When Joan Gregerson held the first-ever edition of the Earth Week Summit last spring, there were some who balked at the idea of a conference on environmental and sustainability issues being conducted entirely online. Things…have changed.
“Last year, it was like, ‘Oh, an online event? Meh, we’d rather go to a festival,’” recalls Gregerson, a Denver resident, self-described “eco-nut” and founder of advocacy training group Green Team Academy. “This year, nobody cares that it’s online — because of course it’s online, or else it's not happening.”
The second annual Online Earth Week Summit will begin on Friday, April 10, and run through Saturday, April 18. Organized by Gregerson and sponsored by local groups including the Alliance Center and the City of Denver’s new climate-action office, the summit will bring advocates and experts together virtually for a week of daily breakout sessions on environmental issues and nightly Zoom happy hours.
“We’re really designing it to be a bright spot in people’s day,” Gregerson says. “It’s going to be this fun, creative, collaborative space where we’re going to be giving practical tips on how to do things, but also acknowledging this special moment in time, and the deeper meaning.”
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Around the world, plans for demonstrations, conferences and other events centered around the fiftieth anniversary of Earth Day on April 22 have been scuttled in recent weeks as the coronavirus pandemic worsened. And after a last-minute change, the summit will tackle the pandemic head-on with a new theme: "Creating the World We Want." With so many aspects of daily life turned on their head or brought to a standstill by the global response to the virus, Gregerson says, more people than ever before are taking the time to imagine what the world should be like when it's fully up and running again.
"People are asking themselves, what is the new normal going to be?" she explains. "We have this opportunity, this opening, so what can we do?"
Scheduled sessions include a keynote presentation from Dr. Thomas RaShad Easley, a professor at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Science and an advocate of "hip hop forestry." In a special event on Saturday, April 11, Gregerson will interview Nancy Bristow, a historian and author of American Pandemic, a 2017 book on the impact of the 1918 influenza outbreak, and discuss what lessons from history can be applied to both the current pandemic and the effort to combat climate change.
"We see climate change as a slowly unfolding train wreck, and that's what a pandemic is, too," says Gregerson. "The decisions that are made along the way make this huge impact on the level of catastrophe that either happens or is averted."
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The summit will also include workshops featuring activists from climate advocacy group 350 Colorado, Boulder-based recycling nonprofit Eco-Cycle, and the Northside Sustainability Alliance, a new group promoting "neighborhood-scale" environmental responsibility in northwest Denver.
Gregerson, who's been involved in sustainability advocacy at the local level for more than twenty years, says she's been particularly encouraged — and challenged — by the groundswell of youth-led climate activism that has energized the green movement over the past two years.
"The fact that the youth are rising up and saying what we're doing hasn't been working — we in the environmental movement need to be the first ones to say that what we've been trying hasn't worked," Gregerson says. "The other thing that the youth are really good at, they naturally look at things from this intersectionality. They naturally see that poverty and housing and homelessness and racism — that all of those are part of the environmental problem."
That message of intersectionality and taking a holistic approach to solving environmental issues will be key to keeping up the momentum for climate action throughout the disruptions and uncertainty of the pandemic. “One thing that we’re realizing right now is that we are one humanity,” Gregerson says. “Our paradigm that everybody is in it for themselves — that just got obliterated. I think people feel that at the deepest level — that longing to be part of the solution.”