Environmentalism with the People’s Ecochallenge

They want us to get on recycling, but we need to get on big carbon emitters. Steven Leith via Flickr

Zoinks! It’s Campus Sustainability Month, Scoob! 

October is a spooky time of year — and the only time of year I can bring myself to watch a horror movie — but this October is a scary month for more than one reason. It’s Campus Sustainability Month, which means people are talking about the real-life monstrosity of climate change. 

Campus Sustainability Month is run by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education, an organization dedicated to making universities more sustainable. Campuses as far south as Arizona began October with chalk art and a seminar about fair-trade items. Likewise, the University of Washington will be holding a sustainability fair and giving out green awards. In Canada, McGill University is holding conferences and student workshops.  

To celebrate campus sustainability month here at the University of Regina, the Sustainability Department sent out an email asking students to participate in the People’s Ecochallenge 2022. The idea of the Ecochallenge is students can check off activities each day, which gives points to the university’s team, and the university has added the extra incentive of giving unnamed prizes to the top participants on campus. The overarching goal of the Ecochallenge is having people participate in new sustainable habits for 21 days, so that people will leave with long-term sustainable habits.

As a bit of an environmentalist myself, I felt compelled to sign up. I found their dashboard easy to navigate and took a look through some of the activities that participants are supposed to complete for points. The activities are diverse and include categories like “enacting equity” and “creating community,” in addition to more traditional environmental activities like eating more sustainably. Based upon completing the tutorial and recording some of the actions that I have already built into my daily routine, I racked up 25 points on my first day for the university team. However, I was trailing behind some teammates who were hundreds of points ahead by the fourth day of the challenge.  

The People’s Ecochallenge has a history dating back to 2009. According to the Ecochallenge website, they claim to have reached 139 countries with nearly 221,000 participants, but this year they report participants in only 36 countries thus far. Prior to 2009, the group went by another name – the Northwest Earth Institute.

Interestingly, the organization was quite different. It was an organization that focused on equipping facilitators to have environmental discussions in their community. The previous organization claimed to be rooted in a philosophy of deep ecology, which is a belief advocating for the idea that nature has an inherent value aside from human utility. Deep ecology also emphasizes the interconnectedness of people to the natural world in an almost mystical fashion.  

Perhaps ironically, Arne Naess, the philosopher who coined the term deep ecology which Ecochallenge was founded on, believed that the mistake of many environmental movements was a shallow focus on educating the public about the facts of an environmental issue. Naess instead advocated for changing key assumptions that underlined modern attitudes toward the environment. With the switch away from facilitating philosophical discussions and towards gamifying eco-friendly actions, Ecochallenge may have changed from their more radical roots.  

Events and approaches like Ecochallenge have often received criticism from other environmentalists as well. For example, almost everyone knows the term ‘carbon footprint.’ I can even remember calculating mine in middle school as part of science class. What few people know, however, is that the term ‘carbon footprint’ was popularized by BP, the oil company.

The reason one of the world’s largest companies invested in educating everyone about their carbon footprint is because it takes the focus and blame away from the institutions and people with power, and places it back on the individual. This focus on individuals avoids people with power having to take responsibility. While individual actions may help, climate change experts, according to the International Panel on Climate Change 2022, agree that “individual actions are necessary but insufficient to deliver transformative mitigation.”  

Similar to carbon footprints giving individuals a score on their environmental virtue, Ecochallenge awards points to participants for taking individual eco-friendly actions. While Ecochallenge asks participants to “eat plant-based meals,” effective action would work to make plant-based meals more affordable and accessible. This tension is highlighted particularly well by one challenge on their website, “compost food scraps.” Since I’m living in a city and going to a university with no compost services, the structure of where I live prevents me from being able to even attempt this challenge. Although, to its credit, Ecochallenge does have some goals that encourage people to become politically engaged, such as researching the environmental positions in political parties’ platforms.  

In the spirit of keeping an eye on institutions rather than individuals, and to rack up some more points for the team, I looked at the University of Regina’s Strategic Plan for Sustainability. The most glaring issue is that the previous Strategic Plan for Sustainability had aims for 2015-2020, and the 2021-2026 plan is not yet released as we’re nearing the end of 2022. In the previous Strategic Plan for Sustainability, the university talks about several changes, like lowering their carbon footprint by an average of 773 tonnes per year and increasing the amount of recycling diverted from the landfill.

Also, over the last five years, the university has made a variety of efficiency upgrades to their buildings and made the list publicly available online. The changes that students may notice are the LED lighting and water bottle stations around campus, but there are also a number of water and heating upgrades as well (the Sustainability Department was reached out to through email, but did not reply back for comment by this article’s publication date).  

So, this sustainability month, switch out that burger for some Beyond Meat. But while you’re at it, remember who the biggest emitters are, and don’t forget it next time an election rolls around.  


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