Flicking the Off Switch On Our Bad Habits

In his essay “Beyond Sustainababble,” Worldwatch Institute President Robert Engelman writes, “We live today in an age of sustainababble,
a cacophonous profusion of uses of the word sustainable to mean anything
from environmentally better to cool.” Through this kind of excessive and
ambiguous use, the words “sustainable” and “sustainability” lose
meaning and impact. Nonetheless, we all know that there is something there,
like an 800-pound gorilla lurking in the closet. Despite our tremendous
irresolution, we can’t ignore the need to work for a stable, healthy social
future, and to take into account the fundamental resources
needed to support this future. That is what achieving sustainability means.

If nothing else, the 5C PowerDown Challenge and
recent student-led divestment campaign are sharp acknowledgements of this
imperative from a generation more likely to feel the pain of climate change and
corroding resources than any of Pomona College’s
current instructors and staff members. Engelman poignantly writes, “The question
of whether civilization can continue on its current path without undermining
prospects for future well-being is at the core of the world’s current
environmental predicament. In the wake of failed international environmental
and climate summits, when national governments take no actions commensurate
with the risk of catastrophic environmental change, are there ways humanity
might still alter current behaviors to make them sustainable? … If humanity
fails to achieve sustainability, when—and how—will unsustainable trends end?
And how will we live through and beyond such endings? Whatever words we use, we
need to ask these tough questions. If we fail to do so, we risk self-destruction.”

However we deal with this situation, it is clear that
everyone of means must be engaged at all scales with the enterprise of
achieving a form of sustainability that is more than mere sustainababble. But
sustainababble brings with it the curse of making this enterprise seem easier
than it actually is.

Since September 2013, I have been running an informal experiment
observing one measure of sustainability: the degree to which users of
classrooms in the vicinity of my campus office have switched off lights upon
leaving. My observations are far from encouraging. Despite clever if not
assertive signage placed near switches that practically shout for the “last one
out!” to switch off the lights, more than 90 percent of the 40-some occasions I
have paid attention to departures, the lights remain blazing. Projectors are
also occasionally left on (!).

This painfully illustrates that a basic instinct for
sustainability is simply missing from our patterns of behavior—a lack of
ordinary thrift and consciousness that had led Pomona President David Oxtoby to comment at
one meeting last fall, quite accurately, that “the cost of energy is not high
enough,” certainly in any direct sense to the people who are using it.

You may perhaps argue that this case is “trivial.”
Switching off some types of lights for less than 15 minutes could, in fact,
consume more energy than leaving them on continuously. But for longer periods
this certainly isn’t true. And lack of attention to this one small area implies
lack of attention to many other ways in which we could make a big difference in
terms of our resource consumption—a deferral of responsibility to others with
the excuse that “it doesn’t make much difference,” or an inability to
recognize, as in calculus, that any big whole is a sum of small parts. Indeed,
about 12 percent of total U.S. electricity consumption is used for lighting.

I blame faculty and staff members as much as I do
students. Professors are frequently the last ones to leave a classroom. For us,
a failure to “power down” is in a sense a failure to accept an important
mentoring opportunity. A conscientious professor might even make the task
public, by appointing on a rotational basis one or more students for “switch
duty” every time a class meets.

As for students, who often keep lights on in their residence hall rooms and leave their devices charging at all times, there is nothing left but
an appeal to conscience—short of exercising the embarrassment of peer pressure,
some sort of onerous monitoring and rebate system, or a Pigovian tax on the highest
energy consumers. Changing bad energy habits is a question of personal
psychology, not environmental issues. But the latter will never improve without
the help of the former. The current PowerDown project implicitly tackles this fact.

Dr. Heidi G. Henderson writes that there are three key
strategies for engineering personal change, all of which demand motivation from
within. First, it is easier to make a change when you have a very specific goal in
mind (“Power down my living space!”). Second, you should expect to have to work hard
to change a bad habit (“I am not going to forget this time!”). Finally, willpower is like a muscle that improves with exercise; it gets easier to stay on a new course the longer you follow it—and it happens more quickly than you might imagine
at first.

If we wish to work toward a truly sustainable future, we must
pay more serious attention to these psychological tools.

Richard Hazlett is the Stephen M. Pauley Chair in Environmental Analysis at Pomona College and an affiliated professor in the Geology Department.

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