August 23, 2016

Is Voluntary Action a Waste of Time?

Voluntary action for environmental outcomes is championed as a way to “do your bit” and to encourage positive policy changes. But does it? Is the cost of your “optional extra” action really achieving anything or is it just clever marketing at the expense of your goodwill and hip pocket?

Continuing in our support for the University of Queensland’s Geography, Planning and Environmental Management Society, Balance Carbon co-hosted a debate in celebration of UQ Sustainability Week. Teams comprised of one industry, academic and one student representative battled the topic with the following definitions:

Voluntary: done, given, or acting of one’s own free will.

Environmental outcomes: defined to include: renewable energy, climate action, emissions reductions and biodiversity improvement.

Affirmative Team – Voluntary Action IS a waste of time

“Self Interest always outweighs altruism”

The affirmative’s teams key argument centred on voluntarism being used to treat the effects of an issue rather than the root cause. The analogy of a squirrel storing nuts for winter being completely ineffective if a bear later steals those nuts was a particular compelling argument in the legislation versus volunteering efforts argument. The affirmative’s team case was greatly enhanced by defining “a waste of time” as time spent watching The Bachelor.

Negative Team – Voluntary Action is NOT a waste of time

“Voluntary programs complement regulatory actions”

The negative team’s key argument was related to the known success of voluntary schemes including ratification of International Treaties (the Kyoto Protocol and the UN were used as examples). The corporate success of 3M and the uptake of solar systems in Queensland were cited as programs that clearly demonstrated the effectiveness of a good voluntary program, as was the Emissions Reductions Fund.

And the winner was…

Voluntary Action IS a waste of time.

A quick audience survey at the commencement of the debate showed that almost all of the audience had at some stage undertaken volunteer work, so were their efforts wasted? Based on the outcome of this debate, yes.

The adjucators determined that the affirmative team made the most compelling case on the night, rebutting the negative team’s argument effectively and presenting a holistic and co-ordinated argument that voluntary action is usually un-coordinated, erratic and ineffective.

This topic was deliberately selected to be thought provoking. It’s a contentious issue with a lot of competing factors to be considered and the debate teased these out for the audience to further consider. Certainly food for thought.


Balance Carbon would like to thank UQ GEMs for their assistance in organising the debate.