Illustration by Catherine Buchaniec
On April 22, 1970, 20 million Americans rose to demand environmental action, marking the first observance of Earth Day. These protests led to the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water and Endangered Species Acts. Among the first participants were Northwestern students, who hosted speaker events and led teach-ins on different topics of environmental activism.
Now, on the day’s 50th anniversary, Earth Day celebrations look different than they have in previous years due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We can’t gather to celebrate and talk about sustainability together,” said Maggie Olson, a Communication junior and the communications and engagement assistant for sustainNU. “But we can take the opportunity to learn.”
Olson said education played a vital role in the first Earth Day through teach-ins and will continue to do so in this year’s celebration of the anniversary, as many other typical forms of engagement are inaccessible due to the pandemic.
With stay-at-home orders in place, Olson said sustainNU staff had to adjust their Earth Day programming to align with a new remote reality. An Earth Day fair has been replaced with webinars, virtual challenges and online gatherings over Zoom.
Sarah Tulga, program assistant at sustainNU, said the team has presented a wide range of remote Earth Day activities facilitated by different organizations so that students and faculty can have a variety of options for engagement. Individuals can choose how they celebrate based on their interests and availability.
For example, those interested in the arts can submit to the Earth Month Gallery or listen to a Northwestern University Symphony performance at 8 p.m. CST. Those interested in science can check out the “Flatten the Curve” summit on Zoom. And people with a busy Earth Day schedule can look to sustainNU’s 2020 Earth Month Reading List, where they can find books that celebrate nature and sustainability to read at their leisure.
“I personally believe that everyone should celebrate in a way that resonates with them,” Tulga said. “Whether that be the arts, research, nature or action. People are motivated by different things, and it’s important to have a connection to what you are doing.”
Much of sustainNU’s programming is not limited to Earth Day but spread throughout April. Northwestern’s Campus EcoChallenge has been underway since the beginning of the month and will finish at the end of the month. The challenge includes taking more sustainable actions, like using less disposable plastic. It’s typically done on campus, but has been completed virtually thus far.
Tulga said even under lockdown, people have the opportunity to engage, reflect and get out in nature, wherever in the world they might be.
“This is a moment to be thoughtful and come together,” Tulga said. “We’ve seen an outpouring of engagement and support, and we weren’t sure we were going to see that with everything that’s happening.”
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