Published: Aug. 17, 2015

Originally published online: July 22, 2013

Publications : Earth Day, Every Day

Making Earth Day Everyday on Campus

I still remember my graduate school adviser shaking his head back in the spring of 1990, complaining about all of the time I was spending organizing for Earth Day, and telling me all of the work he had for me to do come April 23. He just about fell out of his chair when I walked in with an “Earth Day Everyday!” T-shirt, muttering that he was never going to get any work out of me!

But the sentiment was right – Earth Day events should contribute to concrete change that will take place every day, not just once a year. In that spirit, for the last 30 years students at the University of Colorado have consciously used the attention gained by Earth Day to push for ongoing environmental reforms on campus.


Earth Day 1970: Starting the CU Environmental Center

This started when a group of students organized the first Earth Day back in 1970. After the day was over, they decided that they needed to institutionalize environmentalism on campus – and the founded the CU Environmental Center. The student government agreed to assess every student $1.00 a semester, generating about $40,000 a year, and the Center was born. The key insight that the students had back in 1970 was that creating a physical home for environmental activism on campus, and permanent paid staff to provide continuity, would keep activism alive over the years. And they were right. The paid staff were particularly important – providing a means to keep things going when student leaders graduated, and to train new leaders. In the early 90s, a number of other campuses took advantage of the excitement generated by Earth Day 1990 to start new environmental centers, at schools like Yale and the University of Chicago. This could be a legacy of earth Day 2000 at your school.

The 1990’s: Reforming Campus Operations

Students at CU also use Earth Day every year to advocate for improvements to campus environmental programs. For the past 7 years, they have sponsored a “Campus Earth Summit” in late April, which brings students, faculty, and administrators together to review campus operations and the environmental studies program. The purpose of the Earth Summit is to assess the state of campus environmental conditions, recognize accomplishments, and identify areas needing improvement. The Summit uses the vast talent and expertise at the university by focusing it inward to address environmental issues. Because it is timed to fall near earth Day, it tends to get significant interest from the press, and to attract many participants.

Students do research in advance, and prepare an earth summit guide which analyzes campus activities and propose improvements, in the areas of energy use, water use, recycling, recycled product purchasing, transportation, green building, campus investments, food service operations, and environmental studies. They make sure to invite the key stakeholders into the process, and to recognize budget and institutional constraints, while at the same time advocating for ambitious change. The Summit also generally invites one to two administrators from campuses that have exemplary programs in one of these areas, in order to show that these reforms really are feasible.

We also use the Summit to recognize individuals and departments that have gone above and beyond to reduce their environmental impacts. The campus chancellor presents the awards, and the newspaper recognizes them, so that recipients get both public recognition and appreciation from their employer.

This approach has paid off rather handsomely. In the words of the director of CU Financial and Business Services, “ This has helped change the culture at CU to make our operation more environmentally friendly.” Some of the changes implemented in the last few years include the creation of a faculty/staff bus pass, an integrated pest management program to reduce pesticide use, a new environmental supervisor position within facilities management, and a strong commitment to green design in the upcoming expansion of the student union building. Most recently, the Board of Regents just adopted an environmental management plan for campus which includes policies addressing air and water pollution, reducing greenhouse gas emissions, expanding recycling, green building practices, hazardous waste reduction and energy conservation. I believe that most of these improvements would not have been adopted without the work that went into the Campus Earth Summit over the last 7 years.

What are the steps to success in this process? I see four key elements:
• Do thorough research to document current practices
• Propose changes which are ambitious yet achievable
• Find examples of other institutions that are already implementing some of these changes
• Always recognize the improvements that have been made, and provide positive public feedback to the individuals and departments responsible.

Earth Day 2000

For Earth Day 2000, we are taking this one step further. Just before Earth Day, we will unveil a plan that will build on the recommendations of the Earth Summits to articulate the vision of a growing, dynamic campus which steps lightly upon the earth and satisfies additional demands for energy, transportation, and resources through increased efficiency rather than increased consumption. With a bit of luck, our successors will be able to look back at Earth Day 2000 on campus as a watershed, just as we look back at Earth Day 1970.