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OPINIONS

Editorial: Rethink the Conservation Cup

On Feb. 14, Stanford’s Green Living Council (GLC) began its fourth annual Conservation Cup, which will run through March 15. The goal of the Conservation Cup is, according to the GLC website,  “to use teamwork and the competitive spirit to promote sustainable behaviors while engaging the campus community in a fun event.” This is clearly a laudable goal, but there is little evidence that the Conservation Cup as it is currently structured is an effective way to achieve it.

The Conservation Cup works by comparing dorms’ electricity and water use during the contest period to fall quarter averages, and rewarding dorms showing reductions of 10 to 20 percent. Reductions of 10 percent earn all of a dorm’s students free metal water bottles, and reductions of 20 percent earn all of a dorm’s students free tickets to the California Academy of Sciences (CAS). Last year, Hammarskjold and 717 Dolores achieved 20 percent reductions while six other residences crossed the 10-percent threshold.

If the Conservation Cup really reduces energy and water use by 10 to 20 percent in so many dorms, than that is truly an impressive achievement. However, there is another less favorable interpretation of the results. Dorm electricity and water use can vary by more than 10 percent month-to-month during other times of the year, so reductions of 10 percent during the competition period might have nothing (or very little) to do with adoption of better conservation practices. Given the limited awareness of the Conservation Cup within the student body, random variance seems like the most probable source of the observed reductions.

Since small residences tend to have higher variability in their electricity and water use, results arising from statistical variation should heavily bias the competition in favor of small residences. Last year, all seven of the eight winners were either row houses or lake houses, and the other was Marx House in Suites. The winner, Hammarskjold, houses only 26 students. This is a strong indication that the results of the Conservation Cup are largely spurious. An alternative interpretation is that smaller dorms can more easily coordinate Conservation Cup activities and motivate residents. However, at least anecdotally, it does not seem that many Resident Assistants or 10 to 20 percent of row house residents take the Conservation Cup seriously. The GLC needs to make sure that it is rewarding environmentally conscious students, not handing out free goodies to students living in houses with greater energy use variance.

Another problem with the Conservation Cup is the menu of prizes it uses as incentives. Hundreds of students received steel water bottles after last year’s competition for 10 percent energy and water use reductions. This might seem like a “green” gesture, but according to The New York Times, each recipient would have to save at least 500 plastic cups by using his or her water bottle to prevent the bottle from becoming a net contributor of toxic pollution to the ecosystem. Considering the fact that most Stanford students either own reusable water bottles already or can access them in dining areas, this is a wasteful prize unbecoming of the GLC’s mission. The prize for 20 percent energy and water use reductions is a trip to the CAS in San Francisco. Getting dozens of students to San Francisco and back almost certainly negates most or all of the energy savings resulting from the competition.

The GLC needs to consider ways to motivate more students and better direct its nearly $10,000 of students’ special fees money towards energy conservation. With the money it will spend on water bottles, CAS tickets and publicity for the Conservation Cup, the GLC could outfit hundreds of hallways and rooms with motion sensors that ensure lights are off when they are not needed. This kind of investment would decrease energy use significantly, demonstrably and permanently, rather than slightly, unconvincingly and temporarily.

The GLC must continue to pursue its noble mission of promoting sustainable behavior at Stanford, but it must also evaluate its work with a more critical eye to ensure that its efforts (and students’ money) are being directed towards successful projects. The Conservation Cup should only see a fifth iteration if it can justify its existence on statistical and environmental merits. If it can, it should be improved; if it cannot, it should be replaced.

