A new Earth Day: Emerging challenges in a rapidly changing world

April 3, 2013

When U.S. Senator Gaylord Nelson of Wisconsin launched the millions-strong celebration of Earth Day in 1970, his vision for a sustainable future pushed the boundaries of the fledgling environmental movement.

Nelson argued that it was critical not only to protect our natural resources, but to also shed light on issues of social justice like poverty and urban decay. He believed the environmental movement must embrace diverse new constituencies, from laborers to health professionals to faith-based leaders.

Gaylord Nelson speaks at the first Earth Day in 1970
Gaylord Nelson speaks to an overflow crowd in Denver,
Colo., on the first Earth Day, April 22, 1970. Image from
the Nelson Collection, Wisconsin Historical Society.

"Our goal is not just an environment of clean air and water and scenic beauty. The objective is an environment of decency, quality and mutual respect for all human beings and all living creatures,” Nelson told a Denver, Colo., crowd gathered for the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

Those principles still resonate, and the movement has made great progress in widening its diversity and reach. But environmental challenges have also expanded and are now greater in scale than ever before, as global changes in climate, population and land use tick by at a record pace.

“I think the big difference between this Earth Day and the first Earth Day is there’s no going back – there are a lot of systems that have been transformed,” says Paul Robbins, director of UW-Madison’s Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, which was founded in 1970 and renamed in 2002 for the late Sen. Nelson. “Today, Earth Day has to be about going forward.”

Earth Day in Madison, 1970

Madison’s first Earth Day, on
April 22, 1970, was typical of
others in big university towns.
Observers assembled at 4:45 a.m.
for an “Earth Service” at Picnic
Point to greet the sunrise with
a Sanskrit invocation and read
from the works of Aldo Leopold,
Rachel Carson, Henry David
Thoreau and the Bible.

The city and university devoted
the whole week to events, including
an environmental art show, a film
festival, field trips and dozens of
workshops on an array of topics,
such as “Food Additives and Cancer,”
“Pollution Induced Climate Change”
and “Dane County Land Use Problems.”

Meanwhile, Girl Scouts fanned out
across the city to distribute 40,000
pamphlets prepared by UW-Madison
graduate students advocating “household
action” everyone could take to save
the planet.

(Reprinted from the website Gaylord
Nelson and Earth Day
, prepared by
Nelson Institute and Wisconsin
Historical Society
 in 2010.) 

“Right now, because of the residence time of greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, even if we all stopped producing carbon, we would have 100 years of change built into the system,” Robbins continues. “There’s no going back for at least a century – that’s a long time that we’re going to be living in a changed environment.”

Nelson Institute researchers are working to better understand this novel environment, striving toward critically important solutions for today’s local and global challenges.

Faculty, staff and students from more than 40 natural and social science, engineering and humanities departments are engaged in interdisciplinary environmental research, education and community engagement. A diverse cohort of students provides direct service to local partners through the Nelson Institute Community Environmental Scholars Program. And the university has hired its first professor of environmental justice, focused on emerging environmental health and social justice topics.

"It's important to recognize that there is no going back – we are in this changing world – but that we still have a lot of power and a lot of ability to influence what happens going forward," say Jack Williams, a professor of geography and director of the Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research, one of the institute’s four research centers. "There are still really critical decisions we need to make."

As Earth Day 2013 approaches, we queried a number of Nelson Institute faculty and staff members for their perspectives on our rapidly changing environment, as well as opportunities for innovation.

Paul Robbins

Director, Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies

quotation markEnvironmental problems have always been interdisciplinary, but they’re now much more urgently interdisciplinary. The question is, how does the university encourage people to collaborate?

Nelson Institute Director Paul Robbins
Paul Robbins

One of the adaptations is in trying to remove barriers to cooperation and cooperative teaching; another is, how do we remake our physical environment to generate interdisciplinary conversations; and the third is, how do we use the digital environment – how does the university become a more virtual space?

The other part is the Wisconsin Idea – how do we train students and do our research in engaged situations out in the landscape? The university’s been very good at this and so has the Nelson Institute – projects are grounded, generating knowledge on site in communities. I think a lot of the scholarship at Nelson does that, but I would love to incentivize people to do more of it.

All of the climate knowledge we have here, we’ve got to be out developing that knowledge with people in the field – for example, farmers who are facing water scarcity, or facing different growing-season conditions.quotation mark


Jonathan Patz

Professor of environmental studies and population health sciences; director, UW-Madison Global Health Institute

Jonathan Patz
Jonathan Patz

quotation markToday's environmental challenges are highly interdependent – from deforestation and biodiversity loss, to overconsumption of energy and the threat of climate change. Yet, if the challenges are interconnected, so too are the solutions. As an interdisciplinary campus-wide enterprise, the Nelson Institute is well positioned to embrace these interlinked issues. 

