This week, Earth Day turns 50. The celebration, which takes place each year on April 22, marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement. But that milestone isn’t the only highlight for this year’s event. Earth Day is taking place during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disrupted and upended life around the globe.
Sustainability is a concept at the heart of Earth Day. It’s a mindset and an approach that applies to all aspects of life. And it is a subject/theme that is studied in practically every academic discipline.
At UNCG, we’ve highlighted some of our faculty and staff who engage students and the campus in sustainability, through research and environmentally conscious efforts. This brief cross-section of disciplines and research is just a teaser of all the work in sustainability by our faculty, staff, and students.
“As a communication scholar, I am interested in the relationship between the environment, culture, and identity and how communication shapes their relationship. My current research investigates this relationship in the context of two different areas. One is the discourses of energy, and the other is the discourses of veganism and carnism. These affairs may seem to have little in common, but both are deeply central to our culture and who we are and have profound environmental implications.
“If we, modern humans, lived in accordance with the laws of ecology, every day is Earth Day. But, because we don’t, we need a special day to remember that we are an integral part of this amazing planet. The term, ‘Mother Earth,’ is not simply metaphorical; humans were derived from Earth and are connected to everything else. We forget this simple fact, so we need a day like Earth Day to remember that kinship and the responsibilities that come with it.”
Geography, Environment and Sustainability; Ecomusicology
“I’m of two minds on Earth Day,” he says. “On the one hand, I think it’s a great way to draw attention to the fundamental importance of our planet, its many wonders, and the many challenges we humans have caused for ourselves and other life forms. However, I find it regrettable that we conscribe our focused attention to a day or week of the year when it should be continuous. There’s also too much greenwashing that goes on around Earth Day, which dilutes its importance and trivializes otherwise important messages. Nevertheless, I think it’s a useful way to generate more attention for such a series of really important issues.”
Allen is director of the Environment & Sustainability Program in the Department of Geography, Environment, and Sustainability as well as associate professor of musicology. His research is primarily in the interdisciplinary field of ecomusicology, which considers the relationships between music, culture, and nature. Dr. Allen has been involved in the campus sustainability movement since the mid-1990s, and he’s even built an off-grid solar-powered cabin in rural Appalachia.
Marketing, Entrepreneurship, Hospitality, and Tourism
“Sustainability is so deeply complex and my research rests in examining that complexity. I am interested in the intersection of entrepreneurship and a sustainable community. Entrepreneurship is a vehicle for moving the design and intent of sustainability into the lived experiences of the larger community and I study how that happens. Sustainable entrepreneurship uses the efficiencies learned through business practices to create sustainability-focused value chains in society. The caveat is that value must be balanced. Sustainability says that the value we create must include and balance: a reduction in environmental degradation, advocacy for social justice, and a focus on economic development and not just growth.
“Earth Day is important because it focuses on the power that people have in creating something better. Earth Day says that no matter where pockets of power exist in Society, the power of the Earth is strong. Earth Day says we had better recognize the power of the Earth before it is too late. It’s a Spiritual day for me. Earth Day makes me say ‘Hallelujah’ and then ‘Namaste.'”
Ethan W. Taylor
Chemistry & Biochemistry
“Earth Day reminds us of what we should worry about every day. COVID-19 is a wake up call, and a manifestation of Earth’s immune system in action – against us. Because most emerging viral diseases like SARS, COVID-19, HIV/AIDS, and Ebola all entered the human population because of our environmental encroachment and predation on animal species for food, it follows that we need to hugely decrease global livestock production. A plant-based food future will enable us to maintain vastly more wild earth habitats, eliminate the need for deforestation, and decrease greenhouse gas production. To quote my daughter Astra and others: ‘Eating meat, it seems, is a socially acceptable form of science denial.'”
Taylor’s work focuses on two areas of research: 1) The role of selenium (a dietary mineral found in soil) and how its increasing depletion contributes to the virulence of emerging viral diseases, and 2) the impacts of eating animals on climate change, antibiotic resistance, and increased frequency of new pandemics from emerging diseases. He and his wife Maria Dormandy Taylor are cofounders of the Triad Vegan Society and the Dharma Farm Animal Refuge in Archdale, NC.
Taylor’s presentation, “How eating animals comes back to bite us: from Antibiotic resistance to Zoonotic diseases,” was recently highlighted in an article in The Guardian. Written by his daughter Astra, who is a writer, activist, and filmmaker, the article argues for the need to change our global food system in response to COVID-19.
“The coronavirus pandemic reminds us that humans are connected to animal health and to the environment…Deforestation creates opportunities for animal microbes to transform into deadly human pathogens and the practice of factory farming also provides a thriving environment for deadly pathogens.
