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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.

Setting the bar(s)
November 30, 2010 - 3:15pm

A couple of family members are into coaching sports, from very young kids up to NCAA Division 1. Over turkey, we got to talking. One of them brought up a program called "I Play Green" and wanted to know if I had heard of it.

In fact, I hadn't, but I looked it up when I got home. Turns out it's sponsored by the Green Education Foundation, and aims to sign up a million young athletes before the 2012 Olympic Games. Players -- indeed, teams -- can join up by engaging in one or more of four activities:

  • choosing reusable drink containers
  • promoting pesticide-free field maintenance products
  • creating recycling opportunities at sports fields and arenas
  • walking, biking, skating or carpooling to sports games and practices

The program assures young athletes that by adopting these practices, they can "unite with environmental sports organizations like the UN Environment Programme and the International Olympic Committee's Sport and Environment Commission who are leading the world in promoting environmental sustainability through sports."

My mind went in a dozen directions at once.

First, I'm always glad to see an environmental outreach program that aims at young people. "Get them young, train them right."

And tying sustainability to participatory (not spectator) sports makes a lot of intuitive sense. Not only does it play off the health/sustainability resonance, but for many of today's youth, the playing field is probably as close to nature as they get on a regular basis.

The dual invocation of the Olympics gives it an appropriately high tone (judging and doping scandals aside).

And I can see setting the bar for entry pretty low. After all, these are kids. Most of them have little power in their daily lives. Getting them to take any active step in the right direction can be seen as a win.

But is the bar, perhaps, a little too low? Does the mere act of drinking from a reusable bottle align you with the highest ideals of the UN Environment Programme? Or riding to practice and games in a carpool? (Heck, I thought carpools were what defined the experience of being a soccer mom, or baseball dad, or whatever.)

So maybe the carpool thing should be the low bar for entry. And a reusable water bottle could help teach a lesson in basic responsibility. Pushing for pesticide-free maintenance and increased recycling (especially at events) seem like more meaningful steps (and potentially empowering for young people).

Any way, rather than 'do any one of the four and consider yourself green', it might be better to tie in a third time to the Olympic metaphor. Use the metal/medal scheme to incent multiple environmentally responsible behaviors -- one for bronze, two for silver, three for gold, four to be an honorary Green Olympian (or some such).

Using such a graduated recognition scheme could help teach a deeper lesson -- behaving (even playing) sustainably isn't simple, because it isn't one thing. It requires multiple changes to our default behavior patterns. And it requires cooperation.

Those are all things I'll try to keep in mind as we design behavioral change motivation programs here at Greenback. In a sense, first-year students arrive with as little sense of individual power as a school-age athlete might have. So we need to set the first bar low, and encourage students to get involved. But we need multiple bars, each one higher than the one before. We need to keep the next step --- the next challenge -- constantly in front of our students. And we need to be sure that most of those bars require active cooperation.


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