Often times, it seems like what we want and what we do don’t really line up. Many of our long-term goals exist in an abstract dimension: nebulous, hard-to-define ideas such as health and success. Things like pizza and TV marathons, on the other hand, are not only tangible but enjoyable. The struggle for a healthier planet can be viewed in the same way: we sacrifice the well-being of our Earth for short-term conveniences such as take-out containers and Styrofoam cups. The long-term impacts of our actions seem not only intangible but inevitable, as most of us know that one individual changing his or her habits isn’t enough. The abstract and insurmountable nature of this difficult problem leaves many hopeless. Does that mean we should give up?
Large-scale change involves a big group of like-minded people committed towards taking a step in the right direction. Brandon Wood, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, shares this view. Wood is one of the students behind Earth Action Initiative, a conference occurring in April at UC Berkeley.
“The goal is to focus on actions, what we can do, and our central philosophy is that we want to reduce the barrier for people to take action,” Wood said.
Funding action through mini-grants
There is strength in numbers, and Earth Action Initiative is a place where like-minded people are given the resources and support to work together towards a common goal.
In addition to workshops on topics ranging from responsible consumerism to the role of narrative in science communication, the conference “matchmakes” students to external organizations. According to Wood, there is a large number of students working on sustainability initiatives and solutions to environmental problems, and they should not have to reinvent the wheel.
Wood worked on a conference last year called “Fired Up” that featured a similar matchmaking process.
“Last year’s event filled an activism niche that had been missed by other organizations and events on campus,” he said. “I hope to incorporate that into Earth Action Initiative.” This year’s conference will couple the matchmaking with mini-grants, another way to facilitate a tangible outcome. Mini-grants can be as simple as funding a student group who wants to bring in a speaker for 500 dollars.
“We see [the mini-grants] as a way to keep our focus on action,” according to Wood.
While most workshops are marketed towards students, the evening portion of the conference features a climate art experience. The website describes this event as as the usage of “art and food to convey climate science in an intimate and tangible way.”
“There’s these sort of ivory towers,” Wood explained. “You have science on one side, you have humanities, you have different ones that don’t interact much. I think a lot of people [from different disciplines] care about climate, so it’s nice to have an event where groups can exchange ideas.”
Art as a medium of communication
Additionally, art and food are ways people can connect to climate change and environmental health in a less abstract way. When we hear about problems that affect us globally, it is easy to feel removed from the situation. This part of the conference attempts to change that.
“A lot of times people have a negative response when they’re confronted with the enormity of these issues,” Wood explained. “You have this knee-jerk reaction, and you want to put your head into the sand.”
The art show is a different way people can relate to and connect with these issues. “Rather than looking at an atmospheric plot of carbon dioxide, art is something people can understand and be inspired by,” he said.
Creating the resources for collaboration
Most of the time, one person trying to make a difference isn’t enough. While individual inspiration and motivation are important, collaboration is a necessity.
“We’re sort of inclined to break the problem down into smaller, solvable problems, but I think [that won’t work with] an interconnected, global issue,” Wood said. Instead, large-scale initiatives are needed. He cites the Paris Accords as a step in the right direction, and that small initiatives working separately won’t make the impact they want to.
The Paris Accords was an agreement between governments, which are riddled with bureaucracy, inefficiency, and many other issues that can make unilateral action difficult. Organizations committed to improving environmental conditions can avoid some of these problems. The biggest issue is that most of them are too small and disconnected to act together. Projects like Earth Action Initiative can connect people and resources, so we can all work towards a better tomorrow.
A project like this would work best in a setting where young people, full of drive and resources, are in their intellectual and motivational prime.
“One thing we are thinking about is [scaling] this to other college campuses,” Wood explained. College is where many people find what they want to do for the rest of their lives. If this is even tangentially related to sustainability or environmental health, a conference like Earth Action Initiative can connect them with the right resources and organizations. From the opposite end, sponsors, whether local, national or international, could be interested in finding talent to further their goals. Connecting organizations with students whose personal and career objectives align well with their mission statements is a win-win situation. Wood hopes to maximize these connections so both actors have a greater chance of collective action and ultimately making a difference.
“I feel like climate is one of those things that can get you down pretty easily, because it’s not hard to get pessimistic,” Wood confessed. “I want everyone coming away from this feeling inspired, with the realization that there’s a community at Berkeley who cares”
Margaret Mead is thought to have said that a group of thoughtful, committed citizens is the only thing that has changed the world. I believe this is the key to restoring environmental health. All that’s left is for us to come together.