At UW–Madison Earth Fest, Thousands Come Together to Celebrate the Planet — and Ensure Its Future

100+ participants gather for a group photo.
Photo: Hedi Rudd

For 15 years, beginning in 2008, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies hosted an Earth Day conference, a celebration of the planet inspired by namesake Gaylord Nelson’s idea for an Earth Day teach-in. For much of that time, the conference was held off campus, at Monona Terrace, primarily for alumni, community members, and donors. Seeking to complement the Nelson Institute’s programming, in 2018 the Office of Sustainability (O.S.) created Earth Week, a full week of programming that was primarily aimed at, and planned by, students on campus. 

For several years, the two events overlapped. But this April, Nelson and the O.S. joined forces to reinvent the Earth Day celebration: and so emerged UW–Madison Earth Fest. 

“We were inspired by the growing momentum of sustainability efforts on campus,” said Lauren Graves, sustainability communications and engagement manager for the Office of Sustainability. “By bringing dozens of established and emerging events together under one banner, Earth Fest aimed to demonstrate the UW’s collective commitment to sustainability and to unite campus over the one resource and interest we all share: our world.” 

Nelson and the O.S. scheduled ambitiously, hosting and supporting more than 50 events with more than 30 campus partners, but they did not foresee just how much interest would surge. Earth Fest became one of the largest cross-campus events of the year — and one of the largest sustainability events in the university’s history — with more than 7,000 attendees, including students, faculty, staff, and community members, dozens of media stories, and hundreds of thousands of social media impressions. “The increased engagement reinforces that this really is something that people care about,” said Chelsea Rademacher, communications manager for the Nelson Institute. “They’re willing to take action, they’re willing to learn, they’re willing to participate and take these things back to their home, to their communities.” 

Three individuals enjoying birding outdoors, two looking through binoculars.
Participants look for Osprey on the shores of Lake Mendota during an evening walk and bonfire with the BIPOIC Birding Club of Wisconsin. Photo: Lauren Graves

Earth Fest featured interactive community programs, such as a walk through the Lakeshore Nature Preserve hosted by the BIPOC Birding Club, and it drew major climate leaders such as Jonathan Foley, the executive director of Project Drawdown, and Tony Reames, formerly the Department of Energy’s deputy director for energy justice. Earth Fest also brought campus community members together to discuss UW–Madison’s new sustainability goals, with roundtables, planning sessions, and UW–Madison Chancellor Jennifer L. Mnookin’s major announcement of the RISE-EARTH initiative, which will bring 40 additional sustainability researchers to UW–Madison over the next year.   

“Earth Fest’s range of events and partners is a testament to the breadth of existing sustainability work on campus — we couldn’t have had 50 events in our inaugural year if that momentum wasn’t already underway,” said Graves. “Earth Fest provides a platform for diverse voices and ideas to converge; it brings people together and helps build community. These community-building moments help us recharge and find inspiration amidst complex challenges. They remind us that sustainability is not just a goal but a journey we are all on together.” 

Reflecting on Climate Goals 

The week of programming began with the “Earth Fest Kickoff Celebration,” a gold-certified Green Event at the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery. After a panel of speakers shared insights on sustainability initiatives in the private sector and Kanopy Dance gave alive performance, keynote speaker Tony Reames took the stage to present on his work as the deputy director of energy justice for the Biden administration in 2022. 

“I think we’ve gone beyond the individual actions like recycling and using our reusable bags,” he said. “Those actions are great for the grand scheme of our sustainability efforts. The individual action that I have become most interested in is this idea of energy democracy.” 

Reames’s presentation concentrated on what he called the “grand challenge:” “How do we transform our energy system in a way that ensures the new system is more equitable and just?” He spoke about President Biden’s Executive Order 14008, which claims “we have a narrow moment to pursue action at home and abroad to avoid the most catastrophic impacts of that crisis.” The executive order established the Justice40 Initiative, which stipulated that “40 percent of overall benefits of certain federal investments,” including clean transportation, climate change, energy efficiency, and clean water, “must flow to disadvantaged communities.” Reames reiterated the urgency of this initiative in a PowerPoint slide, in all caps: “WE HAVE A ONCE IN A GENERATION OPPORTUNITY TO TRANSFORM OUR ENERGY SYSTEM.”  

“A climate justice partnership supporting community-led solutions,” Reames said, “helps grassroots organizations grow their climate projects so they can access billions of government dollars dedicated to empowering communities most impacted by the climate crisis.” 

