Top-Down versus Bottom-Up: Two Approaches to Sustainability

This guest article was written by Jason Gallup, former Student Programs Director at the Office of Sustainability.

The window for avoiding the catastrophic effects of environmental degradation is small. As a society, we are now well aware that without major reductions in our carbon emissions, we soon will face irreversible changes to our planet that will put tens of millions of people across the globe at risk. Given what we know about the urgency of the environmental issues of our day, there is a clear need for comprehensive action to improve sustainability now. But how do we go about implementing these changes?

Marine debris laden beach in Hawaii
Marine debris laden beach in Hawaii. (Courtesy NOAA Marine Debris Survey Program, CC BY 2.0)

In my view, it’s helpful to think about two distinct approaches to sustainability. The way I conceptualize them is “top-down” and “bottom-up.” This distinction is likely familiar, and perhaps cliché, but I find it to be helpful both as a framing tool for envisioning sustainability efforts and a guide for coordinating their implementation.

Top-down sustainability encompasses system-level changes driven by policy and operational directives. These approaches have the potential to create widespread and immediate change when applied effectively. California, for instance, has changed the auto industry by passing stricter fuel-economy standards that manufacturers must meet in order to sell vehicles in the state. Because California is the fifth largest economy in the world, the size of its market incentivizes auto makers to meet these standards and produces a ripple effect throughout the industry.

As a top-down sustainability hypothetical, we can imagine the US and China jointly declaring that all non-renewable energy production was illegal immediately within their borders. The resulting change in global CO2 emissions would be drastic. The implausibility of this scenario, however, illustrates the primary drawback to the top-down approach: namely, the lead-up time for implementing these kinds of efforts can be lengthy and political obstacles can be enormous. The number of stakeholders involved in a comprehensive sustainability undertaking is often large and the competing interests are complex; coordinating everyone involved and achieving consensus can be a difficult and sometimes insurmountable challenge.

While top-down approaches force behavior change through policy, bottom-up approaches attempt the opposite: to influence policy through behavior. The appeal of any bottom-up approach is that individual actions can have a massive impact when adopted by large numbers of people, and the barrier to entry is low. An individual behavior change—say, biking to work—may have a limited impact, but has great potential if adopted by many. The key to effectively activating the potential of a bottom-up approach lies in communicating both the goals of behavioral changes as well as the best strategies for implementing these changes to have maximum impact.

Signe Skott Cooper Hall
A usable green roof covered with plantings is pictured at Signe Skott Cooper Hall at the University of Wisconsin-Madison during a preview tour of the facility on June 5, 2014. (Photo by Jeff Miller/UW-Madison)

These two approaches are often presented as mutually exclusive, but it seems to me that UW-Madison is perfectly situated to employ and benefit from a combination of top-down and bottom-up approaches to sustainability. As a large institution with significant energy, transportation, and water operations, we have the opportunity to make serious improvements in sustainability through policy changes. We are already seeing the benefits of energy retrofits across campus, and the university has committed to the construction of more sustainable buildings as an essential part of campus development. Moreover, as an educational and research institution, we are privileged to have a population of students who are knowledgeable about sustainability, who care about reducing their own impact on the environment, and who are motivated to share this message with others on campus through campaigns and initiatives.

To illustrate this combined approach, we might look at compost on campus. Thanks to a contract with a local food waste processor, Facilities Planning & Management has instituted compost pick-up on campus as part of its waste disposal operations. This represents an institutional commitment to improving the carbon footprint of this campus. However, this waste stream has consistent issues with contamination by non-compostable items. To combat this problem, interns in the Office of Sustainability go out into dining units and offices on campus where they help people to incorporate compost disposal into their everyday behavior through tutorials, tips, and detailed signage about what items belong in the compost bin. As I see it, this is just one way that top-down and bottom-up approaches can work symbiotically.

What I hope to illustrate with this example is that we do not have to choose one approach or the other. We can continue to reach out to students, staff, and faculty about how their individual choices and actions can have consequences for sustainability. We also can continue to pursue policies and practices at a systems and facilities level that improve the sustainability of campus operations. In doing so, we will serve as a model to the surrounding community and the academic community as a whole while empowering all Badgers to embrace sustainability in their own lives and become champions for a more sustainable world. Given what we know about the challenges that we are bound to face as soon as the middle of this century, we have no time to waste. There is no silver bullet to solve our environmental crises; rather, it is going to require tireless effort and countless tactics. By embracing top-down and bottom-up approaches to sustainability as complementary rather than contradictory strategies, we will maximize our opportunity to sustain UW-Madison and beyond.