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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

On messages and bottles and such
March 20, 2008 - 3:58pm

According to emails that have come across my screen, students from Seattle, WA to Cambridge, MA are organizing to ban bottled water from their campuses. The idea of going back to tap water bucks a major social trend in the US (and a number of mega-dollar marketing campaigns), so it’s not likely of complete success the first time it’s introduced on a particular campus.

But even getting folks talking about the possibility is, in a real sense, success. Bottled water is a poster product for conspicuous and totally needless consumption. The bottles (really the defining aspect of the product, as virtually no customers can actually distinguish one brand of water from another) each cause about a pound and a half of CO2 emissions (my estimate — it varies based on size and such), and that doesn’t count emissions from the trucks which carry the water around (far less efficiently than a pipeline).

When I was in elementary school, our Social Studies class told us that US society was superior, and one of the examples was that we had virtually universal, virtually free access to clean drinking water, while folks from less developed cultures had to buy drinking water from vendors who carted it in. What do Social Studies students learn now? That our water vendors are better than their water vendors?

The whole situation turns logic on its head. We pay more per gallon for bottled water than we do for gasoline. There’s (today) no practical alternative to gasoline, but a universally available, virtually free alternative to bottled water. Yet folks complain about the price of gas, not the price of water. Is anybody paying attention?

Here’s a case where a college or university can deliver a powerful message to its local community, and where the logic is clear. (For a better sense of that, check out this from Fast Company magazine (and thanks to Krystal Noiseux from Harvard for posting that link to the Green Schools listserv).) All the motivating forces — personal finances, social justice, sustainability — line up on one side of the table, and what’s on the other side? Snob appeal backed up by a minimum of personal convenience. This is a behavioral change that we’ve got to be able to sell, if we’re going to succeed in the long term.

(And yes, I know that soda, or pop, or tonic (a nod to our friends in Cambridge) is even worse. But you’ve gotta start somewhere.)

Give the proposal some airtime on your campus. See what the response is. Let me know.


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