Kill-A-Watt cannot just be for students

As the last week of Kill-A-Watt ends, many of you are probably relieved to be able to stop eating vegan, study with the lights on and use more than one paper towel after washing your hands. And that is completely fine. The month of Kill-A-Watt — although it does create spaces to converse about environmental topics — fails to address the crucial issue of climate change: It cannot be solved by individual action alone. Calvin University cannot put the burden of climate action solely on its students. Instead, the university must work alongside students to create a sustainable campus and world. 

Kill-A-Watt is, at its heart, a way to increase students’ awareness of environmental issues. Through the past four weeks, we’ve followed lifestyle challenges and attended events to increase our understanding of what it looks like to be stewards of Christ’s kingdom on earth.

This is a noble and worthy goal; however, we must remember that our actions do not exist in a bubble. They are influenced by the much larger and much more powerful industries, systems and governments around us which shape the state of the climate more than our actions ever could. For example, driving and flying are the largest contributions made by individuals to global emissions. According to an article in the journal Nature Climate Change, during the initial phases of the COVID-19 pandemic, when very few of us were driving and even fewer were flying, global emissions only dropped 11%. Even when individuals were no longer greatly contributing to emissions, the concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere barely shifted. Another study by the Carbon Majors Database found that just 100 fossil fuel companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. Out of the more than seven billion people on this planet, there is a minuscule percentage that persists in hastening the rise of global temperature. In short, our lifestyle changes during Kill-A-Watt are just a tiny drop in the metaphorical bucket needed to fight the climate crisis. We need institutions, including Calvin, to also make efforts to combat climate change. 

In short, our lifestyle changes during Kill-A-Watt are just a tiny drop in the metaphorical bucket needed to fight the climate crisis

This is not to say that we should all use as much single-use plastic and eat as much meat as possible. Being lower waste and less carnivorous are good things, but they are not everything. Our individual, climate-conscious actions should also be paired with an awareness of the industrial, systemic and governmental shifts necessary to create a sustainable world.

I do not want to shun the significance of individual actions. I myself am a vegetarian for climate-related reasons. Rather, I want to point out the dichotomy between the actions of Calvin University as a whole and the actions it expects its students to take.

I have recently seen boards in the dining halls stating how much water is used to produce various animal products in the hopes that more students will become vegetarian. This information in itself is not bad information — it is important to know where what we consume comes from and to use that knowledge to be better consumers. However, this information places the burden of change on the individual. When I walk by these dining hall advertisements, I also walk by the ice cream stations that only dish out ice cream with plastic cups and spoons. As I leave the dining halls, I walk by residence halls and academic buildings with broad roofs bare of solar panels. I walk alongside paths bordered not with native plants but with grass that must be consistently mowed, fertilized and tended to. I walk through a campus that lacks sustainability.

I walk through a campus that lacks sustainability

As students of Calvin University, the extent of impact we can make with our individual actions is severely limited by the environmental decisions made by the institution. Remember when recycling was not available for weeks earlier this semester? Despite our personal desires to minimize trash, Calvin did not make it easy or accessible to do so. Even now, recycling cans are hard to find in non-residential buildings, yet there are trash cans around every corner. If the university truly wants to develop environmentally-aware stewards of this earth, the university as a whole needs to set an example. Collective, organizational action is needed. The goals of Kill-A-Watt cannot just apply to students. Calvin leadership must follow through on their promises and start working now to create a culture and campus of true sustainability.