About Editorial Board

Editorials represent the views of The Stanford Daily, an independent newspaper serving Stanford and the surrounding community. The Daily's Editorial Board consists of President and Editor-in-Chief Victor Xu '17, Executive Editor Will Ferrer '18, Managing Editor of Opinions Michael Gioia '17, Desk Editor of Opinions Jimmy Stephens '17, Senior Staff Writer Kylie Jue '17, Senior Staff Writer Olivia Hummer '17 and Senior Staff Writer Andrew Vogeley '17. To contact the Editorial Board chair, submit an op-ed (limited to 700 words) or submit a letter to the editor (limited to 500 words) at eic@stanforddaily.com.
  • sustainablefuture

    i’m on GLC and this article made a lot of great points. However, I think the biggest thing about Conservation Cup isn’t about winning or prizes, it’s about creating a month where (hopefully) our environmental conscious is raised and this month of spirited competition (even if by a handful of students) can be sustained throughout the year. The prizes are just to gain interest and for extra incentive to students. The end goal of saving energy/water isn’t to get a free water bottle or go to CAS…stanford students knows that.

  • icare

    also adding on, you can install as many light motion sensors as you want, but you gotta encourage sustainable behavior from students in order to really create sustainable change.

  • ’10

    as a first step, why not change the prize from water bottles/CAS tickets to just money for the dorm, to be used on activities as they want? but i agree with the general point that conservation cup is essentially self-selecting. i’m sure some people are environmentally-conscious and when they get this e-mail, you can take shorter showers, are all over it, while most people couldn’t give a rat’s ass about it. what do you do about those people?

  • stillskeptical

    To sustainablefuture and icare: How would you measure environmental consciousness? I’m on several of the sustainability lists and received an appropriate amount of e-mails from them, glanced at fliers around the dorm, and saw one tabling effort in the dining hall… but it all seems to be preaching at the choir. In the meantime, a lot of time and resources are being thrown at the campaign, probably resulting in a net loss. Are any surveys sent around to see if people become more aware as a result of the campaign and/or continue practicing conservation behaviors?

    What might actually make a difference is targeting the reasons behind adopting these behaviors. I personally think that most student group efforts are wasted because people who choose not to be aware simply won’t participate in or attend events geared towards change. I would recommend going back to trying for an environment/sustainability-based GER or EC. From what I’ve seen, it seems like the only way to make people pay attention is to grade them for it.

  • glc

    Just a quick clarification – Stanford Housing is the one that actually provides the funding for prizes for the Conservation Cup. It does not come from GLC’s special fees.

  • sustainablefuture

    To stillskeptical: this is where the prizes come in at. This provides an incentive and gains the interest of the people who typically don’t care too much about sustainability We have to start somewhere and with efforts such as emails and tabling, we can reach out to people who do care, the ones who kinda care, and even the people who otherwise would not have read the email about shorter showers or discussed environmental issues with the tabling people. We are encouraging people to change by themselves, instead of forcing another class onto them (why does everybody hate ihum? cause it’s forced upon us).

  • stillskeptical

    To GLC: That seems like an even better reason to use the money towards funding infrastructural changes within dorms.

    To sustainablefuture: My dorm has been pretty good at advertising the Conservation Cup, but without fail, I see statements like “I really want that water bottle!” added on to whiteboard conservation tips. To me, that is not the basis of real behavior change; it’s a short-term goal driven by short-term competition. Really, more emphasis should be put on the reasons for trying to conserve water/energy in the first place.

    In the case of my dorm, sure, there might be a reduction in energy and water consumption by some of the dorm residents, but given its size, it’s highly doubtful that even with those few instances we’ll even make the 10% mark. Without a reward, what’s to keep them from relapsing to old habits? As for the tabling, I saw maybe a handful of people actually stop by for the hour or two in which I was at the dining hall. Unless there’s a way to measure the “people who do care, the ones who kinda care, and even the people…”, there’s no reason to say that such a large sum of money should continue to be used for this event.

    As for encouraging people to change themselves, that rarely ever works. What will definitely work is if low-flow shower-heads are installed and automatic lights ensure that hallways aren’t lit up all night. As for the course requirement, let’s compromise for an EC. That way there would at least be the choice to take a class on French porn if climate change isn’t your thing.

  • stillskeptical

    I would like to say though that I approve of efforts to raise awareness. I just don’t think that the GLC’s Conservation Cup is the right way of promoting it.