In the Loop: Sustainability needs a re-evaluation

by Max Nelsen

Whitworth’s commitment to sustainability is both admirable and well-proven. Currently, Whitworth is the clear leader in Avista Utilities’ ongoing Power Down, Add Up contest. Also, Whitworth recently hosted Professor Steven Bouma-Prediger for a lecture on earth-keeping. However, these events bring up issues about Whitworth’s sustainability drive.

First, the Avista contest is set up as a competition between schools. Why is it that we are competing? The answer comes across in the way the event was advertised: the potential to win an iPad seems to be the primary emphasis. If participation by individuals is motivated purely by a desire to win iPads then we have no right to claim the mantle of sustainability.

Yet from the standpoint of school leadership, environmental concerns appear more dominant. This also poses problems. In one dorm, advertising for the challenge has been particularly excessive. Signs exhorting residents, including non-participants in the contest, to brush their teeth without water, turn off lights, unplug laptops and take shorter showers paper the walls. Even the water fountains feature face-level signs urging greater conservation.

One of the more amusing signs reads, “Jesus is the light, so you don’t need one.” While we’re twisting Scripture, we may as well note Matthew 5:16, which directs us to “let your light shine before men.”

Misquoting Scripture and discouraging people from drinking water from public fountains borders on absurdity and alludes to propaganda.

Bouma-Prediger’s lecture reinforced these concerns. While he presented some thoughtful points, there were telling weaknesses in his presentation. For instance, Bouma-Prediger stated that 2 million plastic water bottles are used in the U.S. every five minutes, or 1.86 water bottles per day for every person in the country. This same statistic is featured on napkin dispensers in our dining hall. However, research by this board has failed to turn up any such statistic.

While it appeared on blogs, no source of the statistic could be found. The Story of Stuff Project says that Americans use about a half billion bottles of water per week, or 0.23 bottles per person per day. According to the New York Department of Conservation said that Americans purchased 31 billion bottles of water in 2006, or 0.27 water bottles per person per day. Bouma-Prediger’s number is almost seven times the highest statistic we found.

While the number of water bottles used is high in any case, this board believes that accurate information is vitally important, especially when questionable statistics are used to coerce people into altering their behavior.

This brings up the most critical weakness in the general approach to sustainability. There is no clear criteria for balancing human need in a specific situation against the well-being of the environment. If we truly want to help the environment, minimal human activity should be sought and, indeed, coerced. If we want to take human needs into account, however, we must accept that the environment is going to suffer some degree of harm. Where do we draw the line? This often goes unaddressed.

If the university is going to continue ramping up its pursuit of sustainability, it is time for there to be an honest discussion, based on accurate information, about what this truly means.

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