Sustainability Writing Awards

The UW–Madison Sustainability Writing Awards, hosted by the Office of Sustainability, are intended to inspire conversations about how writing can bring together people with different experiences to reflect and act within the context of the global climate crisis.

2023 Sustainability Writing Awards

Poster for the Sustainability Writing AwardsCan there be a resolution to climate change? What are our resolutions, and what do they tell us about how we see ourselves, the present, the past, and the future? What does it mean to make a resolution, to be resolute?

The second-annual UW–Madison Sustainability Writing Awards, hosted by the Office of Sustainability, asked these questions to galvanize writing about this year’s theme of resolution. A panel of staff members and student interns awarded $350 to three winning essays that considered a range of resolutions—for individuals, for species, and for humanity—from a range of perspectives, bearing witness to the beauty, strangeness, wonder, desperation, loss, and urgency of our global moment. (Scroll down to access the winning essays).

Scott Hershberger’s “Bird, Tree, and Me: Resolutions for the Climate Crisis” dramatizes a conversation between the writer, a honey locust tree, and an Eastern Wood-Pewee, with each speaker sharing about their lifespan, purpose, and perspective. In this essay, resolution comes out of a personal relationship with the nonhuman lives around us, an acknowledgement of the expanse of time, and an acceptance of our similarities and differences. “Hope is passive,” the speaker concludes, while action is thoughtful and communal. “I inhale your exhalation and exhale your inhalation … I am not alone.”

“Resolution,” Madelyn Anderson writes in “A Rusty Resolution,” “means returning—to the earth, to ourselves, and our connection.” Anderson’s essay describes the “devastating 87%” decrease in the population of the rusty patched bumble bee since the 1990s—and a sudden discovery in Kenosha this summer that brought researchers hope. How do we return to the earth and ourselves? By attending to the lives around us—learning the names of the nonhuman and dying—as well as to our own. After asking if finding one nest of rusty patched bumble bees matters “in scale to the thousands of lives lost,” Anderson addresses the reader: “I encourage you to look at your own biology. Sit and stare at your hands.

Hailey Sewell’s “Her Historic Snowfall: When Will It Be the Last in Her Lifetime?” considers the lost magic of the snowdays of youth and confronts the failure of New Year’s and climate resolutions. In a moving passage, Sewell pictures “what this campus could look like in 175 years,” “when humanity is gone, and this university—twice as old as it is now—stands still,” with wildlife “living in Bascom Hall, State Street desolate and covered in weeds.” The essay ends with a lament for the natural world—“our trees and rivers are crying”— and the snowdays lost outside our windows and within ourselves. “There is no way,” Sewell writes, “to escape the mercilessness of nature.”

Thus we find a wide scope of topics and approaches: death and beauty; listening and compelling; lyric and elegy; mercilessness and wonder. This year’s winners speak in all the complex ways of the climate crisis, giving voice to an era future generations will look back on like lost snowdays, abandoned resolutions, or the discovery and reemergence of rusty patched bumble bees, their unexpected and marvelous flights.

“A Rusty Resolution”
By Madelyn Anderson

Headshot of Madelyn Anderson

Madelyn Anderson (they/she) is a second-year undergraduate double majoring in Science Communication and Environmental Studies. They combine these passions outside of the classroom by serving as science editor at The Daily Cardinal, volunteering at local farms, and working towards environmental equity at the Climate Solutions for Health Lab. In their free time, they enjoy creating eco-art, and they hope to continue communicating about environmental issues through multiple mediums after graduation.

Bird, Tree, and Me: Resolutions for the Climate Crisis

By Scott Hershberger

Headshot of Scott HershbergerScott Hershberger (he/him) is a second-year M.S. student in Life Sciences Communication. For his thesis, he is researching how Wisconsin Extension professionals approach climate change conversations with communities across the state. He is also a project assistant with the Wisconsin Extension Maple Syrup Program, where he researches the social science of maple syrup production and created a climate change adaptation menu for Midwestern maple syrup producers. Previously, he was a science writer at Scientific American, Fermilab, and the American Mathematical Society. After graduating, he aims to work in communications to advance local climate solutions. Website.

