Geena Zebrasky – Features Writer
This past Thursday, April 22nd, was international Earth Day. For years, Gustavus and the greater community have observed this holiday, with each year’s focus addressing the challenges that we’re currently facing. The United States’ first Earth Day grew out of the Santa Barbara oil spill of 1969, when more than 3 million gallons of oil were spilled off the coast of California.
This was the “straw that broke the camel’s back”—environmental justice was already on the rise, with Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring released in 1968, and nation-wide demonstrations pressuring the government for change. At a UNESCO conference, activist John McConnell proposed a day to focus on environmental awareness, and in 1970, Senator Gaylord Nelson proposed a national “teach-in” for college campuses to focus on this. This teach-in day, to be held on April 22nd, was named “Earth Day.”
So, did Gustavus participate in this teach-in? Yes! In fact, during the 1969-1970 academic year, many departments changed the courses they offered to include courses that focused on environmental issues. The biology department offered a course called “Man and the Environment,” the geology department offered a course on water conservation, and the sociology department also offered environmental courses.
On April 22nd, 1970, the entire campus observed Earth Day and learned about the environmental issues of the time. Five professors gave presentations on environmental issues the world was facing at that time, and students viewed multiple educational films. Other professors took an action-based approach and brought students on a cleanup campaign through Nicollet County. Students at Gustavus have advocated for environmental justice throughout the institution’s history, advocating for the Earth under different organization names, but with the same passion for justice and a better present and future.
Gustavus currently has several sustainability initiatives, with several plans in development this year. We currently have a 90 percent recycled/composted waste goal, and the institution wants to achieve a 25 percent energy reduction by 2024. Many students and faculty are working hard to make GAC an institution that contributes towards a better environment—you can even visit @gacsustainability on Instagram, or the Sustainability Blog on the Gustavus website to see what people are doing right now, and you can learn how to help work towards GAC’s goals!
Even though Gustavus is working hard towards its sustainability initiatives, there’s always more that needs to be done. One area that the institution has not been able to showcase movement in is divestment. Divestment is likely to be one of the themes of this year’s Earth Day observations on campus because Gustavus has investments in banks like Chase Bank and Wells Fargo. These banks have mutual bonds invested in the fossil fuel industry—they’ve invested millions of dollars in pipelines like Dakota Access and Line 3.
What exactly is divestment? Divestment is removing the money in investment funds that are unethical and harmful. Investments may feel like imaginary money moving around in made-up economics land, but the projects they fund have real, material impacts that harm the environment and our communities. Investment gives companies power to continue business as usual, to lobby our government, and to expand. When we divest, we demand justice, especially if this money is re-invested in projects that work towards a better future. Divestment sends a message that we won’t allow our institutions to make investments that are tied to companies that perpetuate violence.
This isn’t the first time divestment has come to campus: in the 1970s, students joined many other colleges in urging campus leaders to divest from South Africa during apartheid. The divestment from fossil fuels came to campus in 2012 when the campus organization “Divest Gustavus” was formed following Bill McKibben’s “Do the Math” tour. This group was active through 2015, and it even held a campus-wide demonstration day called “Divest Fest” in 2014. In 2016, the MayDay conference was about divestment—so the conversation never really went away.
There are over 100 colleges in the United States with active campaigns, and there are several with completed and successful campaigns. Colleges that have committed to this initiative include Stanford, Cornell, Brown University and Johns Hopkins University, and over half of U.K. universities. Many hope that Gustavus will join this movement sooner rather than later and become the example other universities can look towards.
From the first Earth Day to now, Gustavus students and faculty have demonstrated their continued commitment to the environment. Hopefully this continues forward, with action being taken every year to make our campus and the world a better place.