Is Culture Shift Possible?

Students and visitors walking into a residence hall at Oberlin College shouldn’t be surprised to find glowing orbs mounted on walls, changing colors throughout the day. Sound like one of the DHARMA Initiative research stations on the television show “Lost”? These orbs are part of an ongoing experiment to better understand how to encourage reduced energy consumption. The color of the “energy orbs” tells building residents how they’re doing in real time. Bright red means energy consumption is higher than average, yellow indicates things are running at about average, and green means consumption is below average.

As the Oberlin energy orbs suggest, at the heart of sustainability is the goal of moving from a culture of consumption to one of conservation. Simply greening campus operations is not enough. Moving toward sustainability hinges on our ability to inspire and maintain changes in behavior, expectations, and norms. Until people remember to turn off their computers, hop on the bus, or put their soda bottles in the recycling bin, it will be difficult to make much progress.

How one frames the message has a clear impact on how effectively it is communicated. “It’s not about telling people, ‘You have to do this, you have to do that,’” notes Oberlin College undergraduate Lucas Brown. “It’s about fitting sustainability into our own lives.” The energy orbs provide a quick, easy way to tell what the level of energy use is in the building without a lot of technical detail and in a way that motivates rather than alienates the residents. In fact, this kind of real-time feedback at Oberlin led to cuts of more than 50% in energy consumption during the experiment.

Simply put, inundating people with facts and figures can lead to paralysis. Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale University Project on Climate Change, contends that “you have to have an emotional response-bad or good-to put a high priority on doing something.” But just scaring people with apocalyptic messages about the future won’t work either. Instead, people have to be presented with concrete, positive actions; otherwise they can feel overwhelmed and powerless.

Environmental psychologist Doug McKenzie-Mohr suggests that the most effective way to promote sustainable behavior is to adopt community-based social marketing in place of the usual information-based campaigns. In his words, community-based social marketing focuses on “initiatives delivered at the community level which focus on removing barriers to an activity while simultaneously enhancing the activities’ benefits.” Community-based social marketing involves four steps: (1) identifying the barriers to a particular activity; (2) developing a strategy based on these data; (3) piloting a strategy; and (4) assessing the strategy’s success once it has been implemented across a community.

According to McKenzie-Mohr, among the most effective tools in community-based social marketing is commitment. Securing a small commitment at the outset leads to a successful larger request. Thus, asking someone to put a bumper sticker on his or her car about buying green products increases the possibility that the person will actually purchase these products.

Another important tool is the use of eye-catching prompts that remind people to turn off the lights, turn down the thermostat, or check the air pressure in their tires. In addition, norm-based messaging can be very persuasive. A 2007 study showed that giving households regular feedback on how much energy they were using relative to the rest of the group, along with a signal of social approval or disapproval (in the form of happy- or sad-face emoticons), led almost everyone to cut down on their energy consumption. “Keeping up with the Joneses,” it turns out, works as a powerful motivator in arenas other than consumer goods.

Communicating messages that are easy to remember, clear, and specific, and establishing personal and community goals are also key to successful social marketing. As part of an energy savings campaign, for example, University of Buffalo, Tufts University and Williams College urged students to “do it in the dark,” a message sure to resonate with this demographic group. Finally, the careful use of incentives that reward positive action rather than penalize negative behavior is a critical tool in moving people toward more sustainable behavior.

Clearly, attempts to change behavior and values raise a number of thorny issues. “Campuses will become sustainable only when they have universal buy-in and enthusiastic participation from all stakeholders,” observes Derek Larson, director of the Environmental Studies Program at the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University. “This requires a cultural shift that leads people to ask themselves ‘what is the most sustainable way to do this?’ before making a decision, rather than asking ‘what is the cheapest way to do this?’ or ‘how have we done this in the past?’ as is common practice at most institutions.”

The biggest question is whether a culture fueled by billions of advertising dollars and powered by decades of cheap oil and energy can change fast enough to avert disaster. Just as smoking habits have altered significantly over the last 20 years, more sustainable behaviors will probably take hold. But will they do so in time to make a difference? Although no one knows the answer to this question, the participation of colleges and universities in this effort can certainly improve our chances. What color is your campus’s energy orb?

Note: This post originally appeared on the National Wildlife Federation blog.

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Rethinking Financial Sustainability in Tough Times

Last week’s release of the College Sustainability Report Card 2009 raises an important question:  What does it mean for higher education to adopt sustainability as a core financial strategy?

As Andrea Putman and I discuss in our forthcoming book, Boldly Sustainable: Hope and Opportunity for Higher Education in the Age of Climate Change, a commitment to sustainability can both maximize the upside benefits and minimize the downside risks.  It can lead to a more efficient use of limited resources, higher productivity, the development of distributed leadership on campus, greater collaboration across organizational silos, strengthened trust with external stakeholders, and an enhanced brand value that makes it easier to recruit outstanding students, faculty, and staff and retain them, all of which can produce a significant competitive advantage for the institution.

Just as important, adopting sustainability as a core financial strategy means implementing a broader approach to investment. Higher education, if it intends to take its own long-term sustainability seriously, needs to focus on how increases in endowment spending can improve the well being of society and the environment.

Why?

Berea College in Kentucky

It’s pretty simple, actually.  Colleges and universities can only thrive if society and the biosphere are healthy. Any college or university that is so shortsighted as to pursue its ends without taking into account the interests of the larger community or ecosystem in which it is enmeshed will not thrive over the long haul. In the end, it will find itself forced, one way or the other, to deal with the fact that its future is inextricably linked to that of the larger web of social and ecological relations in which it is embedded. It is recognition of this interdependence, for example, that has driven Yale University to invest in the city of New Haven and Berea College to invest in the people and land of the Appalachian South.

College and university endowments, worth hundreds of billions of dollars, could be a powerful force for social and environmental good even as these institutions pursue their own self interest. Yet only 35% of the institutions surveyed in the College Sustainability Report Card 2009 invest in renewable energy and only 10% in community development funds.

If a healthy future is to be evenly distributed, higher education institutions must embrace a larger understanding of their mission and not confine themselves simply to growing their endowments while the communities around them come unraveled and the rapid degradation of the environment continues unabated.

One of the best ways that universities can have a positive effect on the environment and local economy is for them to set aside a certain proportion of their endowments to use as a revolving loan fund for cities and towns to use in communitywide energy efficiency retrofits. These loans have the potential for returns on investment as good as anything in the financial markets today.  Of course, considering the state of Wall Street, that’s not saying much.

In making such investments, universities and colleges not only can help reduce the carbon footprint of the community, but also keep dollars from flowing out of the community and into the pockets of the utility companies. These dollars will recirculate in the community, increasing spending and indirectly contributing to the creation of new jobs.  And, as Van Jones points out, investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy also directly create new green collar jobs that can provide much needed economic stability during even the toughest of recessions.

Given the latest economic forecasts, it’s an idea worth considering.

Note: This post originally appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education’s Building and Grounds Blog here.