Fifty years ago, the University of Georgia participated in a full day of teach-ins alongside schools across the country as part of the first-ever Earth Day. The issues we continue to face in modern times are just as abundant as ever: climate change, habitat destruction, pollution, deforestation, environmental justice, food and water security, depleting resources, urban sprawl, waste disposal, overpopulation, loss of biodiversity, and on and on. But so, too, are the efforts of activists fighting to educate others on the values of environmental sustainability.
Had the pandemic never happened, Earth Day’s 50th anniversary on Apr. 22 would have been a pretty significant community-wide celebration, as the UGA Office of Sustainability and 30 other organizations intended to collaborate on producing a full month of programming. We would have seen annual staples like Plantapalooza, River Rendezvous, UGArden SxSM and Athens Startup Week, plus special lectures presented through the Georgia Review, Georgia Museum of Natural History, Odium School of Ecology and Willson Center for Humanities and Arts. In addition to multiple exhibitions and a Bike Athens Joy Ride, there would have been a screening of Cultivating the Wild, a new documentary on the legendary naturalist William Bartram. The entire main campus—as well as Sanford Stadium on G-Day—was going to be solar powered through partnerships with Georgia Power. There would have even been an interdisciplinary teach-in, through which faculty members planned to open their classes to the general public in honor of the historic event.
Luckily, there are still several ways to celebrate Earth Day online. The “UGA Earth Day (Art) Challenge,” a virtual exhibition organized by the Office of Sustainability (sustainability.uga.edu/earth-day-art), presents reflections of current experiences as well as inspirations for how to build a better future. Using an open call for submissions from UGA members and the larger Athens community, pieces could take the form of visual art, music, film, dance, poetry or any other creative media. Selected works fall into at least one of three categories based on how they reflect a relationship to the earth, humans and other living creatures: “Appreciation,” or conveying a sense of personal connection; “Awareness,” or illuminating a current issue affecting health and wellbeing; and “Action,” or inspiring meaningful measures for protection.
“The UGA Earth Day planning committee wanted to create an opportunity for people to connect with the natural world in a safe and meaningful way. Creating and sharing artworks can also provide a connection with others,” says Kevin Kirshe, director of the Office of Sustainability. “In honor of the 50th celebration of Earth Day, we hope that participation in this challenge will strengthen our wonder at the small miracles and natural processes that happen around us, and inspire a renewed appreciation for the planet we all share. Through this challenge, we’ve invited people to share through their art the ways we can become increasingly sustainable and resilient.”
Further examining our complex web of coexistence, the Georgia Museum of Art’s new digital exhibition, “Altered Landscapes: Photography in the Anthropocene” investigates how humans have influenced the natural world, for better or for worse. Acknowledging photography’s ability to hide or otherwise manipulate the context of an image, the landscapes are beautiful in their defiant endurance, yet stir up feelings of guilt and responsibility. Though humans rarely appear in the images as themselves, their traces take the forms of controlled fires across the prairies, a TV left to die in a bayou, and half-built houses marring the view of a mountain range.
Additional Earth Day activities include a Virtual Earth Day Fair on Apr. 22 and Campus Arboretum Tree Walk on Apr. 24, both presented through Facebook (facebook.com/sustainable.uga) and Instagram (@sustainable_uga). The Office of Sustainability is also using social media to promote the (Re)sourceful Collective, a virtual community centered around sharing ideas for creative, sustainable projects tailored to life amid the COVID-19 crisis. Already underway, the past two weeks have focused on themes of self-care, public health and victory gardening, while the next two weeks look forward to reclamation, reuse and reaching out. Popular DIY projects include how to make house cleaner, masks, compost bins, raised beds, clothing patterns and furniture repairs.
The speed at which the coronavirus debilitated nations across the globe is a harsh wake up call that demonstrates how delicately interconnected our natural systems are. With the majority of our day-to-day routines, social systems and modern conveniences totally flipped upside down, we’re at an unprecedented turning point. As we move forward in our pursuit of returning to “normalcy,” it will on us to personally and collectively determine which parts of our behavior we feel justified in reinstituting, and which of our more harmful dependencies we’ll finally feel ready to wean off of. Living in harmony with the planet is not just a pipe dream of the hippie generation; implementing sustainable practices is a tool for survival.
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