Striking at the Root

Environmental groups on campus should not be marginalized by institutional interests

A cartoon competition designed to raise awareness about environmental issues—whose prizes are gift cards and iPods—sounds as garishly ironic as an article in “The Onion.”

Not so if you’re an employee of the Resource Efficiency Program. REP, evidenced by its annual CERtoon cartoon competition, is apparently convinced that the awareness raised by an assemblage of cartoons about already widely recognized environmental issues will more than make up for the environmental damage generated by the production and consumption of an iPod touch, $250 in American Express gift cards, and over a dozen gift cards to restaurants and retailers. “Plastic is not fantastic,” one of last year’s winners proclaims—a decidedly peculiar slogan to enter in a contest whose first prize is an item that is made, in large part, of plastic.

Most significantly, this phenomenon sheds light on a fundamental problem within some of the most visible environmental groups on campus: They focus on trendy, alluring campaigns rather than those that strike at the roots of environmental issues.

In a similar vein, Green ’14, a student group that runs under REP and is designed to engage environmentally conscious freshmen in green initiatives on campus, embarks on a wide array of projects aimed at boosting the College’s sustainability but in reality accomplishes far less than one would expect. Last semester, Green ’14 distributed hundreds of free mugs to members of the class of 2014 in order to curb consumption of disposable paper and plastic ware. Unfortunately, this initiative has resulted in dozens of identical, abandoned mugs accumulating dust on the racks in Annenberg, and it is questionable whether the mugs have saved more waste than they have generated.


But striking at the root of an environmental issue is much easier said than done. This semester, REP and Green ‘14 were asked to support a project that would push HUHDS to switch to exclusively cage-free eggs, which are significantly more environmentally sound than eggs produced in battery cage facilities and are championed by virtually every national and Harvard-wide environmental organization. Their response? An apologetic refusal—though many members of the groups are personally in support of the project, it seems that they are officially unable to endorse it because they receive a portion of their funding from HUHDS and probably do not feel comfortable petitioning against it.

These organizations (and others, including the Food Literacy Project) not only receive significant funding from HUHDS, but are also overseen by the administration of Harvard College. Initially surprising to me, the groups’ refusal to support the cage-free initiative is symptomatic of a much larger problem at Harvard. Our most visible environmental organizations work tirelessly to come up with feasible solutions to environmental problems, but when they are presented with an opportunity to support a colossal step toward sustainability at Harvard, they often cannot do so because they have their hands tied by the fear of losing institutional funding.

Fortunately for us, the opinions of students are often enormously influential in shaping institutional policies. For instance, HUHDS switched about a quarter of its eggs to cage-free in 2007 as a result of an unwavering display of student support. Environmentalists at Harvard, particularly members of environmental groups that rely on Harvard’s funding, should similarly make it clear to our administrators that they are unwilling to be stifled by institutional interests.

While environmental organizations’ receipt of funding from HUHDS is not inherently problematic, it becomes problematic when it entails a fundamental compromise of the goals and principles of an environmental protection group. Students in these organizations have already demonstrated a passionate commitment to the environment, and HUHDS should respect this commitment by issuing a guarantee that their funding is not contingent on an unconditional espousal of HUHDS’s policies—for the sake of intellectual freedom as much as for our planet.

Marina N. Bolotnikova ’14, a Crimson editorial writer, lives in Wigglesworth Hall.


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