Students push for sustainability during Earth Week

By KATY WILNER and RACHEL JUIENG | April 25, 2019

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COURTESY OF KEELIN REILLY Many members of Students for Environmental Action worked to expand their butterfly garden this Earth Week

This past week, Hopkins students celebrated Earth Week by hosting events such as a sustainability town hall and a fashion show called Planet Runway. Although many of these events were interactive and designed to be fun, they all called for participants to take action against climate change. 

According to NASA’s website, global temperatures have risen almost two degrees since 1880; carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere are the highest they’ve been in 650,000 years; and the earth’s polar ice sheets are decreasing by 413 gigatons per year.

Last year, members of student groups focused on the environmental justice came together to form the Sustainability Coalition. Some of these organizations include groups such as Refuel Our Future, Students for Environmental Action (SEA) and Sustainable Hopkins Innovative Projects (SHIP). The Coalition hosted their third Town Hall this Saturday. 

Sophomore Valeria Hesse helped to organize the event. 

“Our theme was culture change, not climate change. So we really wanted to talk to representatives on how to enact change on campus, and on a national level as well. We really need to change people’s thinking and habits and let them know that climate change is real,” Hesse said. 

One goal discussed at the Town Hall was making sure that the new student center would be environmentally sustainable. 

Sophomore Maya Flannery, who also helped to organize the event, stressed that the demolition of Mattin Center, the construction of the building and the spaces within the center should all be environmentally sound. Flannery argued that green spaces would make students happier and defended the importance of sustainability. 

“At Hopkins, sustainability is seen as a niche topic in general. People think you’re acting like a hippie. Really, it’s about caring about the environment and making choices to help that,” she said. 

The town hall participants also addressed the issue of waste disposal on campus. According to Hesse, one of the biggest concerns is that students don’t properly use the recycling and compost bins. Hesse offered a solution to this.

“When you’re standing in front of those [waste] bins, take a minute or two to figure out where your waste should go. If you’re not sure, just give it a Google. We need to find a way to really educate students and change their habits,” she said. 

This was the first town hall that was open to the public. The organizers hope to create more links between the coalition and the general student body. 

Another student group, Refuel Our Future, which advocates for Hopkins to divest its endowment from fossil fuel companies, hosted an event on Monday titled “Climate Change: Heading for Extinction (and what to do about it).” D.C. Coordinator for Extinction Rebellion Russell Gray examined the devastating impact humans have had on the environment. 

Extinction Rebellion is a U.K.-based group of non-violent protesters who are rallying to get the attention of government representatives.

“We’re basically at the turning point of the history of life on earth where we have this narrow window to make radical changes and eliminate fossil fuels,” Gray said. “If we don’t, we’ll see the collapse of the natural world, the collapse of society and human suffering on a scale never before experienced.”

Gray emphasized that because of rising temperatures and extreme weather, crop yields will become increasingly unpredictable and eventually produce mass famines. He illustrated a future where society will collapse due to food scarcity. 

“Scarcity breeds conflict,” Gray said. “Climate change is going to breed scarcity unlike anything we’ve ever seen.”

Gray further explained that at the rate temperatures are rising, people have very little time to take counteractive measures against climate change. In his presentation he emphasized the positive feedback loop that exacerbates the effects of global warming, called runaway warming. 

One form of runaway warming takes place in the Amazon Rainforest where, because of severe deforestation, the climate is unable to trap and use water. 

“It’s basically past a point of no return, and over time the rainforest will transition into a grassland that cannot support the biodiversity that it once did,” Gray said.

Regions all over the world are seeing this same decrease in biodiversity. According to Extinction Rebellion, thousands of animals become extinct every year. As temperatures rise, more and more species die off. Gray noted that it was only a matter of time before humans become extinct.

“I am trying to freak you out about climate change because I’m freaking out about climate change every single day, and I can always guarantee you, it’s much worse than you think,” Gray said.

President of Refuel Our Future Colin Bowen stated that Extinction Rebellion’s message should have a lasting impact on students at Hopkins, especially those who are going into the field of medicine. 