A man stands at a podium in a full auditorium.
Tony Reames addressed the crowd at the Kickoff Celebration. Photo: Lauren Graves

 Reames’s message carried into the following address, when Chancellor Mnookin announced the second RISE initiative, RISE-EARTH (Environment: Adaptation, Resilience, Technology, Humanity). RISE, Mnookin explained, works “at growing the faculty in a targeted way that builds on our existing strengths, in places where, with strategy and investment, we can accelerate discovery and world-changing research and education.” The first RISE initiative committed to hiring 50 new faculty members studying artificial intelligence. Eight deans agreed on 80 proposed sustainability hires for RISE-EARTH, which, according to the new webpage, seeks to “reimagine economic and environmental systems” and build “sustainable energy and technical systems.” 

“I am excited, as I hope you are, to work together to advance the excellent progress that has already been made to address the environmental impact of our campus,” Mnookin said at the kickoff, the first event concentrating on the goals since she announced them in February. “This is what we owe to our neighbors and to all of Wisconsin — as settlers on native land, as beneficiaries of public funds, and as educators preparing our students to make a real difference in the world.” 

At the Earth Fest event celebrating the history and future of energy research at UW–Madison, Nelson Institute Professor Tracey Holloway spoke to the progress, and promise, the RISE-EARTH hires represent. 

“Each hire to this university is transformative,” she said. “The operational goals of the university go hand-in-hand with our educational goals, our research initiatives — this is the direction that the world is heading, and it’s great to see Wisconsin as a leader in this space.” 

To close the Earth Fest kick-off celebration, Nathan Jandl, the associate director of sustainability, moderated a panel of students, alumni, faculty, and staff “to discuss and celebrate not only the work we’re doing now and into the future but the years of effort that have gone into making this moment possible.” Ann Terlaak, who directs the Wisconsin School of Business’s graduate certificate in business, environment and social responsibility, called students “a beacon” for sustainability action and moral conscience, and the students on the panel reflected on their efforts that amounted to goals, including advocating for more sustainability course offerings across disciplines and seeking meetings with deans and professors to voice students’ concerns about the university’s environmental leadership. 

Seven panelists sitting on a stage, smiling and clapping.
Panelists celebrate the kickoff of Earth Fest and the passage of UW–Madison’s institutional sustainability goals. Photo: Lauren Graves

Sanauz Alaei, a master’s student at the University of Miami’s Coral Reef Future Lab, and Katie Piel, an environmental, social, and governance (ESG) consultant for the largest utility management company in the country, each interned with the Office of Sustainability and served as ASM Sustainability Committee chairs. Both praised the sustainability goals as the result of decades of student climate activism.  

“Your fear as a student when you’re leaving is: I really hope that those four years that I put in was doing something and was meant for something … [You’re] trusting your community and the faculty and staff here at UW–Madison to continue that momentum,” Piel said. “They really did, and it means so much to me that that’s happening, and it makes me so proud to be a Badger.” 

Christina Treacy, the outgoing ASM sustainability chair, similarly attributed the goals to student activism, such as through the creation of the Student Sustainability Advisory Council. 

“A significant amount of students take sustainability and environmental initiatives and opportunities into account in admissions decisions,” Treacy said, citing the results of recent ASM sustainability surveys. “These goals give a language for talking about these efforts that are happening … and they provide us a framework to move forward and accomplish them.” 

Global Thinkers, Local Actions 

During his lecture, Jeff Goodell, the bestselling climate journalist and former Guggenheim Fellow, recounted when he came up with the idea for his latest book, The Heat Will Kill You First: Life and Death on a Scorched Planet (2023). It was June in Phoenix, and he was late, so Goodell decided to run 20 blocks from his hotel room to a meeting downtown. Soon he felt lightheaded, his heart pounding and his clothes heavy with sweat. 

 “It happened really quickly,” he said of his illness on the 115-degree day. “But it also happened very slowly, because I had been writing about climate change for 20 years, and it never occurred to me that heat could be dangerous, that it could kill you fast. That was a really profound realization for me.” 

A man stands at a lectern in front of a slide that says "No, We Are Not Doomed"
David Goodell speaks of hope and opportunity during his lecture, “The Heat Will Kill You First.” Photo: Todd Brown

“A lot of people have these moments in different ways,” Goodell said, speaking of epiphanies — “oh shit moments” when we realize the imminent danger of the climate crisis. As a response, Goodell sought to write The Heat Will Kill You First, “to communicate, on a cellular level, what happens with the body due to heat,” the “driver of planetary chaos” such as broadened disease patterns, drought, sea level changes, wildfire smoke, migration, and extinction. 

