Editorial Board | Nov. 23, 2013, 6:55 a.m.
The Claremont Colleges bubble houses a community where issues of social responsibility and justice are always at the forefront of the campus-wide conversation. Global climate change and environmental awareness are certainly included in that conversation, and high-profile movements such as the Claremont Colleges Divestment Campaign have aimed to effect environmentally friendly policy at the 5Cs. Indeed, there are many battles to be won to change institutions, from colleges to governmental bodies, to become a sustainable part of the global ecosystem rather than a drain on local and global resources.
But often the discussion of the larger, institutionalized forces we can sense acting on our lives pushes aside the discussion about individuals and our lifestyle choices. The ends we desire when we propose policy reform are the same as, or at least mirror, our personal moral goals and values, reflecting a desire to reduce environmental impact and be a part of sustainable institutions. But the question of how an individual, as opposed to an institution, should behave in order to realize these goals is usually left unasked or at best unsatisfactorily answered.
This week TSL reported on the most recent in a series of waste audits conducted by Pomona College's Sustainability Integration Office (SIO), revealing that the total amount of trash produced at Pomona as well as the amount of compostable material in the trash has increased the past few years. For a student body that mounts strong student movements for divestment, that declares climate change to be one of the greatest threats humanity has ever faced, we seem to do a poor job of molding our own lives and community to reflect those beliefs and make changes on an individual level.
While this audit only reviews one school's waste, we can imagine that the behavior of other Claremont Colleges students is not radically different from Pomona students. Although institutional relationships such as investments in fossil fuel companies are a large factor in the colleges' overall environmental impact, individual lifestyle choices are an obvious driving factor behind the amount of waste produced by the 5Cs. Students can lament the campaign's initial failure to produce divestiture, but it is hypocritical to bemoan the policies of institutions that we cannot shift while failing to implement the individual lifestyle changes that we could easily make that could, at least collectively, make a significant difference.
This failure to implement environmentally friendly lifestyles is not necessarily a conscious choice. But when we are so primed to consider social problems as existing outside of us, outside of our own individual behavior—as things we must change about large systems or institutions—we can forget to consider the way social, moral, and ethical issues function in our own lives. There are certainly students at the 5Cs who monitor where their food comes from, who stand next to the dish station handing out cookies to students who compost, who turn their lights off every time they leave the room. But when we see evidence that our waste consumption has increased in an already consumerist, pampered climate (housekeeping staff empty our overflowing trash cans and keep our bathrooms sparkling clean), it seems clear that most of us are ignoring our individual duties to the environment.
Proposing institutional change matters because it can affect enough individuals' lives and actions to make a large-scale difference in behaviors and outcomes. Policies that will help preserve the environment require that people live their lives differently, whether that manifests as a cap on energy consumption or waste per person or through some other means, but we too often only look outwards when considering what behaviors need to be curtailed. One more article telling you to unplug your laptop would add very little to the conversation: The rhetoric is already out there.
Students know what to do to reduce their environmental impact and many—if not all—care about preserving the environment for future generations, but too many students do not change their individual behavior to limit their corrosive effects on the environment. We do not tolerate sexist behavior from someone just because they preach institutional equality for men and women, and the same standard should be held to environmentalists. We need to incorporate the values of the environmental policies we support on a large scale into our daily lives.
The SIO audits simply reveal that when it comes to issues of environmental justice, we often look outside rather than in. We use far too much energy here and throw out much more trash than we should—an amount that has increased over the past few semesters—and that is mostly a factor of what behaviors we partake in on an individual level. Before we become overly concerned with how the rest of the world deals with climate change, we should worry about how we deal with it to make sure that we embody the values that ground our political and moral ideals. We need to make a much stronger effort to tailor our individual lives to the environmental realities we all—not just governments and colleges and societal structures—face.