As the Ivy League institution that is ranked number one in the country for sustainability according to the Princeton Review, it is no surprise that Cornell goes all out for Earth Day. So much so, in fact, that the entire month of April has been dubbed “Sustainability Month” for the 10th year in a row.
Upwards of 80 events have been held in various locations around campus over the past month — from lectures, to film showings to fashion shows — all committed to spreading awareness about environmental issues and future directions for sustainability.
One of the most successful events included “ECOuture,” a fashion show hosted by the Cornell Environmental Collective that took place on Saturday. The show displayed clothing made from completely sustainable materials in order to shed light on the social and environmental justice issues embedded in the clothing industry.
“I was very impressed by the extensive knowledge demonstrated by the designers,” said Sarah Kline ’20, an environmental science and sustainability major who was modeling for the show. “[The designers] were all very aware of the problems in and surrounding the clothing industry and each presented a creative and sustainable way to address some of the problems while adding their own personal touch.”
Other events over the weekend included SpringFest, an Environmental Film Festival sponsored by Cornell’s Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future and a climate change lecture series. All of these events and more led up to Sunday — the 46th celebration of Earth Day.
Earth Day was first established as a national holiday on April 22, 1970. The idea to have a day dedicated to environmental awareness was first proposed by former Senator Gaylord Nelson (D – Wis.) who encountered a large oil spill off the coast of Santa Barbara, California.
According to Prof. Aaron Sachs, history, Cornell has ties to the environmental movement since the late 19th and early 20th century in the form of Liberty Hyde Bailey, a prominent environmental academic who played an important role in founding the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Bailey Hall is named in his honor.
“He wanted people to retain a connection to the land and Cornell still has that legacy,” said Sachs.
The professor currently teaches an environmental history class in which students read Bailey’s The Holy Earth and learn about his efforts to instill a love of the natural world in a country that was heading in the direction of heavy industrialization and urbanization.
In the last decade or so, Cornell has become one of the universities at the forefront of reducing carbon emissions. As the first Ivy League in the country to commit to carbon neutrality, it has adopted a plan to bring the campus to zero carbon emissions by 2035 — a plan that was spearheaded by a group of students known as Kyoto Now! in 2001.
The organization held a sit-in outside of President Hunter Rawlings’ office in Day Hall, demanding that the University committ to “reducing greenhouse gas emissions by seven percent below the 1990 levels of emissions by 2007.”
These early actions spurred the adoption of Cornell’s Climate Action Plan, first formally adopted in 2009 by then-President David Skorton. The plan is multi-faceted and includes everything from investing in structural changes to the buildings on campus, to enforcing energy standards to and transitioning to more sustainable sources of energy such as hydro-power.
In addition, Cornell has received a STARS — Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System — gold rating for the seventh year in a row by the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education and is the only campus in the nation to do so more than five years in a row.
According to Sarah Brylinksy, the sustainability communications and integration manager of the Campus Sustainability Office, Cornell’s sustainability has become one of the main pull factors for prospective students. In a survey given to incoming first year students this past year, 98 percent expressed interest in issues pertaining to sustainability, and over 70 percent listed sustainability as one of the main reasons they chose to come to Cornell over other schools.
“The fact that sustainability engages approximately 20,000 students and faculty a year on campus whether in research, teaching, or other educational opportunities is one of the hallmarks of our success,” said Brylinsky. “Sustainability progress here is the work of a thousand hands pushing for justice — it’s never been the case where it’s just one president, or just a few staff members. It’s what makes Cornell truly remarkable — sustainability is a community here.”
While the administration has clearly played a large role in getting the campus to where it is in terms of sustainability, the level of student involvement on campus is what defines the environmental community at Cornell and is largely what started it in the first place. There are sustainability driven clubs and organizations of every variety, from Anabel’s Grocery, which promotes sustainable eating on campus, to the Environmental Law Society, which promotes awareness of environmental law.