President Levin doesn’t abuse his ability to e-mail the entire Yale community. So on those rare occasions when he takes advantage of his invisible electronic podium, we should lend him our ears. This past Monday, Levin sent out one of the most interesting of his communiqués yet — one that called for widespread participation in the Office of Sustainability’s new three-year plan to make Yale more environmentally friendly. The very public nature of this appeal is revealing. Our administration has long wanted to position itself as a leader in the green movement; the problem is that the Yale community hasn’t been responsive to such efforts. It’s time for that to change.
After all, it’s starting to look like no solutions will come from our policy makers. Gone are the days when a crusading Al Gore and a well-respected Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had the whole world talking reform. In the United States, climate change has dropped down the list of political priorities, displaced by the global recession, midterm elections and healthcare. Failures at Copenhagen and in Congress have only served to slow the momentum of green politics. By the time our government and the international community get their act together, it will likely be too late to prevent destructive changes in living conditions.
Five minutes remain before the last train leaves the station, and we’re not on it.
I can’t say I’m surprised, though. Climate change should never have become a governmental concern in the first place. Legislation and federal programs can only patch up the leaks created by a larger societal issue: our excessive consumerism. It is our habits, demands and standard of living that are behind this onslaught on the environment. Until we change our attitudes, until we agree to live within our means and not our perceived needs, the symptoms will persist and intensify. We cannot keep talking reform without actually taking action. Nowhere is that more evident than at Yale.
Here, we purport to stand for truth and moral values, not hypocrisy. Yet, while we regularly invite speakers to address environmental concerns, we continue to live unsustainably. Take Yale Dining as a prime example. We have too many dining halls in continual operation, we import too much foreign produce, we eat too many factory farm products — which, incidentally, require enormous amounts of water and energy to produce — and at the end of the day, we discard too much of what is left over. Attempts to reform these practices have been dubious at best. I particularly question the logic of cutting down on paper cup usage by giving a free metal mug to each of the more than 5,000 undergraduates, most of whom already had something similar back in their rooms.
Our daily choices make a difference.
Systems are in place to help us recycle more, waste less and consume more efficiently. Why do we hesitate to use them? It’s not a question of opportunity. Annually, the Yale community generates 690 pounds of waste per capita and recycles only 19 percent of that. Yet, up the road at Cambridge, the number is 55 percent. There’s no reason for such a difference and there should be no excuses. Take advantage of the multitude of opportunities to do your part. Switch to CFLs, adjust the heat and turn off the light. Ride your bike, read e-books and buy locally — if you buy at all. Step back and ask yourself: Am I living in a way that is consistent with what I believe?
Yale has long been viewed as a model institution by people around the world. In a time when political leadership is lacking and initiative is faltering, a model of positive, tangible action is needed more than ever. I applaud President Levin, the Office of Sustainability, and student environmental organizations; they have the courage and foresight to stand up for a cause that cannot continue to be pushed aside. Yet, for too long, they have stood alone. Without support from the rest of us, their words are empty and their goals unfulfilled. Taking action is no longer a political choice, it is a moral imperative. The University moves forward. This time, let’s follow.