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IT MAY not be the Straus Cup, but the just-launched "Ecolymplics" is a house rivalry that all students should take seriously. Sponsored by the Environmental Action Committee of Phillips Brooks House Association, Ecolympics pits the houses against one another in their efforts to cut energy use and promote recycling. The purpose is twofold: to reduce energy waste in the short, and to develop habits of conservation that will remain with students for life.
The movement to get citizens in the habit of conservation thrived during the late 1970s, but fell by the wayside after the last oil shock ended. At Harvard, for example, electricity and steam heat consumption in the houses and dormitories has increased by 17 percent in the last five years. Rejuvenating the conservation movement should be a top national priority, and I wish the Environmental Action Committee the best of luck.
They'll need it.
Unfortunately, Ecolympics is handicapped by a problem that Jack Kemp would have no trouble identifying: it relies on human altruism--and not human greed--to get results.
A lasting solution to excessive energy consumption in dormitories must introduce market incentives. A lasting solution must get people in the habit of conserving scarce energy with the prospect of saving scarce pocket money. A lasting solution requires that Harvard make students pay for excessive use of electricity.
AS THINGS stand now, the cost of heat and electricity in the dormitories is absorbed into the general room fee. As anyone who has rented an apartment knows, it is far easier to leave the lights on or take long, hot showers when all utilities are included in the rent.
The Ecolympics thus faces a "free-rider problem": Conscientious conservers have to share the economic reward of saving energy with everyone else, while heavy consumers can force the costs of their profligacy onto their fellows. Even the limited market incentive offered by Ecolympics--namely, Ben & Jerry's study breaks--cannot solve the free-rider problem as long as incentives go to large groups and not to individual consumers.
To remedy this problem, Harvard should investigate the feasibility of installing galvanometers and hot water flow guages in individual suites. Then the University could directly bill rooming groups only for the energy they actually use. If monthly billing is deemed too inefficient, Harvard could levy a special surcharge on students who exceed a maximum threshold.
If installing individual meters is too costly, the University could consider a policy in effect at several other schools and levy a special annual fee on users of electrical appliances (something like $5 per computer, $15 per stereo or microwave, $25 per television, etc.). Random inspections (the same ones that root out illegal poster-hanging methods) and steep fines for evaders would suffice to enforce payment of the fees.
Such a system, if accompanied by a general reduction in the room charge, would strike a blow for distributive equity. (Read: it's politically correct.) No longer would poorer students be forced to subsidize the electricity that powers the CD players and VCRs of their richer peers.
ONE could argue that concern for the environment should come from the heart, and that using incentives to promote conservation will only teach students to follow their pocketbooks. Back when I was a kid, my parents told me to shut doors and turn off lights. Never once did they lecture me on the abstract virtues of preserving scarce fossil fuels or cutting down on air pollution. They simply asked me if I thought they could afford to heat the whole outdoors.
Since then, I have largely internalized this guilt about wasting energy. I may have begun turning out lights for economic reasons, but the habit has become ingrained. Now I am conscious of the larger reasons for my action. What began as a crass motive has become an altruistic one.
The most difficult environmental dilemmas arise when preserving the environment conflicts with economic self-interest--when it's cheaper to waste than to save. Fortunately, this is not one of those cases. Satisfactory free-market solutions to environmental problems are rare enough already; Harvard should not overlook the opportunity when it arises.
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