Across Earth Fest, speakers shared similar epiphanies that inspired action. Each of the speakers on the Wisconsin Energy Institute panel did so, and they looked to the future of climate action at UW–Madison as one rooted in interdisciplinary and care for the state. 

 “We have the Wisconsin idea, and that is a value that the role of the university is to engage in real issues in the state,” Holloway said. “These new ideas around energy were hatched to address applied problems right here in Wisconsin.” 

 Jonathan Foley lectured on his findings with Project Drawdown, which provides insights in the “race between the world going to hell in a handbasket and the world actually getting better.” 

 “We shouldn’t just listen to the person shouting the loudest telling us what we need to do to solve some of the most complex, most challenging problems in human history,” Foley said. “Maybe we could trust science to figure out what we need to do.” 

 Foley surveyed “what actually would work to stop climate change” — not carbon capture, which to this day “has removed a total of four seconds of our emissions,” but an immediate reduction in emissions, the stoppage of deforestation, and a change in the public imagination. 

 Still, Foley noted, “science is definitely, definitely, definitely not enough.”  To build on the insights of science, Foley noted that “we need big dreams. We’re stuck in a bloody nightmare right now of fear and polarization and anxiety around climate change. We don’t have to be afraid; we don’t have to be polarized. In fact, we could be the opposite.” 

Students plate meals for a dinner service.
Exchange students from the Scan Design Program collaborate with Slow Food UW to host an Earth Day dinner, serving smørrebrød and other dishes from their home country, Denmark. Photo: Lauren Graves

 Hope, Dreams, Collaboration 

Several other Earth Fest events brought hope and collaboration. Community members came together to remove trash from the trails of the Lakeshore Nature Preserve, workshop the draft Zero Waste Action Plan, covert old T-shirts into tote bags, swap used clothing, cut down brush at the UW Arboretum, plant seeds at the Eagle Heights Community Garden, and discuss sustainability at the Climate and Justice Teach-in.  

Students from Sara Holwerda’s textile design class (DS 227) displayed their experiments with natural dyes — swatch books of local marigolds, red onion skins from a dining hall, avocado skins from a local taco restaurant, coreopsis from Allen Centennial Garden. The students explained their discoveries with sustainable dyeing practices and helped attendees dye and pattern strips of fabric in sustainable indigo vats. 

 “It feels like you’re slowing down, and you’re learning the actual process that goes into making a garment,” said Eli Song, a fashion design major and one of the students in Holwerda’s class. “UW is a big resource to see how many people are using sustainability and thinking about no-waste garments and natural dyes. It gives me a little hope that it is possible to change these inset ways [of fast fashion] from major companies.” 

 At one of the most populous events, attendees learned about the new aquaponics system at the D.C. Smith Greenhouse. The project, supported by the Green Fund and designed and installed by the student group Engineers for a Sustainable World, converts waste produced by tilapia into nutrients that facilitate the growth of hemp. The recirculating system uses no chemicals, fertilizers, or pesticides and requires 10 percent of the water that would have been needed to grow the cannabis outdoors. Students research growth the system encourages, and several classes have toured the greenhouse to learn from the setup. 

 “This is the kind of interdisciplinary work — engineers interacting with biologists to try to solve some big-world problems — that we want our young people to be doing,” said Patrick Krysan, the chair of the Department of Plant and Agroecosystem Sciences. 

Participants build mini aquaponic systems at D.C. Smith Green House. Photo by: Lauren Graves

Rademacher attended the event and watched as children, college students, community members, faculty, and staff interacted, creating little hydroponic stations of their own. Seeing the interactions, she said, showed her “how rewarding true collaboration can be, bringing in people from across campus and across the community, with different voices to the table at the start.” 

 Earth Fest, in its first year, proved to the campus community that sustainability and the environment are something that people care greatly about and are becoming more interested in,” she said. “There are a lot of scary statistics and things that make you feel like you can’t make a difference, but then to see so many people show up in person to participate — whether it’s attending a lecture to really dive into how methane emissions are rising or an event to make a fairy house — showed me that people are willing to pitch in and do something. They do care, they are interested, and that really helps with some of that eco-anxiety that we all feel.” 

By Marek Makowski