Celebrating Earth Week, From a Distance

Youtube screenshot of sustainable planter DIY video
Screenshot of the sustainable planter Daily DIY tutorial, hosted on YouTube during Earth Week 2020.

In the months leading up to the 50th anniversary of Earth Day (April 22, 2020), the planet saw the arrival of COVID-19, which has since put profound pressure on public health, the global economy, and daily life. UW-Madison, of course, has responded: as the potential impact of the virus made itself clear, campus leadership decided to move classes online, shift all but essential employees to remote work arrangements, and cancel countless events.

In early March, COVID-19 closures were difficult to predict. Earth Week—a series of events celebrating Earth Day as well as examining our relationships with the environment and each other—had been in the works since the fall, so Office of Sustainability (OS) student interns and staff continued, cautiously, to plan as normal. The interns had forged relationships with a variety of student organizations, meticulously laid out the schedule, reserved meeting spaces, fretted about the weather, and generally poured their hearts into what would surely be an even-better-than-before iteration of Earth Week.

But things changed rapidly. In the course of mere days, students learned that they would have to stay home for an indefinite amount of time after Spring Break. In-person events were canceled for several weeks, and then for the remainder of the semester. Eventually, it was clear: along with all the other implications for campus life, the Office of Sustainability’s Earth Week programming had to go virtual.

“Just put it online!”
Office of Sustainability student interns during a weekly meeting, which was themed "house plants." Photo by Claire Stowe.
Office of Sustainability student interns during a weekly meeting, which they themed “house plants.” Photo by Claire Stowe.

Though OS interns and staff hoped that video conferencing, YouTube, and other forms of internet technology would ease the transition to a virtual Earth Week, online delivery ultimately required significant planning. Questions spawned questions: Were different platforms—say, Instagram Live, or Blackboard, or WebEx—more suitable for particular subject matter? Should the Office of Sustainability strive for a sense of immediacy through live events, or was it more important to prerecord videos so that they could be edited and polished? Should participants be asked to register, and at what potential cost to attendance? How would events be shared and advertised? What sort of deadline and review process was feasible without putting too much pressure on students who were already coping with a shift to remote learning?

As March turned to April, the OS team pared down the schedule while looking for creative ways to add new content. Certain events, like a panel discussion on divestment, had to be postponed. But other events were actually better suited for a digital medium: a sustainability BINGO card distributed on Instagram, for example, or DIY training videos for making planters, green cleaning products, potholders, and more.

Campus partners were similarly nimble in converting their content to a fully digital format. The Ethical and Responsible Business Network (ERBN), a student organization, ran a live WebEx webinar on conscious consumerism, complete with audience Q&A. The Wisconsin Student Climate Action Coalition (WSCAC) edited together videos taken from multiple members to create a tutorial called “Democracy Despite Distancing.” And the Social Justice Hub produced a three-part podcast on sustainable shopping. As OS intern Catie Macdonald reflected, “I think it’s awesome that any of these organizations were so willing to participate when this is a hard time to connect with people. Without them, Earth Week would not have happened.”

The proof is in the participation

Nelson Institute Earth Day 2020 poster

Earth Week kicked off in style with a live Sunday yoga session organized by student intern Sanauz Alaei, followed by a virtual version of the Nelson Institute’s annual Earth Day symposium that ran all day on Monday. While some aspects of the symposium experience were missing, such as shared meals and in-person networking, the event was by all accounts a great success. As Paul Robbins, Dean of the Nelson Institute, shared afterwards with the Nelson community, “A huge number of people showed up … and honored the tradition of a real teach-in…. We interacted with 3000 participants. We shared our science and scholarship, learned from our partners in activist communities and business, and worked to open a big space for the community.”

The Backyardigans, co-winners of Earth Week Trivia, who are Natalie Tinsen, Brandon Hungelman-Skiba, and Jenna Cooper
A screenshot of the “Backyardigans,” who were co-winners of Earth Week Trivia. Members included Natalie Tinsen, Brandon Hungelman-Skiba, and Jenna Cooper.

Happily, OS and partner events were similarly successful for the remainder of the week. By keeping potential participants updated through copious social media posts, a set of Facebook events, and a dedicated web page, Earth Week organizers saw strong attendance and enthusiastic engagement. Nine teams played a rousing game of sustainability trivia led by interns Catie Macdonald and Hannah Kasun. Jeremy Sanford collaborated with fellow intern Natalie Brunner to present a workshop on environmental injustice, the third event of its kind in three years. There was a virtual film screening of The Condor & the Eagle, a documentary on indigenous rights and fossil fuel extraction, with an introduction and Q&A led by graduate student Murilo Alvez Zacareli. And OS Assistant Director Nathan Jandl moderated a live discussion on climate anxiety and COVID-19 featuring intern Ally Magnin, graduate student Alexandra Lakind, and Dekila Chungyalpa, Director of the Loka Initiative at the Center for Healthy Minds. That event culminated with a call for contributions to a community letter-writing project, which is still open for submissions.

Looking ahead

What implications does this year’s virtual programming have for Earth Week 2021? With COVID-19 continuing to spread worldwide and prospects for a vaccine unclear, only time will tell when the UW-Madison community will be able to enjoy normal in-person events once more. According to Chancellor Blank, fall semester will likely feature a “hybrid mix of educational offerings,” and changes could certainly apply to the spring as well.

Meanwhile, the experience of offering virtual events in 2020 will prepare the Office of Sustainability and its partners to put on a repeat performance if necessary—and could even improve programming when Earth Week returns to the physical campus. Indeed, it may be that a hybrid model becomes preferable: a combination of online-only offerings and in-person events, so that more people can participate and experience a wider variety of content.

As CLEAN member and incoming OS intern Brooke Bowser put it, “This year’s Earth Week shows that even virtually we can strengthen the connections amongst ourselves and with our planet.”


By: Nathan Jandl