From its first iteration, Earth Day was a celebration meant to engage, educate, and inspire the public. The movement was initially conceptualized and founded by Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson, who had been unsuccessful in his attempts to bring about meaningful environmental legislation in the Senate, and thus turned to the public for support and pressure upon national legislators. The focus of the day was education: to have environmental leaders, activists, and supporters inform their fellow citizens about issues of environmental protection, in order to create a broad base of support for environmental legislation. The first Earth Day, on April 22, 1970, engaged 20 million people, and helped to kick off a decade of monumental environmental legislation and action with support from both political parties, including the Clean Air Act, the Endangered Species Act, and the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency.
Harvard affiliates have been strongly tied to the Earth Day movement since the beginning. The small team that Nelson brought together to take on the daunting task of organizing the first Earth Day in 1970 included 3 Harvard alums. One of these men, Dennis Hayes, was a Harvard graduate student at the time. Nelson appointed him as national coordinator, and to him went a large part of organizing the national movement from a small D.C. apartment that served as their headquarters. Hayes not only was a leader for the first Earth Day in 1970, but also led the campaigns that took Earth Day international in 1990 and that first utilized the internet to establish renewable energy as the focus of the event in 2000. Earth Day now engages 1 billion people in almost 200 countries every year, thanks in part to the efforts of Harvard alums. Current Harvard students continue to carry this legacy through Earth Day programming and festivities every year. This past week, groups like the Office for Sustainability, Environmental Action Committee, and Harvard Undergraduates for Environmental Justice have all hosted events to inform and engage students and community members in Earth Day and environmental programming.
Among these events was an innovative Escape the Room, created and hosted for three days by the Resource Efficiency Program - starting on April 22, 2019. In this Escape the Room, teams of community members were tasked with following clues and solving puzzles in order to save Cambridge from impending flooding as a result of climate change induced sea level rise. Tasks were meant to encourage participants to think creatively about how they individually could take small actions in their daily life to be more sustainable, including unplugging appliances not in use and properly disposing of recycling and compost. Over the course of three days, over 100 participants “raced the clock” to solve the impending climate crisis.
This project was the culmination of months of planning on part of the leaders of the Resource Efficiency Program. Over the course of the fall and the spring semesters, REP captains brainstormed and gathered support from the Office of Sustainability and assistance from Redbox, a local Escape the Room company. The City of Cambridge also agreed to partner and support the Escape the Room, as this pilot can serve as a source of inspiration for a possible Escape the Room put on by the city this coming fall. Additionally, Cambridge high school students were the first to test the Escape the Room, and provided helpful feedback on their experience before the project was officially rolled out. Members of the Resource Efficiency Program were pleased with the amount of people they were able to reach with this project, especially given that this was the first pilot for this programming. In future years, this project could grow to an even larger scale, and further REP’s mission of encouraging members of the Harvard community to act more sustainably in their day-to-day lives and engaging people generally-- a fitting project for Earth Day.