Your Individual Choices Do Matter

By: LOUIS SPANIAS, Acting Director of the Hixon Center

Over the past two weeks, Harvey Mudd has been participating in the annual PowerDown competition. During this competition, we compare electricity consumption in our residence halls to that of the other Claremont Colleges to see which institution can most substantially reduce its consumption over two weeks (compared to a previously recorded two-week baseline period).

Sadly, Harvey Mudd didn’t win PowerDown 2018 – and as it turns out, we were the only college to increase its electricity consumption. In 2017, we managed to decrease our consumption by over 5%, and yet this year we saw a 15% increase. Naturally, some of this had to do with the cold weather we’ve experienced in southern California over the past couple of weeks. However, only a few hours ago, I sent out a survey to Mudd students to see how they felt about PowerDown and to gauge how involved they were in this year’s competition – and I managed to speak with some students directly myself to get some feedback.

Aside from the very useful, practical suggestions about how to improve PowerDown and keep the campus engaged, I’m seeing a common thread emerge as the responses pile up – students don’t believe their individual actions make much of a difference.

This makes sense: of course, one person or one suite in a residence hall isn’t going to change the entire complexion of that hall’s electricity consumption. And if an individual sees that others around them aren’t also taking steps to reduce their consumption, they feel less inclined to try themselves for that reason. Why bother trying if no one else is?

The reality is that we see and do this all the time. You’ve probably heard your friends or family complain that they feel their vote doesn’t matter on its own, and it certainly won’t matter in certain elections because their district or the state always votes the other way. You’ve also probably heard of the ‘diffusion of responsibility’ (or “bystander syndrome”) phenomenon in psychology circles – where people are less likely to act in an emergency situation because they think someone else will or someone else has. While those are two different situations, what we see is how we excuse ourselves from acting because of what others are, or are not, doing – and we let that pre-define the impact of our actions before we even take them.

As you would expect, this scales up to climate change and cuts across numerous environmental issues. For instance, I recall hearing arguments prior to the signing of the Paris Agreement that there was no point in taking serious action on climate change because China and India – two of the world’s other largest producers of GHG emissions – wouldn’t do their part. Whether or not our individual actions are actually significant enough to create meaningful change, it’s stunning how prone we are to jump to the conclusion that they are not.

These become self-fulfilling prophecies. The more we tell ourselves that we can’t make a difference, the more often we take the chance away from ourselves to do so. In the case of PowerDown, if you think it’s not worth it to turn off your lights or your heating units because you’re just one room in a building, and decide not to bother being diligent about it, you don’t go from having a slightly positive impact to no impact – you swing to having a negative impact. Not only would you be alternatively consuming more energy, but you may unintentionally be encouraging others to do the same.

It doesn’t have to be like that – in these situations, we are far better off acting on these issues. Whether it’s obvious or not, our individual choices do matter. I wanted to point to a critical example that I think was overlooked last year when it was published: an article published in Environmental Research Letters by Seth Wynes and Kimberly Nicholas in July 2017 made the case that certain individual choices could substantially reduce one’s personal GHG emissions – ranging from having one less child (-58.6 tonnes CO2-equivalent (tCO2e) emissions reductions per year) to eating a plant-based diet (-0.8 tCO2e saved per year). The diagram featured at the top of this article shows how these actions compare to more commonly prescribed eco-friendly choices, including replacing lightbulbs and recycling. Of course, the comparison made is not to diminish the actions of those who are careful to sort their waste properly and use cold water for their laundry, but instead it highlights the wide range of choices we have and quantifies how impactful those decisions are.

The main takeaway is not how much in the way of GHG emissions we reduce by taking these actions (although we can see the range of impacts these choices do have), it is that they reduce emissions regardless of what anyone else does. Our actions matter regardless of what anyone else does. These are individual choices by and large, and they are consequential. They neither require a country to pass a policy, nor do they get cancelled out or nullified by the decisions of anyone else. You have the freedom to take meaningful action that aligns with larger, environmental goals.

So perhaps you’ve spent the past two weeks thinking that turning off that light didn’t really do anything – but I can promise you it did. And I hope you remember that with every choice you make – from tossing the tin can into the recycling, to choosing a veggie burger over a beef burger, to putting on a sweater instead of turning on the heating – you have a positive impact and stand a chance of influencing someone else to do the same.