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  • Writer's pictureBrady Hummel

The Case for Individual Behavioral Changes Towards Sustainability

At Dickinson, we champion sustainability as one of the core tenets of what the school stands for and what we try to instill in those who pass through its walls. We, as an institution, have committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 25% of 2008 levels by 2020, and offset the other 75% to be carbon neutral. We have an administrative office in the Center for Sustainability Education that works tirelessly to further sustainability both in and out of the classroom. We have a number of extraordinary and unique opportunities for students, faculty, and staff to engage with sustainability through the Dickinson College Farm, the Alliance for Aquatic Resource Management (ALLARM), and many more organizations.

We have such strong support and infrastructure around sustainability on an institutional level, and while it is important to note and fully commend how much the institution has achieved and continues to achieve, it can only do so much. In order to fully commit to sustainability as a campus and as a community of peers, we need to recognize the importance of individual behavior change to sustainability.

It can seem somewhat intimidating to see how one person's day-to-day routines can amount to anything of note when Dickinson and other colleges, multi-national companies, and countries around the world are also trying to reduce their impact on the environment. Individual behavior change, however, is the cornerstone of sustainability; it is the foundation upon which everything else is supported and enhanced.

One "arena" for individual behavior change towards sustainability is in the menial day-to-day actions that have been built into our routines, the things that we do without even thinking because they've become so engrained into our modus operandi. Throughout our normal days, there are a multitude of opportunities for us to marginally tweak our behaviors in order to be more sustainable and reduce our impacts on the environment. These seemingly insignificant actions, such as turning out the lights when leaving a room, unplugging appliances when not in use, taking shorter showers, composting and recycling, and using cold water for your laundry, can really add up when done consistently. "All of these day-to-day actions are significant because we have complete control of making the choice to consume or not to consume," said Marina Morton '18.

These decisions are small ones that really have a tremendous impact when they become a part of one's routine. However, there are a number of "heavy-hitter" decisions that lock in behaviors for a longer term and have a higher impact, on the whole. For example, an individual's decision to not have a car on campus and to walk or bike greatly reduces greenhouse gas emissions over the course of a semester or academic year.

Consumption factors are also key to locking in these long-term behavior patterns; buying more stuff contributes to the overall volume of waste that goes to our landfills and to the overall amount of raw materials that need to be extracted from the Earth. Therefore, buying less stuff, repairing and reusing the things you already have, and sharing tools with others around you can have a tremendous long-term effect on the environment and can also facilitate stronger community awareness and interactions.

Sustainability is really a grassroots movement, even though at Dickinson, it has been institutionalized sine President Durden signed the American College and University President's Climate Commitment (ACUPC) in 2007. Its main force comes from personal actions and commitments on a large scale, and this starts from and is motivated by learning the facts. Self-education about climate change and sustainability and an individual's personal carbon footprint can help illuminate areas in one's life that can be the focus for sustainable behavior change.

This process of familiarizing oneself with the literature of sustainability can help someone change the way they see both the world and themself. "The 'self-image' is the key to human personality and human behavior. Change the self-image and you change the behavior." Dr. Maxwell Maltz was not necessarily talking about individual sustainable behavior change, but his focus on one's image of themself can easily translate into the realm of sustainability. This is the key to motivating someone to change their behaviors; they need to see themselves as making a difference and "doing their part" in order to really feel invested in what they are doing. When people change their behaviors to be more conscious of their carbon dioxide emissions or their electricity consumption, they are likely to see themselves as someone who cares about climate change and sustainability because of their actions, which will then further the changes to their behavior. "Becoming more sustainable and teaching and sharing with others [through sustainability] has given me a sense of purpose," said Marcus Welker, Sustainability Projects Coordinator in the Center for Sustainability Education.

Although it may seem insignificant, one person coming to see themself in that light is a step forward for sustainability and climate action. Think for a second about the same phenomenon happening to a hundred people, or a thousand people, or a hundred thousand people. When you place one person's commitments in the context of the larger scope, it is one piece in a much larger mosaic that, as a whole, has an impressive impact.

Dickinson's mission statement is "to prepare young people, by means of a useful education in the liberal arts and sciences, for engage lives of citizenship and leadership in the service of society." Given the quantitative, qualitative, and anecdotal evidence that development cannot continue in the same way as it has historically, we need citizen-leaders who graduate from Dickinson, take what we have learned about sustainability, and apply it in our day-to-day lives beyond the limestone.

We need to go further than that, however; we need to be advocates for sustainability to those around us, to show that even one person committing to being more sustainable can be incredibly significant.

We need to be leaders and commit to doing all that we can to reduce our impact and to be more sustainable. This will be one of the hallmark issues of the coming decades, and we, as Dickinsonians, should be at the forefront of addressing it in our lives and communities, one person at a time.


This article was originally published April 27, 2016 in Dickinson Science Magazine, a student-run science magazine at Dickinson College.

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