Whenever I see sustainability initiatives around our university, it makes me wonder: Is this actually doing something? We replaced garbage bins with recycling stations. We got rid of plastic cups from our coffee machines. We implemented Warm Sweater Days by lowering the temperature of our buildings by 1°C. I see these measures and think, well surely, this is better than doing nothing? From a more macro-perspective, our university has a devoted team on sustainability that is driving Maastricht towards becoming a ‘sustainable university’ by 2030. Well, good for us! Keep up the good work Maastricht!
But then I stop to ponder, is this really doing something though? Like really? In my research on behavior modification and intrinsic incentives, I have come across enough evidence to suggest how token activism or slacktivism can actually be detrimental to truly manifesting the desired change: For example, not only does liking something on social media not necessarily lead to impact, but worse, this act of slacktivism can possibly reduce the likelihood of the slacktivist doing something more meaningful. This is because a token gesture, like signing online petitions, can sometimes give people a small sense of accomplishment, which in turn can sedate our guilt, which then reduces the likelihood of further action. In other words, we mistakenly believe that “I did something to help” when in fact, we really did not.
The thing is, we all want change, but many of us are not changing our own actions enough to manifest the desired outcome. We fall prey to pluralistic ignorance, believing either that someone else is doing something about the problem or believing that it is ok to be complicit in breaking the norms because everyone else is doing it.
We as a community and a research institution need to evolve beyond this shallowness. Our students and staff are capable of much more. The aforementioned sustainability initiatives are great places to start and the march planned on 15 March at the Vrijthof by Maastricht4Climate is truly a wonderful initiative. However, let us not stop there. Let us not succumb to a false sense of accomplishment afterwards or be lulled by pluralistic ignorance. Rather, let us collectively keep marching on – even after the march – to make sure that we are all doing something more meaningful for sustainability. Like for reals.
Mark Kawakami, assistant professor at the Faculty of Law