50 Years of Earth Day: Looking to What Sustains Us

To celebrate the 50th anniversary of Earth Day, the Office of Sustainability put together a list of 50 actions to care for ourselves, our community and the planet.

April 20, 2020

Earth Day Fair

At last year's Earth Day Fair, students browsed local plant life grown by GW Grounds. (William Atkins/GW Today)

By Briahnna Brown

Whether it is a pandemic or a natural disaster, global change is global change, said Meghan Chapple, director of the George Washington University Office of Sustainability.

People are learning a great deal about sustainability through the COVID-19 pandemic, she said, particularly how our society prepares for global disruptions, which is relevant to the need for international coordination to address climate change and other problems like ocean plastics. The pandemic is also bringing to light some of the root social and environmental causes that disproportionately impact those without certain privilege, she said, including issues like air pollution and access to healthy food options.

The 50th anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 is significant because it acknowledges decades of activism and scientific study of the planet, Ms. Chapple said. It is as much about understanding the problems we have created for the planet as it is about celebrating the innovative and creative ways that we have found to sustain the planet’s resources for generations to come, she said.

"We want to look toward how we can  continue our efforts to create a more sustainable society,” Ms. Chapple said. “That means focusing on the systemic structures that can curb climate change and build more resilient communities in light of global changes likethe COVID-19 pandemic or a warming atmosphere."

The Office of Sustainability had planned to hold a 50th anniversary summit on April 21 to bring together thought leaders working toward solutions to these issues, and to award GW community members for their sustainability work. In lieu of the in-person summit, they developed a list of about 50 actions that people can take in honor of Earth Day that focus on caring for yourself, caring for communities and caring for the planet. Ms. Chapple said that this list is one of the ways that they hope to keep the SustainableGW community engaged during these uncertain times.

Sustainable GW is also marking Earth Day by recognizing faculty and students--nominated by the GW community- who have contributed meaningfully to GW’s commitment to sustainability. 

Each year a student is recognized for making change at GW on sustainability. And this year, Sustainable GW has added an award to recognize a faculty member’s contributions to sustainability in academics. This year, Dean Lee Paddock of GW’s Environmental Law Program and Elliot School of International Affairs senior and sustainability minor Jan Nowak are the award recipients. Read more about their accomplishments on the Sustainable GW website. 

"We are providing a virtual community and ongoing support for sustainability in action, in research and in learning at GW,” Ms. Chapple said. “Our students are going to be the leaders making decisions in the future, and we are working to ensure they continue to have the education they need to inform those decisions wisely.”

The social media #WhatSustainsUs campaign shares these actions to encourage the GW community to take care of themselves first. Some actions for self-care include taking a socially-distant walk outdoors to connect with nature or creating a windowsill garden with fresh herbs. Some community care actions include supporting local farmers markets when possible and engaging in remote community service. Caring for the planet includes simple things like trying more meatless meals while staying at home or creating non-toxic cleaning sprays to keep your household safe.

“We want to help people remember through these small actions that even in quarantine, there are things that can be done to support one another, support ourselves and support the planet, both immediately and for the long term,” Ms. Chapple said. “Every action matters."