reps “reach out to freshman and sort of induce a culture change that promotes sustainability from the very beginning.” He told me about this in person as well, saying this is through the Residential Education Program for new students.

When I asked him to tell me about the eco-reps, he didn’t hesitate. “It’s about changing habits,” he said.

No one at the open house asked me about my views, but if someone had, I might have said something like this: I’m all for conserving natural resources, and I want us and future generations to have clean air and water. But I’ve researched the sustainability movement and I’ve found that it reaches far beyond the environment. It has political and economic aspects which I disagree with, and I often see it associated with radical population control. Also sustainability advocates use heavy-handed pressure tactics. They work steadily on limiting everyday choices so that before we know it we are at the point where we “incorporate those principles into our daily decisions.”

We see miniature examples of this pressure and these limited choices all around us. Trader Joe’s rewards customers who bring reusable grocery bags by making them eligible for prize drawings. Signs in hotels and gym locker rooms admonish us to save the environment by using only one towel. Email signatures urge, “Please consider the environment before printing this email.” More and more we are being told to alter our behavior. These messages are particularly strong on college campuses, where bottled water bans and cafeteria tray removal serve as little reminders that we must adjust our lives to the new reality. As Bing Chiu told me, “It’s about changing habits.”  Sustainability advocates seek to change our attitudes, values, and behavior, so they enact policies that train people to make small adjustments by increments, until we’ve made it the basis for our moral compass.

Personally, I prefer to make my own daily decisions, not have other people make them for me. And I think Americans in general deserve the right to make their own decisions as well. So that’s one reason why I’m wary of how the sustainability movement has positioned itself as higher education’s new raison d’être.

Clearly I am an outsider to the sustainability movement. I never found out where the BEE Team keeps its hives.

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