To celebrate Earth Day, I went to a conference at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in Madison, Wis., hosted by the UW-Madison Nelson Institute on April 15.
The Nelson Institute is named after the late U.S. Sen. and Wisconsin Gov. Gaylord Nelson who was the founder of Earth Day. Steve Pomplun, director of external relations at Nelson Institute, remembers being at the first Earth Day.
“I was in high school when the first Earth Day happened in 1970. Our school did community clean-up projects, and I was part of a group that helped pull junk out of a local creek. That simple act really left an impression on me. We had been hearing about water pollution and other environmental problems in class, but the Earth Day activities brought it home to our town and our backyards. I can honestly say that Earth Day in 1970 turned me into an environmentalist.”
Pomplun has also been an organizer for the conference since it began in 2007. When asked what had been his most memorable moments at past Earth Day conferences, he responded, “There have been so many amazing speakers, panels and exhibits that it’s hard to choose one. But what really stands out for me are the human interactions that happen each year. People asked great questions of the speakers, exchanged business cards, talked excitedly over lunch and told us that the conference was a meaningful experience for them – that’s all extremely gratifying.”
While at the conference I experienced this. I saw 2,000 people listening to speakers, asking questions, discussing topics and taking part in the conference. The air crackled with their excitement and energy and the speakers fed off this excitement and returned back to the crowd. The director of the Nelson Institute, Paul Robbins, got the conference off to a quick start. His main point was that conservation is everywhere and he set the tone for the day by encouraging his listeners to think about conservation and living sustainably in their everyday lives because everything is connected.
Robbins was followed by Celine Cousteau who had more to add to living sustainable every day. Cousteau can be called many things: explorer, environmentalist, activist, filmmaker, daughter and granddaughter of famous oceanographers Jean and Jacques Cousteau, and also fierce mother which she fondly referred to herself as at the conference. Regardless of what she is called, her message remained the same: that we are all connected through water, air and the people we meet.
During her presentation she made references to the Amazon rainforest, and something I found memorable was when she talked about interviewing some Amazon natives. She had asked them how they lived sustainably and that was when she realized that “sustainability is a word we created, they live it every day because it’s the only way to live.” I had the pleasure of having lunch with Cousteau and some other students, I asked her what Earth Day meant to her and she took a moment and then said, “It’s a symbolic day, but more of a way of thinking, more of the way a community should be and how everyday should be.”
Later when I asked Jane Goodall the same question, she mirrored Cousteau’s thoughts, “We have to move to a time when Earth Day is every day, where April 22, is every day.”
Goodall had an overwhelming presence in that small press-room she commanded the questions with the dignity of royalty, the wisdom that only an elder possess, and the deep passion of someone talking about what they loved to do.
I posed the question what had been one of the biggest lessons she had learned throughout her life. She paused and then looked me straight in the eye and said, “The biggest lesson I have learned, I suppose, is to try to act in a way that complies with what you believe in, to walk the talk as much as possible.”
This is what I feel was the belief of every speaker at the conference: they didn’t just talk they all were also taking action in some way. They were all proof that single people and groups could make a difference everyone from Tia Nelson, who talked about her father Nelson to Ken Bonning, who talked about Kohl’s sustainability projects. I can truly say I agree with Goodall in her closing words of the final presentation of the conference.
“These groups of dedicated people fighting for our planet every day give me my greatest hope.”
This is what Earth Day is about: people fighting to live in harmony with nature, because “every single person makes a difference and each day we choose what kind of difference we make,” said Goodall.
Elsa Litecky is a sophomore majoring in field biology with a minor in conservation from Forest Lake, Minn. She enjoys writing, track, skiing and swing dance. She hopes to go on to graduate school for conservation or a wildlife-related field. Afterwards, she would like to pursue research or humanitarian efforts in relation to the environment.