10,000-odd Harvard students and other Cantabrigians flooded the Yard last Wednesday—all the while waiting in two-hour queues for free T-shirts and noshing on insipid apple crisp—to hear a keynote address from former Vice President Al Gore ’69, who, in the words of Drew Gilpin Faust, is “the greatest living steward of the environment.”
Gore’s clumsy speech notwithstanding—replete as it was with nebulous metaphors comparing climate change to the subprime-mortgage crisis and a bizarre historiography of the Enlightenment—the event coincided with Harvard’s daylong “sustainability celebration.”
Lime-colored banners festooned from trees proclaimed that “Green is the New Crimson,” event organizers hawked stickers reading “I composted today,” and even the John Harvard statue was requisitioned for the theme, donning some garish green garment for the day. One could easily get the impression that enduring such tacky and tasteless displays ranks among the manifold sacrifices of a sustainable lifestyle.
Despite the fashionable status that environmental activism and “sustainability” efforts have acquired of late, and the sanctimonious banalities of celebrity supporters like Gore, “green” initiatives indeed serve a noble goal. Amid constantly escalating energy costs and further scientific evidence of climate change, few people deny the value of encouraging more responsible use of resources.
But recent campus efforts to reduce Harvard’s carbon footprint, and the excessive lengths to which the administration has gone to promote them, threaten to render the whole project ridiculous and inspire contempt for the cause in the minds of most reasonable observers.
Witness, for example, the “Ten Ways to Help” enumerated on the new Internet portal for Harvard’s sustainability efforts. Students, the site recommends, should “eat less meat,” since “livestock are a major contributor to global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions” and “place incredible strain on the planet’s resources.” Another notorious offense is, apparently, hot showers, which account for “two thirds of all water heating costs.” Students can do their part by “shortening the length of [their] showers or turning down the water temperature.” And to think Lent is still four months away.
Over the course of last year, the University already took drastic steps to regulate students’ daily water usage by installing environmentally-friendly showerheads and toilets in dormitories. A helpful illustration adjacent to the toilet neatly summarizes the features of the new “dual-flush” technology—a more sophisticated, and more hygienic, version of an old scatological rhyme that recommends to “let it mellow.”
But these are only baby steps. Residents of Kirkland House, if they so happened to read the reverse side of the new party-registration forms, would be treated to a list of “tips to minimize the environmental impact of your party.” The socially-conscious lights who devised this counsel absurdly suggest that hosts should “encourage attendees to bring their own cup or mug,” or “alternatively, try to have people use just one cup,” “strategically place” trash and recycling bins “clearly labeled (even with samples of what goes in),” and “serve finger food . . . so people can just grab and go without needing plates/knives etc.” One can only imagine how dull, and, with so few cups and napkins, how messy, a social function sponsored by the Harvard Green Initiative would be.
Environmental sustainability and reversing catastrophic climate change may very well be the most crucial challenges of our generation. But the public-relations campaign the University is waging on its behalf—and the imperious impositions on the most mundane aspects of everyday life that such green activism forebodes—seems to be most excessive.
No doubt many students, and Americans as well, are needlessly wasteful in the course of an average day—from leaving lights on in empty rooms to discarding untouched food and unused napkins. Common sense, consideration, and simple decency all argue against such activities; and indeed, those qualities could do well to serve the greater ends of not only the environmental movement but other social causes also. Unfortunately, the modern university and contemporary progressives care little for inculcating those values when they can formulate their own tendentious morals out of narrow ideologies.
Perhaps the most effective weapon in the war against environmentally unsustainable activities is not a popular political program, or some effort to “raise consciousness,” but rather a heightened sense of personal and collective responsibility. In today’s society, where the cult of the individual has amassed countless votaries, every moral or virtue comes expressed in self-actualizing language: We talk ceaselessly about human rights and self-interest and our “hope” to “change” the world. But seldom do we pause to reflect upon our duties—both to ourselves and our neighbors.
Rather than sorting through our trash bins, rationing out Solo cups at dorm-room parties, only sparingly pushing down—instead of up—on the “dual-flush” toilet handle, and following other environmental advice that is an affront to human dignity and common sense, we can simply be more thoughtful, considerate, and conservative in our daily habits.
Christopher B. Lacaria ’09, a Crimson editorial writer, is a history concentrator in Kirkland House. His column appears on alternate Mondays.
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