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Grasping at Straws

News & Features | October 29, 2018

On October 8, 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report declaring that the state of the Earth has reached a tipping point: either we focus all efforts on reducing carbon emissions, or climate change will continue to cause catastrophic flooding, drought, food shortages, hurricanes, ocean acidification, and sea-level rise at a rate that will alter our world fundamentally and permanently. All of this comes in the wake of President Donald Trump’s rollback of carbon-reducing policies since his election.

 

The report called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.” These changes would require individuals, institutions, and politicians to join and rally around reducing carbon emissions.

 

Yet despite the urgency of global warming, changes of the magnitude suggested by the IPCC have failed to be implemented. Instead, “trendy” sustainability initiatives have taken center stage among the environmental causes that powerful institutions rally behind.

 

College campuses are no exception. With cutting-edge researchers and sustainability funds, universities have the potential to be leaders in catalyzing environmental change. Yet at Tufts, sustainability initiatives often overlook changes that could reduce carbon emissions and opt to follow trends instead.

 

One popular trend is the “No Straw” movement, which seeks to reduce unnecessary straw usage in order to save marine life whose ocean habitats are invaded by 8 million tons of plastic each year. Until recently, this anti-straw sentiment was largely confined to niche sustainability groups and die-hard environmentalists. But in over just a few short months, it has been catapulted into the mainstream.

 

So why are trendy sustainability initiatives gaining the social traction that more impactful sustainability initiatives cannot? By tapping into trends, are individuals and institutions tapping out of implementing more meaningful change?

 

The popularization of the No Straw movement is far from random. In mid-2017, the environmental non-profit Lonely Whale launched their #StopSucking campaign. Their mission was to stigmatize and stop straw usage as a step towards reducing the plastics that pollute Earth’s oceans. “Join the movement for a strawless ocean,” their website implores. “Take action against plastic pollution, starting with the plastic straw!”

 

The organization released videos featuring celebrities like Adrian Grenier and Kendrick Sampson, and “challenged” other celebrities to join their campaign over social media. By the end of the year, the movement had gone viral. Martha Stewart and Tom Brady got on board, Starbucks announced it would remove all straws from its stores, and a video of a bloody turtle with a straw stuck up its nostril ricocheted around the internet. Ocean plastics became a public enemy, straws represented the embodiment of environmental evil, and individual actions could make it all go away—if we would just #StopSucking.

 

The tremors of the viral “no straw” popularity invigorated Tufts’ own No Straw movement. In October, Tufts Dining replaced its usual plastic straws with paper alternatives at Kindlevan Cafe, Hodgdon On-the-Run, and The Commons. “Help support our efforts to continue to become more sustainable,” Tufts Dining announced on Twitter. The Rez began offering metal alternatives for purchase. Plastic straws all but vanished from campus.

 

But the campus conversation surrounding Tufts’ eradication of plastic straws is divided. Some students complain of the tendency of the new paper straws to disintegrate upon use. For others, the adoption of the straw ban exemplifies something bigger: Tufts’ prioritization of following trends over making impactful changes.

 

Among the latter group is Junior Celia Bottger, co-president of Tufts Climate Action (TCA), a student group whose mission includes encouraging Tufts to divest from the fossil fuel industry. Though Bottger noted that sustainability trends can be “good in a way,” she emphasized that they risk diverting attention and action from the “systemic level changes that need to happen.”

 

“Changing to paper straws isn’t worse for the environment, but it definitely takes up the space that other, more important issues should be taking and need to be taking,” Bottger said. “In that way, it is harmful because it’s prioritizing these really minor problems in the short term and acting as if that’s enough, preventing more systemic change in the long run.”

 

Furthermore, trends often misrepresent the scientific facts of sustainability. For example, many environmentalists have also identified styrofoam as an eco-enemy because it is wasteful and harmful to marine and human health. The outcry propelling this fact forward became so loud that policy-makers have been incentivized to ban many styrofoam items.

 

But although styrofoam takes at least 500 years to degrade, it actually creates less waste by volume than a paper cup with a sleeve, according to the American Chemistry Council. A styrofoam cup also has a smaller carbon footprint than its paper counterpart and, depending on use, can even be more energy efficient than a ceramic cup. In heralding the eradication of styrofoam as a gateway to achieving environmental protection, these scientific intricacies are often overlooked.

 

However, achieving the systemic changes that the IPCC calls for can feel inaccessible, or even impossible. Tufts junior Paul Henjes knows this feeling well—as student director of Tufts Eco-Reps, he works to enhance student awareness about environmental issues and encourage sustainable living at Tufts.

 

For Henjes and other Eco-Reps, asking students to drastically change their behavior or spending habits can feel futile. Meanwhile, tapping into trendiness is one way to engage students who might otherwise not be motivated to care. “If you can convince people that it looks more trendy to use reusable things, that’s actually an easier way to make people change than saying something is more sustainable,” Henjes said.

 

Henjes also noted that trends help provide a simple solution for busy students wanting to live more sustainable lives. “In general people want to make the right decision, they just don’t know how,” he said.

