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Today for Tomorrow

Flint Flag
For Earth Day in 2018, Cornell professor of soil science Johannes Lehmann, the Herbert F. Johnson Art Museum at Cornell, and Mann Library collaborated to bring a work of public art by Ruby Latoya Frazier to the Cornell Ag Quad. Hung over the entrance to Mann Library for two weeks in late April, “Pledges of Allegiance / Water Crisis in Flint, MI,” called attention to the man-made water crisis in Flint, MI, where in 2014 pediatricians and researchers discovered dangerously high levels of lead and other contaminants in the water that Flint city residents were drawing from their faucets.

American environmentalism – shaped by publications like The Whole Earth Catalog and by the advocacy embodied in annual Earth Day Celebrations – has accomplished a great deal over the past fifty years; perhaps most importantly in the development of a regulatory infrastructure geared towards cleaning up rivers, reducing airborne pollutants, and protecting endangered species. But we continue to face unprecedented challenges in global warming, biodiversity decline, unhealthy urban environments, and rapidly degrading forest, soil, and ocean resources (and as many would point out, there has been considerable ground lost in the application of environmental protections in the United States since 2016). Yet, as daunting as the problems appear to be, determination to confront them appears to be growing in equal measure, no more so than at Cornell University.

Today, thirty-three percent of Cornell faculty are engaged in sustainability research, and opportunities for students to engage with environmental issues abound in both formal and informal settings. For at least the past five years, the course with the largest enrollment at Cornell has been “Introduction to Oceanography,” where close to a thousand students learn about marine science—and what global warming and overfishing mean for the long-term future of our oceans. In 2017, the Cornell Faculty Senate approved the establishment of a new Environment and Sustainability major that combines environmental study from a humanities perspective alongside life and physical sciences. Over forty student-founded sustainability clubs exist on campus; hardly a week goes by that the campus doesn’t see a public demonstration of their advocacy. Thanks to the commitment and energy from staff, students, faculty, and administration the University has made huge strides over the past decade in reducing its environmental footprint – earning Cornell top sustainability rankings from the EPA, the Princeton Review Guide to Green Colleges, and the Climate Leadership Network.

Fifty years after the first Earth Day was celebrated at Cornell, the ways that Cornellians are involved in building a more sustainable future are extensive, diverse and promising. In this section of our Earth Day celebration of 2020, we present a few of their voices to give you a sense of the commitment, hope and energy they bring to the challenge.