Championing sustainability: Earth Day Extravaganza highlights a farmer’s market, flagship’s effort at carbon neutrality


For the Gazette

Published: 04-24-2023 6:29 PM

AMHERST — Next time you’re hankering for a smoothie, how about hopping on a bike?

Of the many activities to mark Earth Day late last week on the University of Massachusetts flagship campus, the bike-making smoothie had to rank among the most interesting. At this station, one of dozens spread out at a farmers market rooted in sustainability for an event called Earth Day Extravaganza last Friday, students were beckoned to pedal a stationary bike and generate enough electricity to make a smoothie in an attached blender.

“This bike is to display the amount of renewable energy that people have,” said Ezra Small, who manages campus sustainability at the university’s physical plant. “It’s a way to open up the conversation about renewable energy by basically just making your own smoothie with a bike and showing that, right here in your legs, you have wattage, you have energy.”

The bike experiment was one of dozens of activities on display at the second annual extravaganza, where students traded climate anxiety for optimism, with hundreds gathering to celebrate environmentalism.

Leaders of the UMass Sunrise Movement and Student Government Association partnered with the university’s permaculture initiative to host the farmers market, inviting over 80 organizations and businesses to gather at the heart of campus in honor of Earth Day. Groups including the Student Farm Association and Beekeeping Club offered information for budding environmentalists, while vendors sold hand-crafted jewelry and second-hand clothing.

UMass freshman Ebou Dibba opted for a vegan “merry mint” cookie instead of a sustainable smoothie, saying he appreciated the sense of community at the market.

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“It’s much more magical than I thought it was going to be,” Dibba said. “I love the diversity of not only the products, but the people… being able to see so many different people and voices and everything is awesome.”

The Earth Day Extravaganza was a chance to redirect students’ fear of climate change, said event organizer Jack Minella, a UMass junior.

“A climate movement — it’s something that’s filled with a lot of anxiety, a lot of depression and just overwhelmingly negative feelings,” Minella said. “If you only ever think about how bad things are, you’re not going be motivated to change them. You need something that drives you forward.”

Minella hoped the celebration would motivate students to pursue sustainable lifestyles, recalling the number of students interested in the university’s Sunrise Movement, a nationwide youth climate initiative founded by UMass alumni Varshini Prakash, “doubling” after last year’s event.

“We really wanted to organize a big event that is centered around community gathering, and centered around intentionality and thinking about climate in a positive space,” Minella said. “Events like this remind us of what we have to celebrate and what we’re fighting for.”

Carbon neutrality

For Small, that fight is to ensure the university reaches carbon neutrality by 2032.

“It’s a very ambitious plan,” Small said, describing the university’s intent to harness geothermal energy for heating and cooling campus buildings with low-temperature hot water in place of a 100-year-old steam system.

Last Earth Day, UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswammy pledged the university would run entirely on renewable energy sources within the next decade, 18 years before the commonwealth aims to reach carbon zero in 2050.

“Students really were pressuring the chancellor, saying why 2050?” Small recalled. “The chancellor said, ‘I don’t know, that’s a good question. Why not be more ambitious? After all, it’s your future that we’re talking about here.’”

Will the university reach its target? That’s the “billion dollar question,” Small said.

“It’s gonna be a big investment,” Small said, noting the university already underwent the expensive process of drilling five wells to test for geothermal capabilities across campus. “I think that the campus leadership that we have now is a huge sustainability champion … but you never know what will happen with the new chancellor.”

Saplings, sweatshirts, art

Other features at Friday’s event included artwork, vendors who sold upcycled UMass sweatshirts, and polymer clay earrings. Many students toted tree saplings the size of their backpacks, a gift from UMass landscape services to sequester carbon by planting trees on campus or in the community.

UMass junior Jo Fuchs scanned the crowd of students shopping and chatting and noted the Earth Day Extravaganza was an extension of the environment, just as natural as the campus permaculture garden where she volunteers.

“Every group of people is also an ecological landscape,” Fuchs said. “So often humans try to convince themselves that they’re not a part of nature. And that’s just simply not true. We’re animals as much as anything else.”

Fuchs moved throughout the market, sunbathing on a patch of blankets in the center of the lawn and inviting students who walked by the UMass Permaculture table to reconnect with nature by volunteering in the garden.

“Being part of this wider ecological landscape, especially outdoors — it feels much more like we are meeting the earth where it is,” Fuchs said of the event. “The more that we can push that vision, the more that we’ll have people who are acting in actually the best interest of the earth instead of seeing themselves as separate from it.”