“We might also take note of how coronavirus has encouraged pro-climate behaviors. This is also a chance for us to learn about digital activism. Since we have more time on our hands, we can become citizen scientists. Learn about the science behind climate change, take it seriously, and demand that our political leaders are advised by the scientific community because our current pandemic demonstrates that governments absolutely must be attentive to science.”
Associate Professor of Sociology Dr. Gwen Hunnicutt teaches both ecofeminism and green criminology. She volunteers at farm animal sanctuaries and does educational outreach for animal emancipation. This past fall, Hunnicutt published the book “Gender Violence in Ecofeminist Perspective: Intersections of Animal Oppression, Patriarchy and Domination of the Earth” through the Routledge Research in Gender and Society series. (Available as an e-book through UNCG’s Jackson Library.) Read more about Hunnicutt’s book and perspective in this interview.
She calls herself “Sarah ‘we’re all on this spaceship together’ Dorsey.” She’s director of the Harold Schiffman Music Library but sustainability is also a big part of her work at UNCG and in the world at large. She co-founded the UNCG Sustainability Film and Discussion Series, a free series that, at 14 years, is the longest running program of its kind in the region. Dorsey also helped initiate University Libraries’ Green Library Group which supports the Green Office Program and twice each year cleans a tributary of Buffalo Creek on Walker Avenue and has two plots in the campus garden on McIver Street.
“In these coronavirus times, the interconnectedness of us all on this ‘spaceship’ could not be more clear,” says Dorsey. “And there is no Planet B. My optimistic self hopes we will finally learn this lesson in ways that will help us honor and care for our Mother Earth and each other. This Earth Day is unlike any other in our lifetimes. I’ve been wondering what I can do to celebrate and have decided to start a victory garden. I will cut back some of my backyard jungle, and plant food and flowers to feed the body and spirit. In addition, I will do what I can so we can address climate justice issues, feed everyone, and put the EPA back where it belongs – as a driver of motion forward to healthier and more equitable times.”
Community & Therapeutic Recreation
“Earth Day is a reminder to me of the beauty, fragility, and power of the natural environment, and how each one of us who lives here is responsible for its care,” says Harmon. “Earth Day should be an everyday celebration; we should all make a commitment to reducing our consumption, waste, and pollution, reusing as many of the resources we already have, and recycling, giving away, and composting the resources that we no longer want or need. Do one positive thing every day for the Earth – the future thanks you!”
Harmon looks at the use of nature trails as a healing resource for people with cancer. Greensboro and Guilford County are blessed with an abundance of open green spaces, including several lakes and hundreds of miles of trails. While these resources give us great natural beauty and a wide-open playground, they also serve as places of healing. Physical activity in nature has been shown to decrease anxiety and depression, lower blood pressure, reduce cortisol levels (stress), positively impact the senses, and allow for restorative experiences that cannot be obtained in the built environment.
In Justin’s work with survivors of cancer, every week, twice a week, they go out to hike for roughly two hours; this habitual physical exercise in wilderness environments shows a clear complementary link to medicalized treatment for those in treatment for cancer, as well as after as survivors work to establish their “new normal.” Without these resources, we would have less holistic health in Greensboro – reason enough to advocate for our green spaces as an essential part of this community.
Biology and Geography, Environment, and Sustainability
“I am reminded of an article by Donella Meadows that reports that since the first Earth Day, the global vehicle population had gone from 246 to 730 million. Now that number is 1.3 billion. In 1970, about 10% of the world’s fish stocks were overexploited. Now that number is closer to 35%. And so we just fish deeper.
“‘Earth Day, Shmearth Day,’ the planet must be thinking as its fever mounts.
“The coronavirus shutdown has given us a chance to see the skies clear and the noise dim. It gives us a chance to organize our comeback in a way that is less brutal and more respectful of other life and of beauty. A comeback that gives the oceans a chance, that gives wildlife and soil a chance, and that gives humans a chance to live more meaningfully on the loveliest planet of all.”
Ann Berry Somers spent 23 years serving on the Non-Game Wildlife Advisory Committee of the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission. For decades she has mobilized volunteers for conservation and sustainability programs, such as for the Box Turtle Connection, a 100-year project which now has 32 sites across North Carolina. Through the HERP Project, she developed hands-on herpetology research and citizen science programs for middle and high school students from across North Carolina. At UNCG, Somers developed seven courses that have an environmental service component and provided more than 21,000 hours of public service. She is also known for her hands-on study abroad courses in Costa Rica with the Sea Turtle Conservancy and at Little Cayman Island with the Central Caribbean Marine Institute.
Interviews by Alyssa Bedrosian, Matthew Bryant, and Susan Kirby-Smith, University Communications
Feature photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications