Does RecycleMania Dilute Sustainability Efforts in Higher Ed?

By May 24, 2012Blog

By Holly Tallon

The other day I watched a documentary that focused on one main question: are humans innately competitive or cooperative, or a mixture of both? This question really struck me because I realized I had never really thought about it much, considering how much it applies to sustainability and the actions we take in relation to sustainability. Are we competitive or cooperative? The documentary emphasized, based on certain studies and observation, that humans are mostly cooperative in nature, and it is how we have prospered for so long as a species.

While watching the news one day, the anchorman brought up a graphic showing the top 3 happiest countries in the world based on a recent survey. The first 2 countries floated into space on the screen–Australia and Norway–and as the name “United States” floated up to #3, the anchorman screamed out, ‘Yeah! There we are!’ or something of that sort. It was pretty ridiculous. I am not sure about the validity of those statistics, but that moment made me realize that yes, we may be cooperative in nature, but here in America at least, we tend to focus on competition and being #1, and this is the attitude that is celebrated and taught in this country.

And then I realized that I have been one of those people celebrating that attitude, even through my work in sustainability. RecycleMania is an 8-week long competition held every spring between universities. A competition. This last spring I led a project called Operation Opt-Out during which I emphasized our need to win RecycleMania to all I spoke to. I have been enabling an attitude of competition among the students I reach out to under the name of sustainability. Isn’t this completely wrong though? Isn’t sustainability itself supposed to be a cooperative effort? A cooperative effort merging environment, society, and economics; individuals, organizations, and governments; cities, states, and countries?

RecycleMania is a wonderful effort to help universities reduce waste and increase recycling, but may I ask: is it really doing more good than harm? RecycleMania pits universities against each other in a competition, and within each university the competition is spread through every level of campus: dorms against dorms, floors against floors, hallways against hallways. It’s like a microcosm in a microcosm in a microcosm of competition. Of course, a little bit of competition is not a bad thing. But competition is like salt: the recipe only calls for a pinch. Cooperation, on the other hand, includes all of the yummy vegetables that your body needs a lot of in order to function properly.

I propose that we focus more on cooperation and less on competition and take pride in that as a university. The ability of people to come together for the good of the community is one of the greatest forces driving this world. If you do not believe me, think about all the macroscale examples we hear about everyday. This Tuesday marked the 1-year anniversary of the Joplin tornado, an event that showcased the power of a community to come together and start anew. Many may disagree with the controversial Occupy Wall Street movement, but surely it is one of the most powerful examples of a cross-country, cooperative effort this country has seen in years. Finally, this coming June many countries will set aside politics in order to come together at the Rio+20 Summit in order to make commitments to the environment as an international body. I propose we stop celebrating competition and live our lives in a way that fosters cooperation and celebrates unity as a university, community, and country.

As this upcoming school year approaches, let us strive to do our part for recycling and reducing waste year-round and to embrace a sense of cooperation and community in our daily actions. And let us not limit this to recycling but expand this to every aspect of sustainability, including those efforts to build a better and stronger community. As university students, let us embrace this attitude of cooperation so that we may set an example for those generations younger than ours, and even those older. Even if we must make dramatic changes within ourselves, let us not be scared of change. I leave you with this:

“If you want to be incrementally better: Be competitive. If you want to be exponentially better: Be cooperative.”

     – Author unknown

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