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Are We Sustainable? …and Looking Forward

In recent years, sustainability issues have been taking the centre stage of the business world. Green technology has also achieved tremendous progress: not only are they beneficial to the environment, but also profitable investments as well. In spite of such success, people tend to be over-reliant on it. As counter-intuitive as it may seem, some measures that are taken to tackle the problem have allowed people to be less conscious in their own behavior to environmental issues. In recent months, I have been extremely fortunate enough to team up with three other enthusiastic students as we work on a project that aims to improve behaviors of students at the VU towards being more sustainable. In the meantime, we have also encountered certain obstacles in finishing our project as there is such limited academic contribution into the investigation of human behavior, although behavioral sciences has been around for several decades. Being faced with such challenges, is there any prospect for sustainable behavior in the future?

Restructuring our habits, our way of thinking and our actions in parts of our everyday life is indeed a challenging task for anybody. We are programmed a certain way just like a computer program, and it certainly takes time for any adjustment in our behavior to incorporate into our daily routine. Although the history of human evolutionary progress has spanned over millions of years, the iconic breakthrough that shaped our society as we are now only came 11,000 years ago. The Neolithic Revolution (or first Agricultural Revolution) marked an important transformation in terms of daily rituals and lifestyles of human—from hunting rituals to peaceful settlement with communal agricultural practices. However, as van Vugt, Griskevicius, and Schultz assert, this period only constitutes less than 1 percent of the existence of our species on Earth. Judging by such amazing achievements that humans have made throughout the past 11,000 years, the expectation is that there would be an evolutionary mismatch between human minds and its surrounding environment; or phrased differently, “humans are navigating the modern world with Stone Age minds”. However, it is not improbable for human minds to not develop a sustainable-oriented mindset. The most effective approach to do it is to adopt educational or other practical methods to increase awareness of people towards building sustained environmental behavior. If successful, individuals will start to experience a cultural shift that creates long-term change in their own habits. The authors identify that these problems can be tackled by measures focused on tackling on our psychological biases on sustainable behavior, which consists of self-interest, shortsightedness, status, imitation and sensing.

How can we be more sustainable?

Recently, technological advancement has allowed us to be more energy-efficient than ever. Large corporations and new startups have been increasingly active in the realm of corporate social responsibility, with considerable marketing efforts to polish themselves as a “green” brand. Despite allegations to the misuse of this strategy (often referred to as greenwashing), businesses have done a relatively phenomenal job in terms of keeping themselves and their customers engaged with environmental behavior. From the perspective of the consumers, in Europe, the adoption of standardized energy label has triggered end-users not only into selecting the best available product for them, but also implicitly choosing the best alternative for the environment.

However, behavioral changes of individuals are of equal importance as well. It does not necessarily have to be sophisticated, but rather the modest habitual changes to our daily activities. Now let’s take a look at how we, as students, have taken good care of our electronic devices. Let’s be honest here, nowadays we cannot live a modern life without looking at your phones or working with your laptops everyday, so the daily uses of these appliances directly affect our energy consumption everyday (or carbon footprint, if you really want to get technical). To analyze how sustainable humans are, we conducted a survey that questions the daily routines of each individual with respect to charging their devices. Our own survey on Amsterdam students showed that a surprising 68% of respondents does not always acknowledge their overcharging behaviors. Even more problematic, approximately half of the surveyed students does not take immediate actions when we realize our devices are being overcharged. This result may not be representative of any specific individual as I do realize that different students will have distinctive habits towards the use of their devices. However, as sustainable as we claim ourselves to be, we have not yet delivered the desirable actions towards protecting our environment, that is if we are not motivated to do so.

The appropriate measure used to take care of your laptops will prolong the lifespan of your devices. The loss in lifespan greatly varies with the models and the actual gadget (phones/laptops) you are using. However, only for the newest models of electronic devices (mostly only for laptops) is it possible for the internal system to isolate electronic current from going into the devices in the states of “charging’’ and ‘’fully charged’’. For the devices that are not equipped with this technology, overcharging reduces the maximum charge capability and capacity of the electronic devices, hence it negatively affects the lifespan of any device. In the long run, the battery on your electronic device starts to deteriorate and that ultimately boils down to higher replacement cost. You might have started to feel concerned reading through here. Well, if you do, that is exactly why it is much more effective to approach with their private concerns before introducing ourselves to other direct environmental benefits. And reasonably fortunate for us, these so-called “nudges” are surprisingly effective. As indicated from the results of our survey, on average, three out of four surveyed students, having realized the adverse effects of overcharging, shows their willingness to react differently in their daily use of their devices.

Although the private (economic) benefits of energy-saving behavior might be insignificant for each individual, the social externalities gained are considerably more important. As mentioned before, behavioral changes are “baby steps” that do not immediately transform a behavioral pattern, but it usually takes time to adopt changes to have a long-lasting effect. One thing that is good about sustainable behavior is that, if one is done successfully, other effects can be easily translated into a defined set of sustainable actions as well. It is totally not impossible to do it—initiatives of these similar projects can be found anywhere, as the European Commission has been putting a lot of effort to finance these projects in the future. In the Netherlands, academic institutions are also increasingly aware of sustainability and have established themselves their own “Green Office”, a student-run organization that focuses on building collaborative sustainable project for each university. The future is indeed looking bright.

So my answer to the question is “yes”, we totally can be.


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