Pledge Advocates Sustainable Habits

Pledging to take shorter showers, buy organic food, and boycott bottled water, nearly 4,000 members of the Harvard community have signed the 2008 Sustainability Pledge within five days of its kickoff.

The pledge has come a long way since its inception in 2002 as a “Go Cold Turkey” campaign in which roughly 1,000 students promised to reduce their carbon footprint during Thanksgiving Break.

In a campus-wide e-mail last Wednesday, Director of Sustainability Heather A. Henriksen said the importance of the pledge is two-fold: “It commits individuals to specific actions to reduce their impact on the earth, and it also promotes testing and implementation of renewable energy technologies on our campus,” she said.

For each pledge, Harvard will contribute $1.50 toward renewable energy projects on campus.

The pledge rates of each Harvard school will help determine the location of the funded project, and a contest between undergraduate houses will award points for the Green Cup. Dunster House is currently in the lead with 49 percent of its residents having already signed the pledge.

“It’s a great way to get your House excited to talk about sustainability,” said Karen A. McKinnon ’10, an Environmental Action Committee co-executive.

But McKinnon said what people pledge online might not materialize into action.

“Some people might just check the boxes and get on with their life,” she said.

McKinnon also emphasized that environmental problems cannot only be solved by individual changes in behavior.

“It has to be a whole institutional change—life-style changes, as well as lobbying your congressman and senator,” she said.

Jaclyn Olsen, assistant director of the Harvard Green Campus Initiative, said that she has heard positive stories from students, staff, and faculty about how the pledge has prompted them to think twice about their environmental actions.

“Research shows that people are more likely to follow up on an action if they have signed a written or verbal pledge to take the action,” she said. “We do believe that there are real, measurable effects from the pledge.”

Olsen said that the pledge reflects the vision of sustainability that University President Drew G. Faust articulated for Harvard.

“The thousands of members of the Harvard community who have taken this pledge in the past, and who will this year, symbolize the culture change she is talking about,” Olsen said. “Taking the pledge and following through on the actions is a great first step for each of us.”