By UW Sustainability | Apr 29, 2016

Jessica Kaminsky is an Assistant Professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at the University of Washington. A scholar of engineering projects and organizations, she conducts research on infrastructure for developing communities with a particular interest in topics of social sustainability. As part of the UW's Earth Day celebration, she gave a talk on how cultural values impact sustainability. Read the text below:

My name is Jessica Kaminsky; I am a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering. Welcome to our Earth Day Celebration! And another special welcome to those of you who are here for our Engineering Discovery Days.

To begin this talk, I’d like to ask each of you to turn to a nearby stranger and introduce yourself. Thank you! Now, I’d like you to tell your new friend where you last pooped.

While you probably didn’t specify ‘in a toilet’ I hope all of you did use a toilet, because that sanitation infrastructure is protecting both human and environmental health! But of course there are lots of parts of this world where people still don’t have access to this kind of environmental technology. In many parts of the world, people aren’t pooping in toilets, because they don’t have a toilet.

You may know that 2016 is the year that the world undertakes the Sustainable Development Goals, an internationally agreed upon set of goals for sustainable international development. These goals seek to make sure that all the world’s people have access to fundamentals like food, education, toilets, water, and electricity. And today, of course, is the day when our political leaders sign the Paris Accords for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions! So in honor of that achievement, let’s talk specifically about energy.

To achieve these worthy goals and accords, we need to design and build stuff! And as environmentalists, or more generally as citizens of this planet, we know we need to build stuff in a responsible way. And it’s very common to hear people argue that we can’t pursue environmental goals because they are too expensive. I could answer this argument by telling you about how the cost of environmental technologies, like solar panels, has been dropping terrifically in recent years. And I could also tell you that today, with zero subsidies, there are many places on this planet where solar is now the least cost option for electricity; for example, this is the case on many small island nations around the world.

There is every reason to believe that, soon, renewable electricity will be flat out cheaper than coal. In fact my colleagues here at the UW Clean Energy Institute are working to make that a reality. But we’re not there yet, and our climate change models show how very urgent our transition over to renewables is. So, over the past couple years, I’ve been working on research that uses statistics to understand how national cultural values—stuff other than money or technical feasibility, the usual scapegoat arguments against environmental technologies—impact the choices we make when we build civil infrastructure. Check out my website ( if you’re interested in the details, the publications are freely available to anyone who is interested. Generally, these findings come from an exponential regression model that considers 66 nations around the globe.

Here’s the punchline—even after statistically taking money out of the equation, cultural values matter for energy infrastructure. Sure, we need to be economically sustainable. But not at the expense of environmental, technical, or social sustainability! We need all four of these working together to achieve sustainability. Money isn’t everything. We already build values into our infrastructure, and anyone who tells you otherwise is kidding themselves. By understanding which values influence infrastructure, and by understanding how that happens, we can be conscious and mindful about the values we put into steel and concrete, and so construct a society that reflects the best parts of humanity.

So, in terms of cultural values, what makes a difference when nations are deciding whether to build renewable electricity or burn fossil fuels? Unsurprisingly, being worried about environmental impacts means we build more renewables at a statistically significant level. But here’s the thing — at the aggregate level, the environmental cultural value, statistically speaking, matters less to the decision to build renewables than other cultural values do. For our nation, the United States, it turns out that the most important driver for building renewables is our national orientation towards individualism. We are a deeply individualistic nation—even our politicians talk about reducing government oversight in pursuit of that local control. And it turns out that this value is a powerful driver for the construction of renewables at the global scale.

Now of course all this deals with national level trends, not individuals, and I suspect that many of the people in this audience are intensely motivated by environmental outcomes. So what does this finding mean for you? It means that if you are advocating for the construction of renewable electricity, you should frame that argument not only as an environmental one but also as an issue of local control and democratic infrastructure governance. Statistically and globally speaking, this is the most powerful argument you can make to advance your own personal environmental goals.

Speaking of democracy, I hope you are all aware of the upcoming vote on Washington Initiative 732, which would tax carbon and use the revenue to reduce sales tax and give tax breaks to families. I’m not here to tell you how to vote, but please do let me also remind you of the upcoming presidential election as well, and that both Republican frontrunners are on the books as saying they are deeply critical or opposed to our government’s Environmental Protection Agency. As a technical person who has seen the data, let me tell you that the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act have made huge differences for the American people and our environment. And the tragedy unfolding in Flint, Michigan right now only highlights how important environmental regulation is. Please, however you vote, vote!

Now, please, enjoy Earth Day, enjoy the campus, and the next time you poop in a toilet or turn on the lights, spare a thought for your friends over in civil engineering.