An Inconvenient Truth about the Environmental Working Group

By Ivo Dimitrov

Sustainability and environmental consciousness are in theory main priorities for the young, involved liberal arts students at UCU. But our good intentions never seem to translate into concrete action: we leave the heating on with open windows, “recycle” everything in the overflowing garbage can and use the washing machine for a load of two shirts. The EWG has set out to change this passive attitude. Have they achieved any lasting change?

Many imagine the EWG as a group of students clad in black, stealing into the night to plant flowers in the UCU garden. Amy van der List, first year and member of the EWG, admits their low profile might leave wrong impressions, but stresses the changes already made. “One of our most significant achievements is installing plastic recycling bins in academic buildings.” While this might seem like a minor adjustment, it makes all the difference on a campus where coffee breaks are a cult-like rituals and late-night study sessions a way of life.

Furthermore, they have worked on improving their visibility and spreading awareness through a number of campus-wide events. Think environmental lectures, swap shops, and the yard sale at the beginning of the year. Amy also mentions the recently organized open-air movie night,“An environmentally-focused documentary might not seem important, but it can make us aware of our impact, and ultimately change attitudes”. The EWG has also been trying to promote greater diversity and quality in vegetarian meals in Dining Hall, starting with the introduction of stuffed zucchini and quiche.

The question is whether such events will have the desired effect. Sure, we like cheap furniture, a relaxed movie-night with some popcorn or some variation on the falafel-veggie burger mix. But will these improvements profoundly affect our laziness when dealing with the environment? Many students are so caught up in their self-perpetuating UCU business that they simply don’t find the time or energy to act environmentally-friendly.

Amy disagrees, “We already notice a difference on campus, and it’s unrealistic to hope for an overnight change.”This is a work in progress, and she points out to the EWG projects that will take place during or after summer. One such project is to plant apple trees all around campus, as well as to build wooden frames for grape vines. Moreover, the EWG will install energy meters in tenKromhout units, taking measurements once per month. “This way we can get a sense of the amount of energy the average UCUer uses on campus. Ignorance may be bliss, but not having to see the electricity and heating bills could mean we’re using much more than we need to,” says Amy.

Last but not least, the EWG is also looking beyond the bubble, and are currently in cahoots with UC Maastricht and Roosevelt Academy about a sustainability project. One of the proposed ideasis to teach underprivileged children in Utrecht about where food comes from and to help them start a garden in their ownschools.

In the end, we can’t deny that the EWG has been busy, trying to convince us to change our ways. Now the ball is in our hands – will we remain lazy and ignorant, or will we finally get inspired and involved? Most likely we’ll remain our over-critical selves, very selective in what causes we invest ourselves in. But hey, if sustainability means picking grapes from the walls of academic buildings, we might just be persuaded to jump on the bandwagon.

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One thought on “An Inconvenient Truth about the Environmental Working Group”

  1. I agree very much with some of the things you say here Ivo, as environmentally friendly living really boils down to what each individual or small community does in everyday life. I would love to see the EWG do more to persuade people not to fly unnecessarily, eat meat-free for most if not all of the week, and turn the heating down and wear an extra sweater and pair of socks when it gets cold.
    However, I see 2 problems here and sympathise with those active members of EWG who are trying to do something about it: First, it is tough to avoid giving off an eco-fascist image to people who are, as you say, already busy navigating the complex social life of UCU. The key here is to educate and inform so that people consider their actions as consumers rather than shock and force them into living sustainably. Second, 90% of the UCU community lives in an institutional setting where most of the consumer choices (mainly concerning eating habits and energy consumption) are in the hands of the UCU Administration, Sodexo and Lekstede wonen. This is where collective action in the form of pressuring the relevant organisations/businesses, if possible with the help of the UCSA, is the only thing that can really effect a meaningful reduction of the ecological footprint of UCU. EWG are doing a fair bit in that direction – but definitely not enough.

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