Turn off the lights. Use reusable water bottles. Skip the tray.

With all these orders, the environmental movement starts to sound a lot like a nagging mother (sorry Mom, but it’s true!). Even so, I try my best to listen — I obsessively turn off the lights around my apartment to save energy, I lug my water bottle around to avoid adding plastic to ever-growing landfills and I’ve learned to balance plates and cups and bowls like a waitress. All this so that there’s one less tray to wash and, hopefully, a little less food waste, too.

Even though I care deeply about the environment and am committed to creating a more sustainable future, I must admit that I’m sick of it. All those reminders put the onus on the individual. You have to spend your time, your energy and sometimes even your money to make the sustainable choice in a fundamentally unsustainable system. And you know what? Not everyone can, knows how to or even cares to do so.

So, I’m looking at you, kid — you who also cares about the environment and totes a reusable bag. Maybe you’ve even worked on an organic farm or volunteered with Natural Resources Defense Council one summer. I know how you feel. I feel it, too. I’m frustrated by what sometimes seems like a lack of concern for environmental issues and, even more, by a lack of urgency to address them.

But you know what I find equally worrying? How self-righteous and self-satisfied (and not to mention, insular) we environmentalists can sometimes be. If you’re anything like me, you can’t help but feel the slightest bit proud as you sip out of your Camelbak while fellow Wolverines drink out of a disposable bottle.

And though it sounds like I’m dripping with disdain for the environmental movement and its adherents, I commend them, really. I just have a suggestion: We should sacrifice some of the satisfaction we derive from these personal acts of sustainability and start advocating for structural changes that promote an even more environmentally conscious university.

So, how about instead of your weekly Saturday trip to the Farmers’ Market, you attend a Student Sustainability Initiative roundtable meeting and get involved in efforts to make the Big House a zero-waste facility? Don’t get me wrong, seasonal produce is certainly a step in the sustainable direction, but it’s ultimately a small, individualized drop in the reusable bucket. By helping to make systemic changes, you’ll ultimately have a greater effect on the environment and the University itself.

Maybe you think the University should stop installing air conditioners in newly built residence halls in order to preserve energy. Or maybe you would like to see the University use organic fertilizers for all of the campus greenery so we can prevent soil erosion and toxic run-off while simultaneously lowering costs. Write the Office of Campus Sustainability or the Graham Institute of Sustainability an e-mail. Pen a letter to University President Mary Sue Coleman while you’re at it.

“The University is too big,” you say? “I’m only one person.” “They won’t listen.” “I don’t have enough time.” “Michigan is so bureaucratic.” Maybe, but what isn’t bureaucratic these days? Where does it seem easy to make a change? If you put in the time and effort, good things will happen.

You might argue that I’m now placing the burden on you again. And you know what? To some degree, I am. But at the very least you’d be using your time and energy to create a more sustainable system that will ease and facilitate more environmentally friendly behavior, benefiting all.

But hey, don’t forget to still turn off those lights.

Zoe Stahl can be reached at zoestahl@umich.edu.

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