“This school is so medicine-focused, and medicine is so much about alleviating pain. When you talk about the impacts of climate change, the number of people who are going to be put in so much pain is astronomically high,” he said. “Thinking about this in terms of what the impact is going to be, climate change is the biggest public health crisis that we’re facing right now.”

Gray further explained that at the rate at which temperatures are rising, people have very little time to take counteractive measures against climate change. In his presentation, he emphasized the positive feedback loop that exacerbates the effects of global warming, called “runaway warming.” 

In addition to Gray’s presentation for Refuel Our Future, Hopkins students attended other events, such as GreenHacks, the first sustainability hackathon at Hopkins. The hackathon, which focused on solving issues on college campuses, allowed teams to pick between three different tracks to work on (food, waste or energy) and gave them five hours to come up with a sustainable solution and create a presentation on the solution.

Sophomore Eric Bao, whose team came in second, enjoyed this opportunity to collaborate with his peers in order to solve a relevant challenge.

“At first I thought there was no way we could come up with something to pitch to the judges in such a short time, but everyone had a job or topic to work on and we consolidated at the end to form a presentation we were all proud of,” Bao said. 

On Friday, the University hosted the Primary Air Care Symposium in Olin Hall. The event included two-minute presentations from government officials and faculty members and ended with a panel of six University faculty members. School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) Professor Johannes Urpelainen participated in the final panel and spoke to The News-Letter about the various roles members of the University community have in implementing sustainable change. 

“The administration’s role is mostly to support this with fundraising and internal opportunities and creating some mechanisms to do this. In the end, the change will have to come from the faculty. The whole goal is to bring them together. What we need is faculty who are committed and willing to coordinate with each other,” he said. 

SEA organized a Butterfly Garden Cleanup in front of the Fresh Food Cafe (FFC) on Sunday. During the event, student volunteers removed weeds to make room for pollinator-friendly plants. 

Secretary of SEA Keelin Reilly spoke to The News-Letter about butterflies and sustainability. Reilly stressed the University’s role in maintaining the garden and the importance of planting species native to the region.

“SEA works on a lot of different projects — our goal this year is to complete this garden, add to it, maintain it, keep it going for years to come,” he said. 

SEA organized a sustainable fashion show on Saturday called Planet Runway to inform students of the environmental impact of the fashion industry. Student designers were told that they had to sew their own clothes or purchase items from a thrift shop. 

Sophomores Omar Azmeh, Kenny Vitty and Becca Sosa hosted the event. Azmeh explained that SEA put on a fashion show because of how unsustainable the fashion industry is. 

Azmeh explained that because fashion trends change so quickly, a lot of clothing is thrown out after a short period of time.

“I follow fashion myself, but there are better ways of doing this,” he said. “Don’t just throw away your clothes. Think of ways to upcycle them.”

He went on to explain that companies that produce cheap clothing purposely create products that do not last for long periods of time so that customers have to keep buying more.

Vitty added that SEA further contributed to sustainable fashion by encouraging fashion show attendees to donate clothing.

“To get into the fashion show, people had to donate a piece of clothing for the free store as a ticket,” he said. “Afterwards, there was a massive free store. People found a ‘new’ piece of clothing in a sustainable way.”

On Monday, the Johns Hopkins Outdoors Club (JHOC) planned an event called Earth Day: Hug a Tree! on the breezeway. JHOC aims to help students appreciate the outdoors and respect nature. 

Director of JHOC August Bratti explained that the club hosts this event every year. JHOC gave free t-shirts to the first 100 people who hugged a tree. He explained that although this event is meant to be fun, it was important for students to remember what is at stake if we do not respect the planet.

“First, everyone should be enjoying the nice weather. Second, they should be making sure they’re actually informed about the problems the earth is going through. It’s fun to celebrate, but you have to realize that there’s a big problem with [climate change],” Bratti said.

He also explained that one of the group’s main purposes is to interact with the earth in a sustainable way. This includes not disturbing nature or leaving behind trash on JHOC trips.

“We do a lot with maintaining trails, making sure that everyone has access to the outdoors, is responsible and doesn’t pollute to make sure that [the trails are] there for everyone in the future,” Bratti said.

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