My own research team has recently shifted to focus more on the "co-benefits" from greenhouse gas mitigation, rather than focusing solely on the health risks of climate change. For example, green urban design not only slows the rate of planetary warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, but also leads to cleaner air quality and city environments more suitable for walking and biking; in other words, there are huge public health dividends to be gained through a low-carbon economy.quotation mark


Jack Williams

Professor of geography; director, Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research

quotation markOne of the things that's really changed over the last ten years is the recognition that climate change is not a problem of the future, it's happening now, and some amount of climate change is irreversible. The questions now are at what level do we try to stabilize greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and how much climate change can we tolerate and adapt to?

Jack Williams
Jack Williams

That sets up this dual need of both mitigation, where we reduce carbon dioxide concentrations (from emissions) in the atmosphere, but we also have to increase our resilience and our ability to adapt to climate exchanges that are already underway and will continue over the near-term.

We have to imagine and prepare for a future that will be quite different from what we're accustomed to. That creates a challenge to make accurate and robust ecological projections and socioeconomic predictions; those will be critically needed for planning and for policy making.

That's a place where the university and academics from all branches are absolutely essential, both with respect to research – getting a better understanding of the drivers of change and the interacting factors underlying change – and then also as a training ground for the next generation of leaders and citizens.

I think it's critically important that every undergraduate to come through UW have some understanding of the basic principles of the earth system, the biological systems of the world, and socioeconomic and cultural systems. In this globalized world, everything affects everything and we've got to have not just scientists to tease apart these connections and put them together, but we have to have an informed and engaged citizenry that's ready to wrestle with these challenges as well.quotation mark


Erika Marin-Spiotta

Assistant professor of geography

quotation markThrough human modification of our landscapes – by changing the distribution of different species and altering ecosystems, and by adding chemicals to the environment – we’ve disrupted background biogeochemical cycles, or the movement of energy and nutrients through the atmosphere, plants, soils and water.

Erika Marin-Spiotta
Erika Marin-Spiotta

We know that by increasing the concentrations of, for example, carbon and some nitrogen gases in the atmosphere, we’ve contributed to global warming, but there are many other environmental ramifications of changes in these elements that are much less studied. In water, they can cause water pollution; in soil, they can cause soil acidification, and they also change resource availability, which can influence the dominance of different species.

Collaborate and listen

The complex conservation
challenges of a rapidly changing
world will require collaborative

To get ahead of the problem,
a cohort of UW-Madison
professors has launched a new
graduate fellowship program
that emphasizes collaborative
skills in training the next
generation of conservation

The Novel Ecosystems Integrative
Graduate Education and Research
Traineeship (IGERT) program will
support 24 student fellowships
focused on biodiversity conservation
in novel, human-dominated
environments, funded by a five-year,
$3 million grant from the
National Science Foundation.

In an appropriately collaborative
manner, an interdisciplinary team
of 20 UW-Madison faculty, including
several Nelson Institute affiliates,
is helping to coordinate the program.
The group is led by Volker Radeloff,
a professor of forest and
wildlife ecology.

Learn more about the program.

One of the things we’re realizing more and more is everything is intricately connected. It’s difficult to tackle any environmental questions without having a team of people who can look at the big picture. Any resources that could be put toward promoting interdisciplinary research and interdisciplinary training for students are valuable.quotation mark


Steve Vavrus

Senior scientist, Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research

quotation markAn Inuit elder summarized the current situation by stating, “The Earth is faster now.” Although she was specifically referring to Arctic climate change, her observation applies equally well in describing the pace of global environmental change.

A clear example of this expanding human influence is the unceasing buildup of greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, which have already reached concentrations higher than at any time during the past 850,000 years and probably millions of years.

Such sobering evidence reveals a self-induced environmental predicament that is likely the most pervasive and vexing we have ever faced, and one that was not even on the radar screens of scientists, policymakers or the public when the first Earth Day was held in 1970.

Steve Vavrus
Steve Vavrus

The daunting reality of anthropogenic climate change and its uncertain impacts motivate my research, which I hope will unravel some of the mysteries of how the climate system will respond to what may be a historically unprecedented rate of forcing.  

