The Engineers for a Sustainable World (ESW) have recently released their proposal to “Ban the Bottle” on Northwestern’s campus, a plan that would effectively end the sale of bottled water on campus. Considering the purpose of ESW, this proposal, as well as its support from The Daily Northwestern, seemed inevitable. But rather than jumping on the environmentalist bandwagon, I feel it is important to evaluate the potential effectiveness of this plan in achieving its primary goal.
First, it is essential to acknowledge the importance of protecting the environment for our generation and those to come. Individuals involved in ensuring the continued survival of our planet undeniably work in a noble field, especially for those taking a logical, non-sensational approach to the issue.
However, I find ESW’s proposal devoid of reason in its entirety. Its goal, clearly, is to eliminate material waste and force Northwestern students to transition to reusable water bottles. Rather than achieving that noble goal, this plan will have a starkly different outcome. First, students currently carrying reusable water bottles will continue to do so, and students who buy bottled water will not, for the most part, go green with reusable bottles. Reusable bottles are supplied to new students already (and are often available for free on campus throughout the year), so everyone who prefers that method already engages in it. Instead, bottled water will be purchased off campus in bulk (as many students already do) and soda will be sold on campus more frequently as a primary alternative.
So what will be the net effect of the plan? Less money spent on campus, unhealthier students, and just as many water bottles being used. Many of the students who support “Ban the Bottle” even agree that it will be wholly ineffective. Yet it makes students feel good about themselves and their actions, and is justified by them as such. Quite simply, it achieves nothing more than the illusion of environmental friendliness, while filling landfills just as fast. Then why support it?
ESW’s proposal and the support for it on campus demonstrates a microcosm of the world developing around us, a world that values intentions over results. Milton Friedman, one of the greatest economists in history, once said, “One of the greatest mistakes is to judge policies and programs by their intentions rather than their results.” When people subscribe to such a flawed moral system, a system that bases its arguments on what feels right (and to hell with the consequences), they accept a thoroughly mediocre world, as a society that teaches itself to reject reason can achieve nothing more than mediocrity.
ESW’s plan is thoroughly mediocre, and no matter how good it makes us feel for “helping the environment”, it should instead make us feel ashamed for resigning to sensationalism. A truly reasoned proposal would, instead of unnecessarily banning bottled water and subjecting all of campus to social engineering, address a more effective means of demonstrating to campus (but not indoctrinating!) why it is better to carry reusable water bottles on both an individual and macro level. A truly moral proposal would, instead of forcing a certain method of living on campus, leave each student free to embrace the reusable water bottle on his/her own terms. Alas, “Ban the Bottle” is neither logical or moral.
Furthermore, the proposal neglects the most fundamental rule of human activity: incentives. Everyone responds to incentives, regardless of the issue, and transitioning to reusable water bottles can be achieved through exactly that idea. Take, for example, hotels that encourage guests to reuse towels; the guests are not forced to reuse them, but they undoubtedly see the good in doing so. Some hotels now even offer monetary vouchers each day in return for declining housekeeping. In either case, the hotel saves money on housekeeping, the customer gets a reward (sometimes tangible, sometimes not), and the environment wins!
Those are the ideas that our school should be looking to for a solution: a solution in which everyone wins. Teach students not only the benefits of carrying reusable water bottles on the environment, but also (more importantly) give them an individually beneficial reason for doing so. Incentives will always be exceptionally more effective than coercion, and, as such, rewarding students for their actions will make Northwestern far more environmentally friendly than by any other means.
It’s time for ESW to abandon its flawed and unreasoned approach, and instead devote its efforts to incentivizing reusable water bottles and crafting an argument capable of persuading students to go green.
photo by Fruggo