U-M to celebrate role in first Earth Day, address ever-urgent crisis


Fifty years later, the challenges are more urgent, the efforts more multifaceted, and the broader U-M and Ann Arbor community more engaged.

In March 1970, University of Michigan student leaders convened the first “Teach-In on the Environment,” which formed a model for the first Earth Day five weeks later.

This year, U-M is commemorating Earth Day at 50 campuswide, with the goal of highlighting the history of the environmental movement at U-M and, more importantly, elevating the need to address climate change through a community-driven, multidisciplinary effort.

Earth Day at 50, while ongoing throughout the academic year, will reach an apex March 9-14 with a series of events called “Earth Day 2020: Rise Up for the Environment Commemorative Week of Action.”

The events are being planned in partnership with dozens of departments across campus, and in partnership with community organizations such as The Ecology Center and the city of Ann Arbor.

“Earth Day at 50 gives the U-M community an important opportunity to unite our strengths in advocacy, research, education and public service around the crucial issues of sustainability and climate change,” said President Mark Schlissel.

“Like the original environmental teach-in 50 years ago, we hope this commemoration inspires societal change and a multidisciplinary examination of how we can work to ensure the health of our planet.”

A highlight of the week is a double event March 12. First, the annual Peter M. Wege Lecture will feature environmentalist Phillippe Cousteau Jr. Cousteau is a multi-Emmy-nominated television host, author and social entrepreneur and the grandson of French explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau.

After the lecture is “Earth Day 2020: Rise Up for the Environment,” which will feature musical performances and speeches by leaders in sustainability, environmental justice and climate action.

Participants include Naomi Klein, Xiuhtezcatl Martinez, Heather McTeer Toney, Mustafa Santiago Ali, Abdul El-Sayed, U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, Bryan Newland, Mari “Little Miss Flint” Copeny, composer Patrick Harlin and others.

“As the 50th anniversary of Earth Day approaches, the world is seeing a phenomenon unlike any we’ve seen since 1970. An incredible number of people are rising up to demand action on the climate crisis — fueled by the determination to ensure a just, livable world for their families, communities and future generations,” said Jonathan Overpeck, dean of the School for Environment and Sustainability.

“The climate crisis requires societal transformation of a scale and rapidity that has rarely been achieved, and ‘Earth Day 2020: Rise Up for the Environment’ will be a call to all present to double down and do their part.”

Although the events are free and open to the public, tickets are required, and there is a single ticket for both the Wege Lecture and “Earth Day 2020: Rise Up for the Environment.”

A series of interdisciplinary and community teach-ins will also take place March 9-14 dedicated to tackling the most pressing challenges around sustainability and climate change. Teach-ins are designed to be actionable, giving attendees resources to further engage in sustainable practices and advocacy. The workshops will take place across campus and Ann Arbor and are free and open to the public.

In addition to live events, the Center for Academic Innovation is launching two online teach-out learning experiences: “Melting Ice, Rising Seas” March 2- 3, and “Earth Day at 50: Reimagining the Future of Sustainability” April 6-30. Both are free and open to the public. Details will be posted at online.umich.edu/teach-outs/.

On March 11, six former leaders from the original 1970 U-M student organization Environmental Action for Survival will gather to discuss the history of U-M’s “Teach-In on the Environment” and takeaways that can be applied today.

“The ENACT Teach-In and Earth Day in 1970 sparked a national movement and awareness, driven by very strong grassroots support. Earth Day 1970 contributed locally and nationally to an ongoing movement that today seems more urgent than ever,” said David Allan, former ENACT co-chair and student organizer of the original teach-in, and now professor emeritus at SEAS.

“Recent efforts to extend protection to the waters of the United States are being reversed, and denial of climate change is evidence that the task of educating the public and its leaders to environmental concerns is far from complete. Earth Day 2020 faces much the same challenges as it did in 1970.”

While Earth Day at 50 provides the U-M community with the opportunity to gather around pressing topics and hear perspectives from an array of academic disciplines, multiple forums have covered sustainability-linked topics. Earlier this month, the annual Michigan Environmental Justice Summit took place, marking 30 years since the first academic conference on environmental justice was held at U-M.

U-M was also the first university to introduce environmental justice as an academic discipline. In January, the Erb Institute hosted “Financing a Sustainable Future: Next-Generation Investing,” where panelists from academic, policy and business backgrounds discussed how investors can elevate environmental, social and governance factors.

Earth Day at 50 also complements additional universitywide efforts in sustainability and environmentalism. The President’s Commission on Carbon Neutrality released its first interim report in December, with its second report expected later this spring.

By the end of the year, the commission will present to Schlissel recommendations for how U-M can achieve carbon neutrality. The university also continues to work toward its 2025 sustainability goals, established in 2011.


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