The Wisconsin Initiative on Climate Change Impacts (WICCI, co-founded by the Nelson Institute) has made very clear progress in this direction, but its limitation to the adaptation realm allows us to advance only so far; the logical next step is to expand our reach by involving policy makers, economists and even behavioral scientists. These experts could hopefully combine forces with the scientific capacity of the Nelson Institute and university to bring about substantial progress in producing a far-reaching, modern-day “containment” strategy on global climate change.quotation mark


Steve Ventura

Professor of environmental studies and soil science; director, Nelson Institute Land Tenure Center

Steve Ventura
Steve Ventura

quotation markToday we are faced with complicated environmental problems. What is the root of global climate change? Billions of people moving, heating, cooling and consuming. Biodiversity loss? Billions of people eating, living and consuming. We can’t just say 'stop it.'

The Nelson Institute needs to train the next era of advocates in many strategies to match this complexity. Some may involve financial incentives. We’ll need to understand how to value ecological services. Some may involve behavior changes. And some may require new policies that somehow recognize our global interconnectedness while understanding that many choices that affect the environment are local and individual.quotation mark


Sharon Dunwoody

Evjue-Bascom Professor of journalism and mass communication, Nelson Institute faculty affiliate 

quotation markAs so many wise souls have noted over the years, environmental problems are really “people” problems. While we need to tend carefully to what is happening to ecosystems around us, doing something about rapidly vanishing species, about declining water tables, and about melting ice at the poles will require convincing human beings – both individually and in the aggregate – to change their behaviors. 

Sharon Dunwoody
Sharon Dunwoody

As we have all learned over the decades, that is extraordinarily difficult to do.

I have spent most of my academic career trying to figure out how to use information about climate change and other environmental issues to try to “drive” learning and, ultimately, responsible environmental behavior. In the process, I have learned that you have to pick your battles, and that information can serve not only as a resource but also as a weapon. I have learned that messages can sometimes have unintended consequences but also that information is an increasingly valuable commodity in the struggle for a sustainable planet.  Finally, I have learned that ignorance is not the same thing as stupidity, that individuals must make choices. 

If we can use information to help create values consonant with environmental sustainability, then we have a fighting chance of establishing ways of inhabiting ecosystems rather than destroying them.quotation mark


Ankur Desai

Associate professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences; faculty affiliate, Nelson Institute Center for Climatic Research

quotation markHistory has repeatedly shown us that human civilization appears to thrive in periods of stable climates and tends to suffer under periods of extreme climate variability or rapid change. We have put ourselves in a situation where we are entering rapid climate change intersecting with pressures from population, food security and global conflict.

Ankur Desai
Ankur Desai

History has also shown that humans can learn to be resilient and have great capacity to explore solutions when faced with adversity.

The University of Wisconsin and the Nelson Institute is one of the few places in the world where the nexus of environmental physical science, social science, engineering and humanities expertise resides so that we can put theory into practice, in ways that benefit the thriving of both human society and the environment that sustains our planet.

Students need both broad multidisciplinary training and deep disciplinary expertise, and the university should seek innovative educational approaches that encourage such training and exploration.quotation mark


Monica White

Assistant professor of environmental justice 

quotation markOne of the challenges of a rapidly changing world is providing sufficient food.

Monica White
Monica White

Given the difficulty of accessing healthy food, especially in urban areas, I introduce my students to people who create community-based food systems, building healthy communities around food in cultural, social, economic and educational ways.

The Nelson Institute and the university have an opportunity to introduce our students to the creativity of people in solving their own problems in either food-insecure or water-insecure communities. For example, in Detroit, people are doing things, with few economic resources, that might be helpful for other food-insecure places.

Because my students have now seen these strategies firsthand, and they've been introduced to communities that are solving problems in cost-effective ways, they can build upon and share these tactics in other locations.quotation mark


Nancy Mathews

Professor of environmental studies; director, UW-Madison Morgridge Center for Public Service

Nancy Mathews
Nancy Mathews

quotation markOne of the most important challenges in our rapidly changing environment will be our ability to work collaboratively, in diverse teams, to address a myriad of complex problems. As a mentor of interdisciplinary students, I feel it is part of my responsibility to help prepare them to thrive in diverse settings with others who hold diverse perspectives. 

I believe that every undergraduate and graduate student would be well-served in their professional career with the acquisition of skills in conflict resolution, negotiation, facilitation and multicultural awareness or understanding. By helping our students to understand the importance of process and interpersonal skills, we will assist them in successfully navigating their way through many delicate and complex situations in their career, if not their lives.

As an institution, we must embrace the growing need to incorporate the humanities into the sciences, and retain our commitment to a strong liberal education. This is the foundation upon which students rely when answers to difficult questions cannot be resolved by science and technology.quotation mark