 

The No Straw movement’s clickable, likable, and adoptable mission has also made it easy for anyone to get on board. “I think a lot of it has to do with viral videos,” Henjes explained. “People see a turtle struggling to breathe because of plastic straws and that’s where the movement stems from. It’s definitely a social media thing.”

 

To Henjes, social media can both perpetuate and dissolve environmental guilt. While graphic viral videos of the damaging effects of climate change and over-consumption feed into our personal guilt, getting likes and comments in response to our small sustainable actions can help erase it.

 

As a result, guilt creates a paradox when it comes to environmental action—it can spur action by the often-inactive, but its motivation can also be superficial and short-lived. “I feel like we all want to justify our actions,” Henjes said. Refusing a straw for a day can feed into that kind of justification.

 

For Bottger, environmental guilt and trends are also responsible for distracting individuals from larger environmental issues at play and the more significant actions one could take to mitigate them.

 

“A lot of what we’re told about the environment is that individuals can make a difference, like if you eat locally and use reusable bags and thrift you can save the environment,” Bottger said. “While that’s true to some extent, that’s not the root of the problem. The root of the problem is that we have an economic and political system that allows this complete destruction of the environment and people along with it.”

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That’s why Bottger and TCA are dedicated to pushing Tufts to divest from fossil fuels. But this requires Tufts’ approval, and so far the administration has not cooperated.

 

Office of Sustainability (OOS) Director Tina Woolston and Education and Outreach Program Administrator Shoshana Blank acknowledged that trends can often decide the sustainability initiatives the university pursues. Both emphasized that though the OOS tries not to blindly follow superficial fads, Tufts as a whole often makes trendy choices because they are more economically viable and less contentious.

 

Woolston also worries that the popularity of sustainability trends may give people a “pass” to do nothing else for sustainability. “Do the people who now refuse straws feel less motivated to do other actions?” she asked. “Because they’ve refused this straw, they might feel like they can throw away this other stuff, or eat meat, or do some other environmentally-damaging activity because they feel guilt-free.”

 

Woolston pointed out Tufts’ recent investment in solar panels as another example of sustainability trends influencing institutional decisions. She noted that less-glamorous investments, like replacing old windows and insulating buildings, could create a much larger reduction of Tufts’ energy usage than the solar panels, and that furthermore, the school has “millions and millions of dollars of sunk cost in our energy infrastructure.”

 

But because solar panels are visible and popular, they are more attractive to the administration, and thus are prioritized. “They’re not the biggest impact you can have,” Woolston said. “But people really want solar panels – they want to be able to see solar panels. It seems not to matter to people whether that’s the best way to spend your time and effort.”

 

Although Tufts sometimes defaults to prioritizing observable and trendy sustainability initiatives, the University has also made some significant strides in implementing more impactful sustainability initiatives in recent years, according to Woolston. She emphasized that Tufts has committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050, meaning that the amount of carbon emissions that Tufts releases will be offset, giving Tufts a zero or net negative carbon contribution to the atmosphere. This follows in the footsteps of initiatives at similar universities, such as Harvard’s pledge to become fossil fuel-free by 2050 and Middlebury’s achievement of carbon neutrality in 2016. Although it seems like Tufts and Harvard are decades behind other similarly-sized schools, location plays a huge role in achieving carbon neutrality, and an urban campus lacks the physical space to house solar fields and carbon-sequestering forests.

 

Still, when it comes to environmental leadership, some faculty feel like Tufts has failed to step up. John Durant, a professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering department, has experience pushing the administration to make sustainable choices. He noted that Tufts often won’t make these changes because “bigger action is more contentious.”

 

Durant noticed a similar lack of enthusiasm for sustainability in his work with the new CoHo housing development. Durant and his student team have pushed for the houses to feature technology that allows students to monitor their energy and water usage. Initially, the administration and building team were onboard. But as renovations began, some of these agreements fell from priority.

 

“It’s a bit like trench warfare,” Durant said of the constant back-and-forth with the administration. “We have to push really hard for small bits of progress,” he said. “What we’re asking for is not that expensive.”

 

According to Durant, the administration has limited passion for making sustainable changes that are expensive, onerous, or risky. And when it comes to shifting Tufts’ sustainability action away from trends and towards more meaningful action, it’s a slow process. “You’re trying to fight the powers that be,” he said. “It’s a huge slow-moving battleship that you’re trying to nudge along in the right direction.”

 

Changing sustainability habits can be even more difficult when climate change is viewed as a political statement. Trends become low-risk answers for institutions like Tufts that hope not to fall behind the environmental standard. “Environmental leadership is not on Tony Monaco’s list of priorities,” Durant said. “Tufts is more likely to follow societal leads instead of being leaders itself.”

 

For Durant, though sustainability trends aren’t harmful, their scale of impact is miniscule compared to the urgent global changes the IPCC calls for. The changes demanded by the IPCC require updated policies to enact change on the global level rather than just the personal—the exact updates that President Trump is reversing in office.

 

“The greatest impact you can make is to make sure that Trump doesn’t get re-elected,” Durant said. “Forget straws, forget everything else.”