Earth Week at U.Va. promotes environmental and social sustainability

U.Va. joins Charlottesville community for a week of events celebrating the planet, each other


Throughout the week, presentations and activities reiterated the theme of treating nature and peers with respect. 

Courtesy UVA Sustainability

During the past week, the University’s Office for Sustainability and representatives from Student Council hosted Earth Week in order to celebrate the environment and promote sustainability in all aspects of life. With over 20 events ranging from bike workshops and a clothing swap to contemplative, educational hikes and panels on counteracting harmful climate change, Earth Week brought together a diverse group of people to reflect on what environmental conservation and global stewardship look like on a daily basis. 

The first Earth Week took place in 2010 and, according to Nina Morris, Sustainability Outreach and Engagement Manager, it has grown to take a more comprehensive approach to sustainability. Presentations and activities now incorporate the efforts of entire departments, committees and organizations, and topics of conversation span religious beliefs, racial and ethnic diversity and poverty.

“It’s students, faculty, staff, community members all coming together to talk about all the ways we can be better stewards to our environment and also just better to each other as people,” Morris said. “We talk a lot about social sustainability and intersectional sustainability because we think that’s an important piece to highlight as we talk about sustainability and taking care of the planet.”

Throughout the week, presentations and activities reiterated the theme of treating nature and peers with respect. The Earth Week Expo, for instance, examined 100 top solutions to reverse global warming as outlined by Project Drawdown, a research coalition of academics, policy-makers and business leaders. Solutions included familiar strategies, such as transitioning to a plant-based diet and solar energy panels, as well as nontraditional ones, such as educating women and girls.

Nia Martin-Robinson, an advocate for environmental sustainability and social equality, continued the conversation on integrative approaches to sustainability, stressing that the social justice and environmental protection movements can further one another. 

At the SustainaBanquet, a dinner honoring students and faculty for their dedication to sustainability, Religion, Ethics and Environment Prof. Willis Jenkins added that environmental degradation and racial tensions intertwine to form a history rife with destruction. Only by rediscovering the lessons nature has to teach, Jenkins claimed, will there be hope for a future different than the past.

“In the midst of a circus of news, not one part of which seems consistent with the words of sustainability right now, we have to struggle for perspective,” Jenkins said. “When we begin to lose a sense of perspective, and when we begin to feel overwhelmed by the ways that our histories are entangled with things we now abjure, our mind might be opened to new possibilities when we attempt to listen to the land.”

Students also had much to say about how protecting the environment is mutually beneficial for all parties involved. Fourth-year Commerce student Rachel DiBenedetto, who founded the Green Corner Consulting committee as part of Green Grounds, also spoke at the SustainaBanquet. After two years of helping local restaurants switch to more environmentally conscious practices, DiBenedetto said that she had to learn how to introduce sustainable solutions to businesses in practical terms.

“Sustainability isn’t just about saving the planet,” DiBenedetto said. “It’s about financially-sound, justifiable numbers. It’s better for customers, it’s better for you, it’s better for your bottom line … If we are going to continue to make progress on our goals and see change, we need to speak the language of these other stakeholders.”

In the same vein, at SustainaPitch Night, students, faculty and staff proposed various ideas for creating a more sustainable Charlottesville, while the wider community recognized businesses, organizations and nonprofits with eco-friendly goods and goals at the Charlottesville Eco Fair. 

“You naturally think of wind energy or solar energy, and while those things definitely matter, to solve climate change, we need a bigger approach than just energy,” Morris said. “We need to think about so many different issues and that they all intersect and matter together … It’s going to take everyone seeing themselves as champions for sustainability to build the world that we want to see.”

Other free activities provided many opportunities to participate in Earth Week to learn more about what it means to be good environmental stewards. A farmers market boasting local produce appeared in the Amphitheater, temporary composting sites popped up around Grounds and dining halls offered reusable to-go boxes and largely plant-based meals. Tech takebacks and clothing swap encouraged the recycling of used electronics and a yoga session in the gardens explored connections between one’s body and surroundings.

For future Earth Weeks, the Office for Sustainability and green student groups want to see more people become involved in the environmental protection movement. They envision a university and city of conscientious individuals when it comes to interacting with nature and their peers, regardless of race, socioeconomic status, or belief system.

“It’s been so wonderful to see the growth and how much our knowledge around climate change and how to address it has grown, as well as taking a more comprehensive look at what sustainability really means,” Morris said. “Not just thinking about what is our environmental impact, but what are we doing to be better to each other, what are we doing to build a world we want to live in anyway?”

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