“Her historic snowfall: when will it be the last in her lifetime?”
By Hailey Sewell

Hailey Sewell headshotHailey Sewell (she/her) is a third-year undergraduate majoring in English (Creative Writing) and Environmental Studies with a certificate in Sustainability. She is currently working alongside the Office of Sustainability and the Lakeshore Preserve in developing programs to connect students and staff to the natural environment around campus to benefit mental health. Hailey is also hoping to get more involved with the ASM Sustainability Committee’s education campaign, which is fighting for a mandatory sustainability course for incoming students. After college, she strives to inspire change through her art about global climate injustices and the need for rapid environmental policy.

Scroll down to read about the theme for 2022. 

“Resilience in the archive; Or, reflections on a 100-year-old lollipop”
By Andrew McDonnell

Man smiling in black and white checked shirt in front of rows of archival boxes

Andrew McDonnell is a graduate student entering his final semester in the Library and Information Science program with a concentration in Archives in a Digital Age. He is also the PA Librarian in the Journalism Reading Room and directs the archives and a media studies program at Wayland Academy. He has authored two novels, All Animals Vs. All Humans and November 123, and his shorter writing has appeared on Wisconsin Public Radio, Notre Dame Magazine, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and A Prairie Home Companion. Beyond the iSchool, he hopes to help connect students, scholars, and the public to great physical and digital collections.

“The resilience of mallards, and us”
By Allyson Mills

Young woman in a yellow cardigan smiling in front of hedge of flowersAllyson Mills is a senior majoring in English and Music Performance, with certificates in Environmental Studies, European Studies, and Leadership. Outside of class, she works as  the Advancement Programs intern at the Wisconsin Foundation & Alumni Association. After graduation, she hopes to attend graduate school in Civil Society and Community Research and Environment and Resources. After college, she dreams of working for a nonprofit or in a higher education institution.

“‘Humans have arrived at the Mekong River’: The story of my grandmother and our future”
By Ben Yang

Young man with black glasses smiling in front of brick backgroundBenjamin Yang is a fourth-year undergraduate studying Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is the president of Engineers for a Sustainable World, an organization dedicated to providing hands-on sustainability projects and initiatives on campus, as well as a student intern at the Office of Sustainability, where he works on the Social Sustainability Coalition Team and Food Sustainability Working Group. He also does research for the Morgridge Center for Public Service to create a closed loop farming system for youth to grow their own strawberries.


2022 Awards Description

Our understanding of climate change, and how to subdue it, begins with the numbers and molecules of science. It also begins with things: electric grids, farms, giant steel windmills, oil rigs, smog, petroleum, melting glaciers, fires, and floods. But what about words? What can mere drops of ink, mere pixels, do against the sixth extinction, against the drought and fires and floods? Equations, methods, charts, large immovable objects—and words?

The inaugural UW–Madison Sustainability Writing Awards started with a simple premise: in the ongoing climate crisis, writing can inspire us, bring us together, and catalyze us to act. Thanks to the generosity of donors, the Office of Sustainability offered three $200 scholarships to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students who submitted essays on the topic of resilience. The topic drew a range of writing about resilience from ecological, personal, political, educational, and technological perspectives.

In his essay on the archive, Andrew McDonnell writes of how our resilience—in the smallest, most unexpected ways—makes us “agents of history.” He shows how archives preserve resilience both good and bad, and asks, “What will I leave behind? … How can I leave less behind?” Ben Yang considers how we leave behind legacies through the story of his Hmong grandmother, who survived persecution, fled to the United States, and collected plastic caps, soda cans, and prayers to build a future for herself and her family. Yang’s grandmother demonstrates how “resiliency is the quality of immersing oneself in a tedium that strives for change,” and Yang insists that her story can help us find passion, and endurance, in the continued and the everyday. Allyson Mills looks to the natural world to better see ourselves, as she identifies resilience in mallards she watches endure a storm at a pier on Lake Mendota. She incorporates research on how they cooperate and survive to suggest that their story might be ours, too, if we can learn to adapt, to “protect one another, and work to save our future.”

This year’s winning essays appeal for words in our climate crisis. Language is resilient: information and stories persist through centuries because of recorded syllables carrying hope, dreams, despair, and memories of what seemed to last forever. The winning writers show that words can bring us into confrontation with the pain and errors of the present and past—and maybe, also, allow us to imagine a different future.